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Salvador Dali by Meryle Secrest (Dutton: $22.50; 307 pp.) : Diary of a Genius: Salvador Dali translated by Richard Howard (Prentice Hall: $10.95, paperback)

December 14, 1986| Robert Short | Short's last book was "Hans Bellmer" (Quartet, London, 1985) written in collaboration with Peter Webb. and

It is a sign of Salvador Dali's enduring fascination that the same month should see the appearance of a major new biography and a reprint of Dali's own characteristically grandiloquent jottings between 1952 and 1963 that he titled "Diary of a Genius." Dali is the world's best-selling living painter. To explain this popularity, the English novelist J. G. Ballard wrote some years ago: "The art of Salvador Dali is a metaphor that embraces the twentieth century. The great twin leitmotifs of our times--sex and paranoia--preside over his life, as over ours." Part of Dali's genius lies in the astuteness with which he successively latched on to Freudian psychoanalysis in his surrealist years up to 1940 and on to Heisenbergian physics in his postwar art, producing images that, for all their outrageousness, chime with and inform our current sense of the nature of our interior life and of the external world. With his academic, painterly techniques for "photographing" the irrational, Dali outmatched all the other surrealists in creating representations that seemed to authenticate psychic reality. And if Surrealism was popular because it produced figurative imagery in an epoch that leaned towards abstraction, Dali was doubly so because he dramatized his obsessions and turned them into stories. Reworking the myths and legends of Narcissus, Leda, the prodigal son and William Tell, Dali painted narratives of the satisfaction, or, more often, the frustration of sexual impulses with a literalness that turned them into scandalous puzzles.

Meryle Secrest, in her penetrating, well-researched and finally moving study of Dali's life, takes his appeal for granted. She is less concerned to discuss his art, or his life as it bore on his art, than to use evidence derived from his art to help to demystify the enigma of the man. Her target is the fantastic image of himself which Dali fabricated and which he has sustained and embroidered over the last 50 years. Why did the artist who took his painting so seriously consent to the most demeaning exploitation of his name and talents for monetary reward and shamelessly court the most abject publicity? What is the real nature of this joker in the surrealist pack whose one perennial theme has been his own worth and who hides behind a mask of willful provocation and obscurantism? Or have the man and the role somehow merged: the mask, as it were, becoming the face?

As might be foreseen, the author finds the secret behind "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali" (the title of the first of the long series of his "true confessions") in the experiences of his childhood. Dali was the second son born to his parents, the first, also called Salvador, having died in early infancy less than a year before. Dali suffered from his parents' conviction that he was the reincarnation of the dead Salvador. This led him to believe that he had somehow been born twice, that he was a monster in being either half a person or a double person and that he was never loved for himself. That Dali was eventually able to turn into the stuff of art such anxieties about his identity in an infancy both overindulged and overprotected, is attributed by Secrest to the entry of his first wife, Gala, into his life in 1929 and to the tempestuous rupture with his father that this precipitated.

It is instructive to confront the lucid life-story based on factual evidence collected and sifted by a professional biographer from far outside the milieu of her subject (Secrest has previously done books on Romaine Brooks and Kenneth Clarke) with the full-blown mythomania of "il Divino" himself in "Diary of a Genius." Although not as revelatory about his past as either the earlier "Secret Life" or the later "Unspeakable Confessions," the "Diary" is vintage Dali--a typical melange of braggadocio, point-scoring, reminiscence, meta-philosophizing and disquisitions on art. Touching on obsessive themes such as rhinoceros horns, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, snobbery, gold, Nietzsche, the senescence of Communism, Vermeer's "The Lacemaker" and much else besides--it is the literary equivalent of his favorite hors d'oeuvre, truffle pate.

Secrest seems to have little time for his writings, finding them obfuscatory and transparently designed to confuse and befuddle the reader. This is to ignore both the splendid match that they make with his paintings and his revealing remark: "For me, the essential thing was to tell our life by any mythological means." It would be a pity if anyone was discouraged from reading Dali by Secrest's no-nonsense approach.

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