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.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering