Culture/commerce, person/persona, and other dualities that defined art history’s favorite lunatic.
“Every morning upon awakening,” Salvador Dali once wrote, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali.” This amusing arrogance was engrained in the DNA of his artistic persona, from his bombastic opinions on decadence and death to his extravagant erotic cookbook. But beneath that pompous persona there was a complicated man haunted by his own demons and insecurities, which he went to far greater lengths than most of us to conceal and overcompensate for.
That osmosis between person and persona is what Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram and British illustrator Andrew Rae explore in This is Dali (public library) — another installment in the series that gave us This Is Warhol, which is set to include similar succinct, illustrated biographies of twenty-eight more famous artists.
Ingram contextualizes Dalí’s penchant for self-invention:
Dalí came from a family of storymakers, who embellished their past to impress. Dalí’s father told everyone that his own father had been a doctor, but he had actually traded as a corkmaker. When Dalí’s grandfather committed suicide by jumping from a building, the family’s story was that he had died tragically of a brain trauma. Following family tradition, Dalí creates his mythology: in his autobiography Secret Life he reinvents his childhood, giving it the color, intrigue and darkness appropriate for a genius painter.
Ingram traces Dalí’s obsession with power — which, in one of its most extravagant manifestations late in life, led him to carry bells around and ring them regularly, exclaiming, “How else would I be sure that they would notice me?” — to his childhood, which was defined by a dark instance of that famous family storymaking:
Dalí was haunted by his brother’s memory. He was the second Salvador. When he was a boy, his parents took him to his brother’s grave and told him that he was the reincarnation of his brother. He grew up in his brother’s shadow, as he tells: “My brother and I resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. Like myself he had the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius. He gave signs of alarming precocity, but his glance was veiled by the melancholy characterizing insurmountable intelligence. I, on the other hand, was much less intelligent, but I reflected everything.”
Hardly anyone captured Dalí’s complexities and complexes with more affectionate dimension than the celebrated photographer Brassaï — known for his legendary conversations with Picasso — when he wrote:
I liked his comic humor, always a step ahead of his ideas, liked his complexes, his seriousness, his wild imagination, liked the way his brain worked … [and] sometimes liked his paintings as well.
From how growing up during the visual revolution that sparked the dawn of cinema and photojournalism shaped his visual mind to how he invented himself under the ethos that if he behaved like royalty he would be treated like royalty to his first dabblings in surrealism, Ingram traces how Dalí swelled into his now-famous persona. Her greatest gift is the subtlety with which she invites us to connect the dots between Dalí’s struggles and baggage on the one hand and his outrageous behavior and controversial views on the other, engendering a kind of soft sympathy for this odd man who spent his life in a hedonic treadmill of his own making.
This is Dali goes on to explore his spirituality, his complicated relationship with the domineering Gala, his voracious commercial appetites, and more. Complement it with Dalí’s drawings for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy, and the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King; photographs my own