BOOK REVIEW / Hard masks and soft watches: 'Dali' - Meredith Etherington-Smith: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Salvador Dal met Sigmund Freud, his great hero, in London in 1938, little was said. Freud was suffering from cancer of the mouth; speech tired him, and Dal sketched furiously throughout the allotted time. But eventually the old man whispered in German to Dal's companion, Edward James: 'That boy looks like a fanatic. Small wonder they have civil war in Spain if they look like that.'

Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. Dali's slippery ease with masks, which made him the Surrealist par excellence ('the difference between me and the Surrealists,' he once said, 'is that I am a Surrealist'), divorced him from any kind of politics, fanatical or otherwise.

But that slipperiness has hardly put people off trying to catch him. Although Dal died just three years ago, we can track him in memoirs by his sister and various acquaintances, and in several straight biographies. In her new Life, Meredith Etherington-Smith has the unenviable task of sorting a great deal of myth and nonsense from the facts, and she goes about her job with a stout will. But the ideal Dal biographer needs one of two things: either an obsessive delight in the masks as masks; or a single-minded belief that the man behind the mask has been discovered. Etherington- Smith has neither. Solidly, she works through dates and places, bemused critical opinions and half-baked press reports, showing little talent for editing or narrative.

Too often, she flashes confusingly back or forwards. She is lightweight in her opinions - 'unsavoury' is about the strongest adjective she trusts herself with for Dal - and she is similarly diffident about committing herself over his work. 'A very strong statement,' she will murmur; 'a horrifying image' - with little attempt to detail the nuances of subject and form, technique and tone, that might bring unfamiliar canvases to the reader's imagination or enliven those grown stale from over-viewing.

The anecdotes are still there, of course. There is the story about Dal going out to court Gala (later his wife) dressed in pearls and smelling of cowdung, laughing uncontrollably; the story about him throwing an astrakhan-lined bathtub through the window of Bonwit Teller after they changed one of his window displays; the story about him nearly dying during a lecture because he gave it in a diving suit; the Surrealist balls; the sexual perversions. But some poignant moments are missing - like the time when he tricked himself out in silks and pomades to meet one of his idols, Greta Garbo. She entered, dressed in chinos and loafers, said 'one of us has got something wrong', and disappeared, never to see him again.

Throughout his life, Dal's aim was to avoid the seriousness and vulnerability involved in normal human relationships. From an early age he preferred manipulation to interchange, and spent most of his life estranged from his adoring family. Even his 48-year marriage to Gala was a central part of the charade. Dal was terrified of life without Gala, his porter, secretary, nanny and dealer, while she needed the financial security and fame he provided.

But in later years, when she was chasing young boys and took to locking Dal in his room to produce ever more rapid and commercial work, the myth disintegrated. It is a telling image of their relationship that, in his last years, Dal painted her repeatedly as an airbrushed Madonna, and yet in 1981 Gala had to go to hospital for injuries he had inflicted on her with his cane.

In his youth, in that first burst of creativity that flowered in his enunciation of the 'paranoiac-critical' method and resonant masterpieces like Sleep and The Persistence of Memory, Dal formed some true relationships - with Bunuel, Lorca and Breton, particularly. But they all disintegrated into childish rancour. Dal viciously attacked Lorca's poetry for its 'folksiness'; he broke with Breton after supporting Hitler; and he fled from Bunuel, after the glorious fling of Un Chien Andalou, once he realised that collaboration and his own megalomania did not mesh.

Once those few serious and critical friends had been brushed off, Dal stuck to socialites, rich collectors and self-publicising hangers-on - from Coco Chanel to Ultra Violet. In his last years, he preferred to fill his house with hired battalions of freaks and beauties who could be trusted to carry out his voyeuristic wishes.

As with his social life, so with his art. Here, too, there was a gradual descent into grotesquerie. Etherington-Smith is coy about the pure awfulness of much of Dal's later work, which belongs in the lumber-room of kitsch along with the worst of Jeff Koons, Gilbert and George and Pierre et Gilles. And she is coy about his wickedly amusing destruction of his own market: 'During the 1960s,' she says, 'Dal signed blank sheets of paper.' Another story goes that secretaries would stand either side of Dal: one to slide the paper under his hand, one to whip it away, to speed up the production line of signed blanks for prints that gradually became utterly worthless.

This accumulation of uninspired images and unloving relationships, as told through Etherington-Smith's bland and mercilessly detailed prose, makes the last sections of her book painful to read. But, having finished, one should turn quickly back to the handful of tiny illustrations - or, better, to a good series of reproductions like those in the 1980 Tate Gallery retrospective catalogue: the crutches, propping up our own somnolent, drooping face, just about to break and let us drop into a dream; the soft watches clinging nervelessly to the hyper-real landscape; the majestic and sensual Gala.

Or consider Freud's final comment on Dal's work: 'Until now I was inclined to regard the Surrealists as 100 per cent fools . . . This young Spaniard, with his . . . undoubtedly perfect technical mastership has suggested to me a different estimate.'

(Photograph omitted)