If he just happened to smear himself with goat shit…

Speaking of artists who reinvented themselves, there’s a big exhibition of Salvador Dali’s work at the CaixaForum in Barcelona, in honour of what would have been his 100th birthday. Be sure to check out the slideshow. The photo of a stiff Spanish Crown Prince Felipe looking out of the corner of his eye and grinning nervously at “The enigma of Hitler” is fun.

Two snippets about Dali that caught my eye from Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses:

In [Paul] Eluard’s presence, Dali was magically cured of the hysterical laughing fits that had plagued him for years and that had lately become a source of acute anxiety for Dali’s father and sister. These attacks were precipitated when Dali imagined an owl sitting on the head of whomever he was speaking to — an owl that had, on its own head, a piece of Dali’s shit. With Eluard, Dali was inexplicably unable to summon this dependably mirth-inducing image and had to kick his fantasy up to another level. He imagined his own upside down, his head stuck to the sidewalk by Dali’s excrement. This made Dali laugh so hard that he rolled on the ground before he could go on with his walk.


A question bothered his colleagues: Was Dali a genuine coprophage? On their first date in Cadaques, Gala made it clear that, if this were the case, she would be too repulsed to continue their friendship. If not, if he was just toying with the idea of scatalogical obsession — if he just happened to prepare for their meeting by smearing himself with goat shit, just happened to imagine an excrement-encrusted owl perched on the heads of his pals — he risked reducing his work to a “mere psychopathological document.” Dali was tempted to lie, to confess to coprophagia in order to make himself appear more interesting. But Gala’s “purity” and “honesty” so moved him that he assured her: His painting was not autobiographical, except in that he considered “scatology as a terrorizing element, just as I do blood, or my phobia for grasshoppers.”

In response, Gala took Dali’s hand, provoking a fit of “catastrophic” laughter. Most women would have taken one look at this giggling, bizarrely dressed coprophiliac and run in the opposite direction. Gala, however, understood that she had found her soul mate. For the exact nature of Dali’s erotic fixations was merely a detail compared to what she must have intuited — that Dali had located, and pressed, the sore spot on which even the Surrealists (so tough, so nervy, so open about sex!) were sensitive. His work shocked them and made them talk, and more important, would shock others and cause them to talk, and eventually this gossip and outrage would translate directly into notoriety, fame, and more money than her poet husband could ever hope to make.

“My little boy!” Gala cried. “We shall never leave each other.”

Even as a timid child, Salvador Dali craved attention. At school he discovered, quite by accident, the reputation-enhancing aspects of flinging himself downstairs. “I threw myself from the top of the stairway during the second recreation period, at the moment when the animation in the yard was at its height… Before flinging myself down I uttered a shrill scream so everyone would look at me… This was a definite encouragement to continue, and from time to time I repeated my fall. Each time I was about to go down there was great expectation. Will he throw himself off, or will he not? What was the pleasure of going down quietly and normally when I realized a hundred pairs of eyes were eagerly devouring me?”

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