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Fake Paintings : 81 and Ill, Dali Still Confounds

April 16, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

FIGUERAS, Spain — There was a time when exhibitionism seemed to overshadow his art. But now Salvador Dali, 81, infirm and no longer painting, lives secluded here in an antique palace in his native town.

"He does not want to walk, to speak, to eat," said Robert Descharnes, a close associate. "If he wants, he can draw, but he does not want."

Since this is Salvador Dali, this is no ordinary seclusion. He lives behind walls decorated with rows of sculpted bread, under a roof that displays what look like enormous white eggs. And while he lives inside, a scandal and controversy grows outside about the incredible number of fake Dali prints loose in the world.

From time to time, Spaniards fret over the state and fate of Dali. Some even hint darkly that the small coterie around him must be guilty of Sevengali-like manipulation. But Judge Alfons Quinta of Barcelona, a former journalist who covered the problems of Dali for many years, said over lunch recently: "Dali is like a gardener who sprinkles water on himself instead of the garden. He himself is the cause of most of the problems."

Museum Down the Street

A short block from Dali's home, a visitor can find the Dali Museum, the pride of this little town in the Catalonia region of Spain. It attracts more visitors than any other museum in Spain except for the great Prado in Madrid. Brimming with the works of Dali, the museum in Figueras, a monument to Dali and a celebration of him, must surely fulfill the wildest, most wondrous dreams of the surrealist painter. Dali would probably be pleased to hear that an 8-year-old who visited the museum recently pronounced it "fun and ridiculous and stupid and nice."

Dali is probably the world's best-known living painter. His works are exhibited in all the major museums of modern art. His place in art history is secure as one of the most talented representatives of the Paris art and literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s known as surrealism. Influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud, these artists believed that art must describe dreams, for only dreams reveal the true imagination of man.

Tarnished at Home

Dali's popularity and his eccentric dress, waxed mustache and wild quotes have upset other artists over the years. In Spain, his reputation has been tarnished by his unabashed adulation for the late dictator Francisco Franco.

In an interview several years ago, the late Joan Miro, the renowned Spanish painter, was asked his opinion of his fellow painter from Catalonia. "I admired the young Dali," Miro replied.

Dali's showmanship and careful draftsmanship and dramatic imagery have helped make him seem easier to grasp than many artists of the 20th Century. Many people who know little about modern art have nonetheless heard of Dali and seen reproductions of his work. This popularity has helped make him a wealthy man. Colleagues have often been contemptuous of his wealth. Andre Breton, leader of the surrealist movement, once mocked Dali's greed by creating a sneering anagram of his name: Avida Dollars.

None of this ever seemed to discourage Dali, who thrived on parading his ego in public. "Every morning upon awakening," he once wrote, "I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonder-struck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali?"

For many years, Dali, the celebrated painter and dapper showman, divided his time between Hotel St. Regis in New York, Hotel Meurice in Paris, and Pubol Castle in the village of La Pera in Catalonia. But events conspired in the 1980s to drive him into seclusion.

Some kind of illness began to weaken him in 1980. Doctors at first diagnosed it as Parkinson's disease, but they have since changed their minds. The illness does have symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease, causing, according to Descharnes, a trembling of the hand and a slight paralysis.

Dali's spirits plummeted in 1982 when his wife, Gala, died at the age of almost 90. More than a decade older than Dali, the Russian-born Gala, whom Dali had met in 1929 when she was the wife of the French poet Paul Eluard, had seemed to dominate the painter and his work for years as a kind of mother, manager and model. Much of his best-known later work celebrates Gala.

With Gala gone, the depressed and ill Dali slipped into seclusion. His problems were compounded in 1984 when he was seriously burned in a fire in his bed at Pubol Castle. It evidently was caused by a short-circuit provoked by Dali's continual pressing on a buzzer to call his nurses.

Moves to Castle

After the fire and hospitalization, Dali moved into Torre Galatea, the castle and tower named for his wife near the museum in Figueras. According to his associates, he remains in his room much of the time, is fed through a tube that runs into his nostril, and sees visitors only occasionally.

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