"What will the Master want to talk about?"
"The Master will want to talk about the Rape of Europa.".
The way to the Master leads through a series of big dark rooms. His own room is high-ceilinged and bare, its walls painted with trompe-l'oeil moldings, some conventional landscapes in little panels under the ceiling, all in a style that would have appealed to a prosperous bourgeois of the little city of Figueras when the medieval building was renovated a century ago. There is nothing in this room to recall any other room where Salvador Dali has ever lived, no portrait of his late wife and muse Gala, no jumble of bric-a-brac, no rhinoceros horn, no soft watches, no fossil sea snail or mechanical grasshopper
There is nothing at first to indicate that the old man in a white silk gown huddling in an armchair is Salvador Dali himself. He is a picture of feeble dejection. The great flaring mustaches which he used to wax and glue and bind so lovingly every night so that they could stand up all day like black daggers pointing at his eyes have been clipped away, leaving only a straggly gray growth on his upper lip. The right hand that once could glide and swoop over paper or canvas so boldly and so precisely now trembles uncontrollably as it reaches out in a gesture of welcome. The eyes that used to sparkle with mischief and curiosity are dull. The man who used to sit in state in Maxim's or at the St. Regis with the gold-handled cane that he said had belonged to Sarah Bernhardt at his side and order their best champagne and most sumptuous dishes has lost all appetite and sense of taste and even the power to swallow, and is kept alive by a plastic tube that brings a supply of vitamins and proteins up his nose and down to his stomach. Half choked by the tube, his voice is a hoarse mumble in which an outsider finds it hard to recognize one word out of ten.
At Dali's side, however, is Antonio Pitxot, who apparently can understand at least seven words out of ten, in French or Catalan or Castillian, and who serves as Dali's interpreter. For two generations the Dalis and Pitxots have been neighbors and friends; one of the Master's first paintings, an astonishingly mature work done at the age of seventeen, is a portrait of Antonio's father in silk pajamas playing his cello. Antonio, a talented painter in his own right, is also the director of the Dali Museum, which is just over the garden wall from the part of the building where Dali lives. He comes by every evening at five or so to answer the Master's questions about the state of the world, to take dictation from him, sometimes to sing a little Wagner for him.
He now interprets the first mumbles: "The Master wants to know what you want to ask him."
"I want to ask him about the Rape of Europa."
A tiny spark flies across the dull brown eyes as Dali darts a look at Antonio. From this moment on his gaze brightens, as his mind, which Picasso once compared to an outboard motor, revs up.
An interview with Dali means a discourse, and out it comes, a torrential mumble. The one identifiable word in ten is sure to be a familiar Dalinian theme or obsession, l'acide déoxyribonucléique, pi-mesons, la méthode paranoiaque-critique, la gare de Perpignan, The drift is clear. There is paradox, there is glitter, there is a lot of nonsense, perhaps there are some nuggets of plain common sense.
He stops for breath, and Antonio puts the pieces together. Yes, the Rape of Europa is vital for understanding our time, or any other time. Titian knew it, and Rubens and Velasquez, which is why they painted it with such loving attention to all its symbolic details. The rape of Europa stands for the breaking apart of the continents, the cracking of what had once been a unified earth, the separation of East and West. Geologists now call it continental drift. But it all began with the rape of Europa.
Hadn't Herodotus said that the starting point of the wars between East and West was the rape of Io by the Phoenicians and the rape of Europa by the Greeks? Herodotus was right, says the Master. The breaking apart of the tectonic plates has determined everything. The continents are pulling apart, and they will go on pulling, drifting. Only Spain remains stable in the center, because Spain is granite through and through."It was the paranoiac-critical method that conceived this truth," he says. "It is the method of a visionary, not of a mathematician. But now the scientists have confirmed it. How often have people made fun of me when I proclaimed and proclaimed again that the center of the world is the magnificent nineteenth-century railway station in Perpignan just over the mountains from here. Now the great mathematician René Thom has come to Figueras and has told me that I was right, the lines of pressure of the tectonic plates, the ones that are tearing the world apart, pass right under the center of Perpignan!"
It would not be the first time that the flights of Dalinian fantasy have crossed orbits with the world that ordinary people take for reality. Only last winter, Dali had begun to dictate a text to accompany a show of Pitxot's paintings in Barcelona. It is a page and a half in Catalan, and it took three months to get it into final shape. Every night in his bed the latest version would appear to him in its totality and he would chisel away at its imperfections. Every afternoon at five Antonio would appear and he would be instructed to make changes: "Antonio, today in line six, remove the ruby nail polish from the little toe of Cleopatra..."
The text was finally completed in April, and to the non-Catalan reader appeared to contain the usual writhing and roaring of Dalinian images, all said to be related to a turning-point in ancient history, the victory of the Emperor Constantine the Great over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, symbol of the eternal conflict of East and West, the continental drift. A couple of days later, when Maria Teresa, his secretary, brought in the morning papers, Dali ran his eyes over the headlines and produced a gurgle of triumph. There it was in great black letters, the latest news: REAGAN BOMBS QADDAFI,. Constantine and Maxentius all over again, West and East, the continental drift. La méthode paranoiaque-critique was vindicated once more.
The little figure in the white gown has begun to drone again. Dali has been an actor all his life, sometimes playing the role of genius, sometimes the role of clown. Now it is as if, in his state of almost total physical debility, by sheer effort of will, he is changing not only his role but the décor around him. The nondescript room in middle-class Figueras is becoming a hall, a palace, in Elsinore or Thebes. It is like one of his "double image" paintings, where at first glance you see an Oriental slave market, two of the customers silhouetted against a high-arched window, and if you look again the window has become a marble forehead, the customers are eyes: Houdon's bust of Voltaire. Look again at the little old man in the arm-chair, and he has turned into a Spanish grandee painted by Zurbaràn perhaps, spare and stark and impossibly proud and maybe a little mad. The madness has always been carefully dosed in Dali's case; he used to say, "The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad."
Spanish grandees at all events do not live according to ordinary categories. What this one is doing is to show the world how to die. He has come home to do it, to Figueras, where he was born in the middle of the great plain of the Apurdàn, with its crumbling castles and its cypress trees, near the coast with its contorted rocks. These golden vistas have always formed the back-ground of his dreams and of his best paintings. In some of those paintings he has put himself in a corner, a little boy in a sailor suit, looking out with a kind of wily wonder on landscape where nothing is what it seems. This little boy was reluctant to grow up - Dali used to boast in late middle age that he still had two of his baby teeth - and was obsessed with games of make-believe. Games that can sometimes become real. Since 1982 he has not had to play at being a Spanish grandee; he is one, having been made Marquès de Dali de Pubol by King Juan Carlos. Nothing in his life has given him greater pleasure.
Dali has affected a kingly state almost since he was born. As a child - a horribly spoiled child because his parents felt guilty when their first son, their first Salvador, died - he used to wear an ermine cape and a crown. Sometimes he would call in this garb on Antonio Pitxot's uncle Pepito. He would be received royally, with a bow and a "What an honor you do us, Majesty," and then Salvador II would turn to his little sister, his attendant princess, and whisper, "We have not been recognized, do not let on who we really are."
He has kept the cape and crown in his mental wardrobe, so it is natural that today his life should mirror the last days of a king, Philip II, who ruled Spain four centuries ago, when Spain was the greatest power on earth. The dying Philip passed his last days in a bare monastic cell in his palace-monastery, the Escorial, cut off from all the pomp of his court, with a tiny window through which he could peep into the palace church during holy services. Dali too has a peep-hole. There is a secret door in the garden wall, and he can be wheeled through this door to cast a private eye through a discreet window on the daily bustle of the Dali Museum which he created twelve years earlier in the shell of municipal theater of Figueras, burned out by arsonists in the Spanish Civil War. There he can see, overlooking a phantasmagoria of paintings and sculptures and bizarre objects, giant figures of himself and Gala rising into heaven on the ceiling and scattering gold - painted gold - on their admirers below. In the courtyard sits the greatest crowd-pleaser of all, the battered old Cadillac with water raining down on its mannequin passengers and the vegetables growing in the back seat.
Philip in his cell did not lose touch with the practicalities of running an empire. He received and annotated his daily reports of how much gold had been mined in Peru, how many Filipinos (named for him) had been converted, how many relapsed Jewish converts burned at the stake. Just like Philip, Dali, whose father the notary spent his days writing out inventories of estates, has always enjoyed round and voluminous figures. He regularly receives reports of attendance at the museum, sometimes he is shown videos of, say, four hundred Russian tourists showing up at the door. He takes a royal and perfectly comprehensible pleasure in hearing that this museum in little provincial Figueras, where there is nothing else to see, is one of the biggest tourist attractions n Spain, I am told that it gets 400,000 visitors a year, while the Picasso museum in the great city of Barcelona gets fewer than 300,000.
It is all a monument to Gala. But Dali will not speak of her, nor keep an image of her near him. It is too painful after a lifetime together. He used to say that he could not live without her, and in fact no one expected him to survive her. When she died, in June 1982, she was around ninety, older than he was, but apparently far more vigorous. When they had their last public spat in the lobby of the Hotel Meurice in Paris, he could only pound her feebly with his gold-handled cane while she boxed his ears soundly. "He won't live ten minutes without her," said his ex-business manager (and guardian of the ocelots Booba and Baboo who always traveled with the master), who called himself Captain Moore and whom Dali called his military attaché. But when the Captain, after the ten minutes had passed, put on an exhibition of the vast number of the Master's works which he had acquired, he was surprised to find a fire-breathing Dali bringing a lawsuit against hm and forcing him to remove the Dali signature from a work that had been printed and signed by a lady from Los Angeles, a Mrs. van Leyden.
Dali and Gala took it for granted that they were fated for each other. His constant awareness of Salvador I, the dead boy who had preceded him, made him identify himself with the Greek myth of the heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux, one born to die, the other immortal. In most versions of the myth Castor and Pollux were born out of one egg with a sister, Helen of Troy. It was in 1929, at the age of twenty-five, that this Pollux met his Helen. She was born Helena Dinkonoff in Kazan in Russia, she had spent some time in a sanatorium in Davos, and Dali's friends are sure she was the original of the fascinating Clavdia Chauchat, the heroine of The Magic Mountain. She was the idol of the poets and madmen of Paris; she was married to Paul Eluard. Every one called her Gala; Dali also called her Galutchka, Gradiva, Oliburibuleta, and sometimes Lionette because she reminded him of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion when she was angry. For nearly fifty years she was Dali's wife, mother, sister, model, manager. She saved him from madness, as he often used to say, and she made him a millionaire.
Gala let Dali's talent run wild on canvas, and held his wilder extravagances in check in real life. Once in their home in Cadaquès she found him attaching pieces of bread to the wall. As she predicted, all the mice on the coast came to invade them in the following days, and she got rid of the bread. "If I were left alone," said Dali, "I would be systematically organizing delirium in the house." Now that she has gone, he has been able to redecorate the outer wall of the house in Figueras. He has done it in the colors of Spain, blood and gold, a flat crimson surface spattered with a couple of hundred pieces of yellow Spanish bread. But the bread is plaster and there are no mice to disturb the Master's sleep. .
After Gala died, Dali was in a state of profound depression. He moved to the castle of Pubol, a feudal ruin about twenty miles from Figueras with an old village clustered at the foot of its walls. He had bought it for Gala (she would accept it, she said, only if he agreed never to come there except when formally invited). He restored it, and decorated it with a portrait of Gala as patron saint of the house, brandishing a cross in a corner of the living room; busts of Nero and Napoleon; a stuffed bear; a plaster elephant waving its trunk twenty feet in the air in the garden; and twenty varicolored casts of Wagner's face overlooking the swimming pool. It was in this castle that Dali, fiddling with a buzzer that summoned servants to his side, one night in August 1984 set fire to his sheets and himself and a good part of the building. Robert Descharnes, his biographer and current business partner, who was sleeping downstairs, came running up with a guard. At first they could not enter the smoke-filled room, but eventually found Dali lying on the floor. No fool when it came to practicalities, he remembered that the way to avoid suffocation was to keep low. He was burned over almost a fifth of his body, he had to have extensive skin grafts, and most people were sure he would not survive. But survive he did.
The rumors that have buzzed around him all the days of his life buzzed more angrily now. They said he was inanimate, a living corpse, kept sequestered from the outside world by the little group of people who manage his affairs: Descharnes, Pitxot, a lawyer named Miguel Domenech, and Francisco Vergès, who was once Gala's bank manager and is now head of the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation. Shortly after the accident, when the press was clamoring for pictures, Descharnes took a photograph of him in bed in a night-cap, with the tube in his nose. The film was old, the quality was bad, and the image was horrendous, death warmed over. Descharnes wanted to suppress it, but Dali insisted on its being published. He has always taken a certain pleasure in what might be called creative misinformation It is part of his lifelong project of manipulating the world's image of Salvador Dali.
No artist in history has ever made more of a spectacle of himself than Dali. He was a shy child who learned he could command attention by choking on a real or imaginary fish bone, or by throwing himself down a flight of stairs, and he has rarely missed an opportunity since. "Every morning," he once wrote, "I experience the supreme pleasure of being Salvador Dali, and I wonder what prodigy Salvador Dali will perform today." The more outrageous the pranks and prodigies, the more the world has loved them, and in the end they have formed a kind of ectoplasmic cloud that floats elusively in front of his works. Critics have been so fascinated or infuriated by Dali the exhibitionist, Dali the cheerleader for Dali, that they have never been able to decide just where he belongs in the history of art.
When he was a young prodigy, he experimented in all the fashionable styles - in the Figueras museum there are some witty parodies of Picasso and Matisse - and as he grew older he experimented in styles yet to come. He threw paint at the canvas and let it drip as gravity or his guardian angel might decree, twenty years before Jackson Pollock tried it, and he painted a Coca-Cola bottle in reverent detail while Andy Warhol was still in high school. When he achieved his mature style, the unmistakable Dali style, in the 1930's, critics admired it for its dazzling dexterity and rich dreamlike atmosphere, as well as for being disturbing, distorted, subversive, all qualities then held in high esteem. The general public was fascinated by its looniness and lush sexual overtones, which called forth summary Freudian interpretations from almost all who saw it, including Sigmund Freud himself, whom Dali visited in London in 1938.
The psychoanalytic motifs of the 1930s began to be replaced after the war by what Dali calls the corpuscular-rhinocerotic, paintings of very large format mingling religious, biological and astrophysical allegories. "Rhinocerotic" refers to Dali's conviction that the rhinoceros horn is the purest example of the logarithmic-spiral form, which is at the root of all great art as it is at the root of all living forms in nature. He worked out the theory in discussions with Matila Ghyka, a professor at the University of Southern California, and he was naturally delighted when this same spiral turned up in Crick and Watson's discovery of the double helix forming the DNA molecule.
Critics have tended to be less enthusiastic about the huge, somewhat frigid compositions of the later years. But Dali learned early on dispense with critics. He reached across them to the public, and the public made him the most commercially successful painter of his time. He loved every minute of it. He was delighted when André Breton, the Pope of Surrealism, showed that the name Salvador Dali could be anagrammed into Avida Dollars. (Though when I wrote an article for Life magazine many years ago documenting the protocols of the avidadollars life style, he roared at me in a hotel lobby that I was the stupidest man in the world.)
His paintings usually sold for whatever price Gala asked, and the art stores of the world are flooded with Dali prints. It s true that very many of these prints are fakes. And very few (Descharnes estimates one half of one percent) fall into the category of what purists would call original prints, that is, seen through the press, approved, and signed individually by the artist. There was a news item not long ago about French customs officials intercepting a truck which was sneaking across the Pyrenees, headed for a printing press in Paris, containing several thousand sheets of high-quality paper; the sheets were all perfectly blank except for the Dali signature scrawled majestically in the lower right-hand corner.
Even subtracting the fakes and the mechanical reproductions, the sheer quantity of the Dali oeuvre is enormous. Dali has always been a prodigious worker. He used to start drawing every day when he got up, and he might go on drawing all day long, twelve hours, fifteen hours. The persona he put on for the photographers and the gossip columnists, the provocateur-exhibitionist dandy, was the for the cocktail hour and dinner at Maxim's. Once I saw him in his suite at the Hotel Meurice, the one that had formerly been reserved for King Alfonso of Spain, surrounded by the usual fauna he attracted in his great days: ragamuffin poets, decaying Polish gentry, actors from the Living Theater intoning litanies of doom while they gorged on the pâté de foie gras, the two restless live ocelots, a bewildered tourist or two, some more or less scruffy dealers interested in making deals concerning more or less original prints, a Hollywood producer. He sat exalted among them, occasionally whipping out such objects as an aerial view of the railway station of Perpignan, where the intertwining rails at one point offered a remarkably accurate outline of the sex organs of the human female (le clitoris du rail, he called it), and he might have gone on with this kind of pleasure indefinitely. But a young painter was there; and having got his ear for a moment, she said how impressed she was by the passage his autobiography in which he spoke of his admiration for his first teacher, Juan Nuñez Fernandez of Figueras, who taught him the basic principles of line, and his disdain for the teachers at the Bellas Artes in Madrid, who had already been infected by modern ideas and encouraged their students to do as they liked, to express themselves. Dali took her hand and led her to a couch, and for the next hour, disregarding all the ululations around him, he spoke of Nuñez, spoke of the necessity for discipline in art, the necessity for good drawing. His subjects might be bizarre - why not? Hadn't a famous psychiatrist once studied him carefully over a long period of time and finally come through with a one-sentences diagnosis: Il est bizarre? But the rendering of those subjects had to be precise and orderly. The teachers at the Bellas Artes simply didn't know the elements of their profession. He dismissed them the way William Blake, another literal painter of visions, dismissed them with the words of his French master Basire, "Dey cannot draw de draw."
When Dali tries to draw now, as when he sketched some giant eggs which are to be put up on the roof of his home, the lines are apt to be uncertain and raggedy. But his mind can still function efficiently. And sometimes it can control his trembling hand. Descharnes says he is still capable, if an important financial document is brought to him, of signing it with a not too feeble version of his old self-confident scrawl.
As late as the spring of 1983 he could sketch out paintings, leaving the details to be filled in by an assistant. In 1984 he could make plans for an immense piece of sculpture. the Homage to Newton, which was recently inaugurated in Madrid. When Spain in 1986, after long years of doubt and delay entered the European Economic Community, he produced twenty-eight sketches, some calmly classical, some violently bloodthirsty, for King Juan Carlos and the mayor of Madrid and the representatives of all the nations attending the ceremony.
If he cannot work, he can keep on thinking. He has not changed the way he thinks about art. Old Nuñez might be beside him as he sits in his white gown, expatiating on the principles he claims to have always held to: tradition, order, fidelity to nature. What people regard as fantasy are the only the literal transcriptions of his visions, the real world reordered by the paranoiac-critical method. Where Picasso destroyed, tore nature to pieces, says Dali, he has built, rearranged nature, rediscovered its laws. Where modern art has run into shallows and dead ends, he has followed the great stream of Raphael and Velasquez.
Does he agree with the American critic Clement Greenberg that technical skill and manual dexterity have become increasingly less important in modern art?
Of course Greenberg is right, he says, and his voice rises to an unexpected percussive clarity as his mind's eye races over the whole brood of mountebanks who have dominated painting in his lifetime. "Ils sont nuls,", he says, they are zero. They have all gone wrong. That is why he has always told them that if they wanted to go forward they would have to go backward; the true avant-garde must be reactionary. Study Meissonier, he told them, the giant and so-long-despised nineteenth-century painter, painter of grass and of Napoleon, the most pompier of all pompiers, most conservative, academic, backward-looking. If you learn Meissonier's technique, he told them, you can do anything, you can even do abstract paintings. But no abstract painter can ever do a Meissonier.
And so he finishes with a credo for the artists of tomorrow:
"I am against Cézanne," he says, "I am for Meissonier."
Is there any hope for the artists of tomorrow?
A little. It is all in New York. There is de Kooning, there are the hyper-realists like Richard Estes. At least they learned how to draw. Besides. they are all Dutch or half-Dutch. And they live in Nieuw Amsterdam. Thus they can override the continental drift.
The shadows lengthen in the room, the Master's head droops. He is a little old gentleman in a white gown again. "I am tired," he says, and holds out a trembling hand. But he has one last thing to say: "Je suis monarchiste. All I believe in is my King and my Queen. My King," he repeats, "he made me a marquis. He saved us from civil war."
He is tired. It is time for a rest. Since he stopped taking medicines (at the end of Gala's life, she careened from doctor to doctor, and every one of them prescribed something else) he rests much better. He will take a nap now. When he wakes, he may want to be read to, he may want to dictate some remarks on pi-mesons and anti-protons. He may ask for music, perhaps his favorite record, which has been played so often the music is unidentifiable under the scratchings and sputterings of the needle. It reminds him of what he calls "the most beautiful sound in the world," the sound of sardines frying in oil.
Vanity Fair, November 1986
©1986 Robert Wernick