Dali biography detailed, fascinating

Sunday, February 28, 1999

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali
by Ian Gibson. Norton. 798 pages. $45.

     Ian Gibson is Dali's worst nightmare.
     "The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali" methodically dismantles the mythical biography that the Surrealist painter promoted during his life. Dali claimed that Picasso admired his work, helping to pay for Dali's first trip to New York, even once collaborating on an engraving. Not true. Gibson's meticulous detective-work reveals these and many other stories to be pure invention.
     However, the biography's thoroughness is both its greatest asset and its greatest flaw. While the breadth and depth of Gibson's research is truly astonishing, its sheer volume grows daunting and even tiresome. One cannot help but admire Gibson for tracking down Dali's lecture-notes, gathering letters to and from the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and carefully evaluating conflicting versions of his subject's life. Indeed, its comprehensiveness may make "The Shameful Life" the definitive biography of Dali.
     But by too frequently reproducing documents in full -- such as entire letters, lectures, and the tedious pornography of Dali's poems to Gala (his future wife) -- Gibson risks becoming more archivist than biographer. Indeed, as we approach page 400, Dali has just turned 30.
     Devoting two thirds of the book to one third of Dali's life, however, is a sound decision. During these years he painted his most original and enduring work: "The Great Masturbator" (1929), "The Persistence of Memory" (1931), and "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans" (1936, later renamed "The Premonition of Civil War"). As his interest in self-promotion grew, Dali's artistic development waned, and he began recycling his ideas, often producing kitschy imitations of earlier masterpieces.
     Dali's eagerness to sell himself -- among other reasons -- led Andre Breton to expel Dali from the Surrealist movement, labeling him with the anagram "Avida Dollars" ("Greedy for Dollars"). After reading this biography, Breton, not Gibson, seems to have it right: narcissism and opportunism, not shame, emerge as Dali's primary motivations.
     Readers with anything less than a profound interest in Dali may lack sufficient motivation to finish Gibson's voluminous work, and would do well to seek out a more concise study, such as Dawn Ades' "Dali" (1982). But scholars, admirers, and apostles of this most famous Surrealist should read "The Shameful Life," and likely will enjoy the many revelations contained therein.
     (Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of Charleston.)




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