The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali--such was the title given to the 1997 book by Dali's most formidable biographer, Ian Gibson. It's a perfect title, because it drives home two nails at once. First, lovers of modernism have long regarded Dali (1904-1989), the obsessive and boasting narcissist from Catalonia, as a sort of mock-deranged but authentically disgraceful relative. Few could doubt the power and originality of his early work--up to, say, the Spanish Civil War. Equally, few would give the least credence to the recycling of old themes that he did, mainly for the American market, in the 1940s and '50s, or to the weird, pompous, huge and minutely detailed reflections on Baroque art, Spanish Catholicism and nuclear physics that filled his time later.
Second, Dali was disgraceful because he was so confessional--and so untrustworthy. Perhaps no artist in history has told his viewers more about his secret life; certainly none invented more about it. It still seems pretty weird, that inventory of impotence and aggression, of bizarre terrors and fetishes. But in the '20s and '30s it was beyond mere weirdness. Dali must have enjoyed the worst relations with his father of anyone else since little Oedipus. In 1930 his parent wrote a frantic letter to Dali's friend, film director Luis Bunuel, begging him to prevent the artist's coming anywhere near him: "My son has no right to embitter my life," and his mother's health "will be destroyed if my son sullies it with his foul conduct." And his mother? At one point Dali exhibited an image of the Sacred Heart across which he had written SOMETIMES I SPIT ON THE PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER.
But he was an incorrigible fabulist, and his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, is stuffed with lies, inventions and embroideries. Did he really, as he claimed, have to be restrained from throwing himself out of a window on seeing a locust in the room? Did he actually sit in the bar of the Ritz in Madrid and make cocktails out of his own blood? Did he truly associate animal glue, death and dung with sex? And how to square the youthful Dali--whom his fellow students at the Madrid Academy remembered as "bashful," "morbidly shy" and "literally sick with timidity"--with the self-corrupted publicity stunter, who would do almost anything for a headline?
Both Dalis--the disruptive youthful genius and the pretentious, whorish old fanatic--are on full view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., in a show of some 70 works titled "Dali's Optical Illusions." Its organizer, Dawn Ades, is one of the most distinguished historians of surrealism, the movement to which Dali's work was central. She has done an excellent job of showing and analyzing the ways in which illusion, the act of making marks that get read as "real," acts in his painting. No illusion, no Dali. This isn't true of other surrealists, or painters who went through a surrealist phase, like Joan Miro. But Dali's effort to make dreams concrete, to lead the viewer into a state of radical doubt about the supposedly fixed nature of reality, is the entire key to his art. And without the most obsessive and paralyzing exactness of detail, it couldn't have worked. Either you believe that the soft watches are real and that the skull on the beach is--to cite one of his titles--sodomizing a grand piano, or you don't.