Dali biography detailed, fascinating
Sunday, February 28,
The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali
by Ian Gibson. Norton. 798 pages. $45.
Ian Gibson is Dali's worst
"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
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
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
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.
Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of