The bad dream of the flesh: 'His life was, among other things, a prolonged act of metaphorical patricide': Andrew Graham-Dixon reviews 'Dali: The Early Years'

Salvador Dali was a teenager when he painted his Portrait of My Father, a picture which cannot help looking, in retrospect, like an allegory of classic teenage Oedipal angst. Dali senior, in a sober suit, is a dark colossus looming over the bright city and sea and distant hills of Cadaques, a Spanish fishing village which the young Dali has painted, here, as a garish Fauve idyll. The sheer bulk of father is what strikes son: he sees his father as an enormous black silhouette, a blot on his landscape.

'Dali: The Early Years', at the Hayward Gallery, might have been expected to furnish many such portents, indicators of the fruitful unease necessary to one seeking a career in Surrealism. Surrealism was dedicated to the discovery and expression of primal (preferably Freudian) trauma, to the guiltily transgressive child within. A Surrealist's juvenilia ought to be especially revealing, since the theory of Surrealism reverses the traditional momentum of a career and argues that the artist should not seek to move on, but to regress to the dangerous, radically uncivilised condition of the infant. But the hitherto unexplored territory of Dali's early work turns out to be disappointingly barren in this respect.

The chief revelation here is how canny and cold-blooded, how thoroughly in control of himself Dali was from an early age. The young Dali was a magpie-like stealer of other artists' styles. The willed Fauvism of his Portrait of My Father gives way easily and simply to the willed Symbolism of his Portrait of Grandmother Anna Sewing, painted later in the same year, a blue and misty murk which pictures an old woman patiently sewing in a room that looks as if it is underwater. Dali's 1921 ink drawing, Salome, is Aubrey Beardsley minus finesse, a cack- handed drawing of two anachronistically fin-de-siecle femmes fatales rather gingerly putting the severed head of John the Baptist into a large bag. Elsewhere, Dali imitates Goya. Cackling fleshpot witches circle in a green sky; a faceless, fleshy monster stands in a clearing surrounded by indistinct shapes wheeling in the half-dark like the bats that flit around the slumbering, troubled fantasist in Goya's The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters.

Despite his fondness for lightning costume changes, it is possible to discern, in the immature Dali, a certain coherence of character. Trying on other people's clothes, he begins to design the uniform (it will later become the straitjacket) of his own manner. So, trying his hand at being de Chirico, the young Dali produces a dry still life of forms poised on a tabletop which predicts the stark isolation of things and their shadows in his later and much more famous desert landscapes: the bottle and the pear on the table will become the crawling ant and the melted watch, like a fat pat of Camembert cheese, in the flat and sandy no-man's- land of Dali's Surrealism. The young Dali's Cubism is also unconvincing but prophetic: it is the ease with which the Cubist can make people and things and animals blend and metamorphose, one into another, that interests Dali. To look at these pictures is to see him beginning to formulate the texture of his Surrealist fantasies, and towards the end of this exhibition, young Salvador Dali begins to become the Dali of common knowledge. Anatomical fragments, disembodied heads, penises and breasts, take to the floor; orifices lie back while fingers do the walking; creeping, rotten things, half animal, half human, grin sightlessly; parasites feed.

Dali was not, despite the decline into showmanship of his later years, when most of his creative energies seem to have been diverted into the shaping of his moustache, a negligible figure. But the nature of his achievement may have been misunderstood, and this show may help to clarify that. What it reveals is the amount of forethought that went into Dali's Surrealism: how unspontaneous, how carefully and slowly arrived at, like the art of most artists, it really was. Dali, keen to sponsor the myth of himself as a genius subject to fits of sudden inspiration, did much to obscure this fact.

The real subject of Dali's art was never dreams or the subconscious mind. These are not things that paintings can tell us much about (and Surrealist art in general is a much more accurate mirror of how people at a certain historical moment believed the subconscious mind to function than how it actually does function). The real and indeed only subject of Dali's art was mortality and the deep-seated human fear of it; and his achievement was that, quite deliberately and coolly, he found new, genuinely disconcerting, vivid ways to express this.

This exhibition should have climaxed with The Great Masturbator, which Dali painted in 1929, but that picture - with its great molten yellow head like an animate gout of ejaculate, sprouting bodies that have grown from it like excrescences, prey to a feeding locust that is itself prey to feeding ants - is now regarded as a national treasure by the Spanish and is not allowed to travel overseas. Instead, the metamorphic nightmare, the bad dream of the flesh that was Dali's one lasting contribution to painting must be represented, at the Hayward, by the Female Nude he painted a year earlier: a raw and grotesquely misshapen woman's body, like something skinned but reluctantly and uncontrollably alive, lies like a parody Venus in a waste landscape sand under a blue but cracked sky.

Dali's concern was never, at root, with anything more complicated than the sheer fleshiness of flesh - that which made it, to him, most attractive and most repellent. He found, briefly, a way of expressing this attraction and repulsion in art, and it is hard to think of a single memorable Dali image which does not singlemindedly concentrate on the volatility of flesh or turn that into a metaphor for all of existence: the human eyeball that he had slashed with a razor, in one of the images he thought up for Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou, is for this reason the purest statement of his one abiding obsession. Hard things turn soft, in his art. Things and people melt and rot. Everything has the quality of an organism or an organic substance on the turn towards putrefaction. Dali's art was once shocking, before he himself did so much to weaken and dilute it by self-parody: some people were sufficiently moved by the exhibition which he held in 1929, to coincide with the release of Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, that they ripped Dali's canvases to pieces. He did not age well and neither has his reputation, but it was not without foundation.

Dali said his works should not be called artefacts but putrefacts, and that is the best description of the best of them. He was an aesthete of different kinds of flesh, 'whether it be', as he said, 'the sublime viscosities of a fish-eye, the slithery cerebellum of a bird, the spermatozoal marrow of a bone or the soft and swampy opulence of an oyster'. For Dali, the most exact analogy for artistic creation was eating shellfish, an act which he associated so closely with his painting because its purpose like that of his art was the revelation of hidden softness and vulnerability: a teasing of slime and organic matter, with fork and teeth and tongue, from a living thing, and therefore an operative model for the act of remembering one's own slimy mortality, the organic horror and sensual delight of what it is to be a body. But the few pictures in which he did this most memorably are mostly absent from 'Dali: The Early Years', which means the exhibition is too much like a meal made up of langoustine claws: a lot of work for just a little flesh.