Dali, Hollywood - and a surreal story

There are three biopics about the Spanish artist in production, reveals Jerome Taylor. But it is the adaptation of the book by a former art dealer and ex-convict attracting the most controversy

Monday 23 February 2009 01:00

With his trademark upturned wax moustache and penchant for giving lectures in a diving bell, Salvador Dali thrived on courting controversy and enjoyed a wildly eccentric lifestyle.

Throughout his life, his detractors said the man was more concerned with cultivating his own avant-garde image than the quality of his artistic output. Friends, meanwhile, staunchly defended the Spanish painter, saying that he simply lived his brand of surrealism as much as he painted it.

But when a little-known Belgian art dealer, who is also a former convict, published a memoir alleging that the majority of late Dali works were faked and were done so with the artist’s approval, it still managed to send shockwaves through an art world which was long used to fantastical claims about one of its most fantastical members.

Now Stan Lauryssens’ book is being turned into a major Hollywood production with Al Pacino lined up to play the Spanish surrealist as he neared the end of his life. The film is one of three Dali biopics in production which reveal just how much Hollywood has succumbed to a newfound “Dalimania” two decades after the painter’s death.

Producers of all three films will be keen finish their projects as quickly as possible: early release dates will be crucial. When two films based on the life of the writer Truman Capote were released in quick succession the later release suffered from poor attendance figures while the former raked in the dollars and went on to win a best actor Oscar for Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

The first film to reach cinemas is likely to be Little Ashes, a British biopic starring the Harry Potter actor Robert Pattison about Dali’s avant-garde teenage years in 1920s Madrid. The film centres around his sexually ambiguous friendships with the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca and aspiring filmmaker Luis Buñuel and will be released in the United States later this year.

The second film, Dali, directed by the British film-maker Simon West, will star Antonio Banderas in the leading role and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dali’s sexually charged wife Gala. It will explore how the painter conquered America and the world with sex, sin and surrealism only to succumb later to worldwide scandal and misfortune.

But it is the adaptation of the memoir Dali & I: The Surreal Story by the 63-year-old former cheese maker turned successful art dealer, who was chased for years by Interpol and eventually imprisoned for selling thousands of fake Dali works, that is likely to be the most controversial.

In Spain, where Dali is considered a national hero, Lauryssens’ book caused outrage not only because it claimed that Dali was directly linked to a vast fake production network of his paintings but also because it described salacious details of Dali’s sex life.

Lauryssens portrayed the painter and his wife Gala as two voraciously charged lovers who regularly indulged in orgies with famous actresses which simultaneously enthralled and disgusted readers in his homeland. The foundation that controls Dali’s estate has vehemently denied many of the claims made in Dali & I and has threatened to sue Lauryssens but so far it has taken no legal action. When the book, which has been translated into 33 languages, was released in Spain last summer the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation said: “The contents of Dali & I lack the most minimal credibility. These falsehoods can only be explained as part of a promotional campaign for the book and the film, which will be realised in the complete absence of any historical, artistic or ethical rigour.”

But speaking to The Independent from his home in Belgium yesterday, Lauryssens said he believed that his book would make a highly entertaining film. “The film is ready to go,” he said. “The money and most of the people are all signed up, they’re just waiting for Pacino before they begin shooting. The film will tell the story of how I sold thousands of fake Salvador Dali paintings and how Dali himself knew and approved of the whole industry that dealt in his fake works.”

Given his shocking claims it is perhaps little surprise that Hollywood is attracted to Lauryssens book, particularly as the life of the art dealer, who will be played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, already reads like a film script. Long before he entered the secretive fake art world, Lauryssens had been involved in a multitude of other, less-that-honest activities. He began his con-artist career in the late Sixties, while in his twenties, drilling holes in ordinary cheese and selling it as Swiss emmental.

He later moved into journalism where he pretended to

interview a host of Hollywood celebrities for a Belgian magazine. “I did a lot of good interviews but in order to get access to people I had to make a lot up as well,” he said. “Within two years I’d fake interviewed almost every Hollywood star, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, you name it.”

In 1972 he turned his attention to Salvador Dali. “I made up a great story about how he and Disney were working on a sort of pornographic cartoon together.” That story caught the attention of a shady investment group in Belgium who assumed Lauryssens was a Dali expert and hired him as a fine art dealer. So, at just 25, Lauryssens found himself flying around Europe buying scores of Dali paintings despite having absolutely no prior experience in the world of fine art.

“A lot of Dali’s less popular stuff is not exactly pleasing to look at … so it was very hard to find buyers,” he said. “Eventually I was introduced to some of Dali’s entourage who said the best money could be made in selling fakes because they were the items that tended to have his most popular elements, like the melting clocks.” According to Lauryssens – who was eventually tracked down by Interpol in the late Eighties and served two years in jail for selling forgeries – the more he indulged in fake Dali works the more he uncovered a world where fake prints, sculptures and lithographs were created by some of the people closest to Dali, even with the painter’s alleged approval. “From the 1960s everyone knew that Dali needed close to half a million dollars a month to fund his lavish lifestyle” he said. “He was living like a mini-maharajah.”

Dali himself frequently admitted he had made enormous sums of money by signing hundreds of quick sketches and lithographs which would then sell for thousands of pounds. He once famously remarked: “Each morning after breakfast I like to start the day by earning $20,000.” The existence of several hundred thousand Dali lithographs has encouraged a flourishing, parallel global trade in fakes while by the time Dali died of heart failure in 1989 his estate was left with $87m.

But Lauryssens’ claims are so controversial because he alleges that the majority of Dali works produced after the 1960s were not touched by Dali and were instead churned out by an army of assistants. “If you discount paintings, which are much harder to fake, I would say up to 75 per cent of all the works out there that attributed to Dali were not done by him,” said Lauryssens.

In the early 1980s, before his prison stint, Lauryssens went to see Dali in his seaside villa in Catalonia. The dealer said that Dali was balding, his stomach swollen “and his right arm shook from shoulder to wrist”. It was all a far cry from the ostentatious showman.

Cinemagoers will have to wait until 2011 to see which side of Dali Al Pacino chooses to portray, but one thing we do know is that a large amount of controversy and publicity along the way is pretty much guaranteed.

Dali’s commercialism and curious collaborations

In a career spanning more more than 50 years, Salvador Dali was able to churn out thousands of artistic pieces. Not just limiting himself to painting, he created sculptures, prints, lithographs, took photographs and even dabbled in film-making.

He would often boast about how he could make thousands of dollars a day simply by signing lithographs of his work. By the end of his lifetime he is thought to have signed more than 100,000 of these prints.

One of his most memorable works, The Persistence Of Memory, was painted in 1931 and featured the melting clocks that made him so famous. The idea supposedly came to him while watching a circular block of Camembert melt in the midday heat.

Dali himself was an enormous fan of film which he believed was a superb medium for surrealist art. In the 1940s he worked with Walt Disney, a man Dali considered to be a true surrealist, on Destino, a five-minute cartoon which only saw the light of day two years ago, long after both Disney and Dali had died.

Dali also collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock to produce the famous dream sequence in his 1945 thriller Spellbound.

Hitchcock called on Dali to use his surrealist vision to build a bizarre set that could suitably represent a dream.

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