Long before Andy Warhol transformed his celebrity into a viable art form, Salvador Dali wrote the book on the subject. Forget about those flaccid watches and nightmare beachscapes, Dali’s great invention was the outlandish public persona — gravity-defying mustache, lunatic grin, dandy’s costume-ball wardrobe — which he merchandised into a flash card of 20th-century culture. Even when posing as the clown prince of psychopathology, he was never shy about blowing his own trumpet. “Spiritually I am the greatest genius of our age, the authentic genius of modern times,” he declared in his Diary of a Genius (1964), echoing a sentiment recorded in his adolescent notebooks when he was already dreaming up the role of a lifetime.

With its playful title, Ian Gibson’s The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali conjures squalid dramas of sin and scandal — of which there were plenty in the artist’s later years — but it in fact refers to the author’s contention that Dali was hampered all his life by agonizing sexual insecurities and a crippling sense of shame. His notorious showboating, Gibson argues, was no more than a psychological defense, a compensatory maneuver designed to conceal his profound shyness and to distract and intimidate others.

As described in The Shameful Life, Dali’s childhood reads like material from a Freudian case history. “Conceived in grief,” Gibson notes, he was born on May 11, 1904, nine months and 10 days after the death of his parents’ first child, who had also been named Salvador. The son of a respected notary and his pretty Barcelonan wife, Dali grew up in the small Catalan town of Figueres. By selectively combing the artist’s writings, Gibson pieces together a portrait of a “dreamy, extremely timid and hopelessly unpractical” child. Prone to various phobias such as a fear of locusts, the young Dali also developed an anal fixation that Gibson maintains was exacerbated by an incident when his father publicly announced that Salvador had shat himself. For a child whose “fear of blushing and his shame about being ashamed were major components in the fashioning of his personality,” the impact of this humiliating event was traumatic enough that Dali spent much of his early adulthood reworking it in some of his most famous paintings.

Besides alienating him from his companions, Dali’s acute attacks of embarrassment also molded his sexual life. Terrified of venereal disease and beset with anxiety about being impotent and possessing a small penis, he became a compulsive onanist at the age of 16, and remained so for his entire life; at the height of his fame, he used to stage-direct “orgies” of androgynous youths while he wanked on the sidelines. As with shame and his anal obsession, masturbation provided a unique motif in his work. (How many artists would ever title a painting The Great Masturbator?)

While offering only a fuzzy picture of the sources of Dali’s shame, Gibson painstakingly depicts his artistic development, particularly during the early 1920s, when he attended the Royal Academy in Madrid and discovered the two great literary influences of his life: the writings of Freud, which had been recently translated into Spanish, and André Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism. He also became fast friends with both poet-dramatist Federico García Lorca, who pursued Dali sexually, and Luis Buñuel, with whom he later collaborated on Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), two of the most hilariously subversive films ever made, and among Dali’s most impressive achievements. Hailed by the Surrealists, Un Chien Andalou was Dali’s passkey into the Parisian circle ruled over by Breton and including Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and the poet Paul Eluard. Still socially ill at ease despite his early critical successes as a painter, Dali was described by one Surrealist as evincing “the timidity of a gazelle.” But the shy exterior concealed enormous ambitions: Determined to become “more Surrealist than Surrealists themselves,” Dali threw himself into his work, feverishly elaborating a visual alphabet that combined personal and Freudian symbols to chronicle his sexual obsessions: castration, shit, voyeurism, masturbation, anal penetration, putrefaction and a terror of vaginas. Proclaiming to depict the unconscious with photographic clarity, Dali ended up working more like a medieval manuscript illuminator, manipulating an arcane symbolic vocabulary with a miniaturist’s precision.

Kudos had always come easily to Dali, who had been singled out by critics while still a student, but his enormous financial success was largely masterminded by a boyishly sexy Russian émigré named Gala, who became his wife in 1934 after she divorced Eluard. Boosting Dali’s sexual confidence (he was probably a virgin when they met) and helping him refine his masturbatory techniques, Gala alternatively functioned as muse and talent agent. With her vigorous encouragement, he used his formidable publicity talents to further his career, scoring noteworthy triumphs in the late 1930s with several exhibitions in New York, where the Museum of Modern Art eventually staged his first retrospective in 1941. After immigrating to the U.S. during World War II, Dali turned his back on his Surrealist comrades and embarked on a capitalist-style career. Taking on lucrative advertising work for chocolates, sportswear and even hosiery, he also found employment in Hollywood, designing a dream sequence for Hitchcock’s Spellbound and even briefly working for Disney. At the same time, he was churning out mediocre portraits for rich or famous patrons such as Laurence Olivier and Jack Warner. His artistic reputation plummeted, but his bank account swelled. By the 1960s, his personal fortune was estimated to be over $30 million.

The most fascinating, and dismal, material in The Shameful Life deals with the late 1950s and ’60s, when Dali and Gala shuttled among Spain, the U.S. and France, smuggling bags of cash with the help of a coterie of dubious advisers. Money was pouring in from the reproduction market: By 1965, Dali had begun signing blank sheets of lithographic paper, for which he was paid $10 per sheet. (He could reputedly sign 1,000 in an hour.) Many of these ended up being used for unauthorized reproductions, but for Dali artistic integrity had long ago taken a back seat to a lust for money.

Ironically, a large part of his earnings went to underwriting Gala’s love life: Battling the terrors of old age, she doled out millions of dollars on a steady supply of young boyfriends. Dali, who died in 1989, spent his final two decades as a pathetic figure immersed in sinister soap-opera antics. Banned by his wife from visiting her castle in Púbol, subjected to an IRS investigation for tax evasion, terrorized by his pistol-carrying secretary Enric Sabater and condemned by Spanish youth for his support of Franco, Dali continued to dream up increasingly desperate PR stunts, unaware that his megalomania had become laughably grotesque rather than comic.

Gibson concludes his biography by arguing, “In depicting shame, and forcing us to contemplate its sources and its agonies, Dali made one of his most important contributions to civilization.” Yet even the most vivid works from Dali’s Surrealist period are too self-consciously contrived to imbue this motif with any real emotional power. His forced visual gimmicks, compulsively repeated imagery (as Gibson notes, “Once he got a good pictorial idea, Dali tended to go for overkill”) and his labored symbols often make his paintings seem like elaborate crossword puzzles — a trait that comes across in Gibson’s detailed analyses of key works, which read more like translations of cryptic code than interpretations of artworks. The real shame of this book is that Gibson was able to interview his subject only once. In the end, the 798 pages of biographical minutiae he assembles fail to convey Dali’s individuality — his tics, mannerisms, emotional pitch, or a sense of his inner life. The great exhibitionist remains a cipher.

Dali, who once wrote a novel called Hidden Faces and whose penchant for concealed and double images betrayed his own investment in duplicity, would no doubt be relieved.

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