Arts: Exhibitions:: Salvador Dali believed himself to be a genius. But the early paintings now at the Hayward Gallery reveal him as merely a pasticheur with panache

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SALVADOR DALI believed he was a unique wonder of nature. It's true that no one quite like him had been seen before the 1920s, but Dali is easily explained by the nature of his native Catalonia and the conditions of modern Parisian art. In fact Dali the phenomenon is less earth-shattering than he would have had us believe. The modern century took him up, was for a little while amused by his inventions, then went on to other things. Dali kept on talking and writing about himself until he died, but the world had not been changed by his career.

Dali lived on until 1989, and with few exceptions his paintings became sadder and weaker as he grew older. The decline started in about 1930, and Dali's admirers in the museum world, without openly admitting it, know this to be the case. Their interpretations concentrate on the painter as a young man. So it is with the Hayward's 'Dali: the Early Years'. His juvenile and youthful output has never been so thoroughly examined.

Visitors who expect a grand Dali show will be disappointed. It's quite a small exhibition and contains relatively few of the paintings that made him famous. In the Thirties and afterwards Dali had a style that made him recognisable to a public that probably could not identify any other modern artist. That's not the Dali we are now invited to examine. We are given an artist who hadn't found his individual signature, whose every work is derived from other people.

Personally, I like the art-historical and scholarly bias of the exhibition. The catalogue incorporates valuable if recondite research, and documentation so thorough that one forgives the absence of any visual sense in the authors. Ian Gibson is a Spanish expert who has written a life of Lorca and is now at work on a biography of Dali. Dawn Ades is a historian of Dada and Surrealist art who sternly excludes aesthetic judgements from her writing. Perhaps that is wise in such a field: she is wrong to assume that Dali is a great artist. On the other hand, Ades brings impressive learning to bear on his early career, and in this way illuminates an oeuvre that is not very exciting in itself.

Dali was born in 1904 to a prosperous Catalan family and was given the same name as a brother who had died nine months before. Plenty of scope here, as elsewhere in the family circle, for the personal hang-ups that the painter was to dramatise in later years. Dali was to quarrel with his powerful and perhaps domineering father. On the other hand he was encouraged to go to art school in Madrid, had long and idyllic holidays in Cadaques - where he later settled - and was introduced via his father's social circle to intellectuals and artists of the day, including Picasso's childhood friend Ramon Pichot. Fellow students in Madrid included Luis Bunuel and Federico Garcia Lorca, both of whom visited Dali in Barcelona. Bunuel accompanied him on a trip to Paris in 1926. Here the tyro painter met Picasso himself and showed him his work.

All in all, then, there was quite a smooth road between the culture of a provincial capital, Barcelona, and the innovations of art in Paris. Dali found the way more easily than Picasso had, two decades before. Not only had he more money, but also the art magazines were more developed. Sophistication of a modern sort was available to Dali from the first. It's also noticeable how excited he was by the media. He loved the press attention given to his student exhibitions and was keen to illustrate books and make posters. Dali was also aware that photography and film were part of his kind of art and might be used for his own promotion.

Dreaming of life as an artist he could write, while still in his teens, 'I'll be a genius, and the world will admire me. Perhaps I'll be despised and misunderstood, but I'll be a genius, a great genius, I'm sure of it . . .' The trouble was that although he gained the world's admiration, genius never issued from his personality. He thought it could be whipped up in some way. That is why he became so keen on madness and hallucinatory aids. It was all faked, and the catalogue / book would be more honest if the fakery were admitted. But what Dali could do, though at unpredictable moments, was to turn on panache. Apart from its fascinating biographical information, this is the message of the first of the three rooms of the exhibition.

We see that Dali is generally a follower of other people but that a spark sometimes ignites and panache takes over. Old Man at Twilight of 1918 is of this type. So is The Three Pines of the following year, the 1920 Portrait of My Father and the 1921 Self-Portrait. All are vehement pictures, done with a bit of swagger. The influences are mainly local but I fancy that the paternal portrait comes from looking at Munch. But all this is fitful. It strikes me that Dali was a troubled youth who could not relate to older living artists and therefore sought shelter in the never-never-land of the Old Masters, safely dead, whose techniques he plundered in his Surrealist days. That point came at the end of the Twenties. Before, he looked to contemporary and productive, searching artists. They cowed him.

So here is a succession of imitations. Dali tries a version of Picasso's Cubism, and the picture falls dead from his brush. Then he has a go at Picasso's classicism, but that's dead too. Dali gets a bit further with a pastiche of Matisse, Self-Portrait with l'Humanite, but this picture was not followed. Then comes Metaphysical Painting and the first stirrings of Dali's Surrealism. Still-Life of 1924 is copied from de Chirico, but it has none of the Italian artist's reverberating suggestfulness. I conclude that Dali could not get on with the contemporary masters of modern art, though he always hoped that his 'genius', whenever he could crank it into action, would drive him beyond their example.

There's an exception, in Miro. His fellow Catalan (but 10 years older) helped Dali into his Surrealist phase. In historical terms Miro is the exemplar of painterly Surrealism, Dali of the movement's academic side. But for a while they were less opposed. I believe Miro inspired Dali to the only paintings of his whole career that are truly radical. They belong to 1927-28. Bird . . . Fish (a Miroesque title, too) is almost beautiful, and so is Bird. I reproduce the biggest of this group since it's practically unknown and might not be recognised as coming from Dali's hand, so unusual is its format. Four Fishermen's Wives of Cadaques is more economical and challenging than any previous Spanish picture. The capacity for panache had taken a truly modernist form. Also it's more genuinely odd than Surrealist pictures are. Where's the fourth wife? Drowning with that black penis?

Answers please to the exhibition organisers. A pity that the catalogue, so full of other matter, does not provide a commentary on the paintings themselves. Dawn Ades writes about the theory of the Surrealist pictures but it's all theory. I see where Dali got his momentarily brilliant pseudoacademic style. Mainly it came from Spanish sources, smoothed and finessed with the example of many Old Masters. Suddenly he was good as a miniaturist. I note that the Surrealist pictures are better when small. He must have toiled over them like a clever and industrious boy. Thus he could please his father while at the same time rebelling against him by reason of the 'shocking' nature of his subjects. Today the pictures don't shock at all. I find them rather boring, but not as tedious as the work that was to come. This exhibition ends rather suddenly, realising that Dali had little more to say. The show serves to point out that Dali's moment was brief indeed, and there is some relief in going to the major part of the Hayward to look at the other exhibition, 'Unbound'.

'Dali: The Early Years', Hayward Gallery, South Bank, SE1, 071-261 0127, to 30 May. Ticket also admits to 'Unbound', reviewed on facing page.