The Fame and Shame of Salvador Dalí

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…one ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.

George Orwell

This two-part, two-hour TV documentary from 1997 has a title that makes it sound like more on an exercise in audience pandering than was typical for the BBC’s Omnibus arts strand, fame and shame being qualities that might be considered of greater interest for the general viewer than art history. But Michael Dibb’s film is more insightful than those made 20 years earlier when access to the Dalí circle, and to Dalí himself, required flattery and capitulation to the artist’s whims and attention-grabbing antics. In place of the impersonal approach taken by the BBC’s Arena documentary from 1986 we have writer Ian Gibson serving as a guide to Dalí’s life while conducting research into a major biography, La vida desaforada de Salvador Dalí (The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí), which was published a year later. “Shame” here refers more to Dalí’s numerous fears and phobias, especially those of the sexual variety, rather than to scandal and public opprobrium, while “Shameful Life” echoes the “Secret Life” title of the artist’s autobiography. Dalí’s sexual neuroses were always to the fore in his art but they remained concealed in his personal life, although the evasions—his frequent declarations of impotence, for example—don’t prevent Gibson from speculating. I saw this documentary when it was first broadcast but had forgotten the discussions of a possible homosexual relationship with Dalí’s adoring friend, Federico García Lorca, as well as the mention of the artist’s voyeurism, all of which was explored in more detail (and with some personal experience) by Brian Sewell a decade later in the TV documentary with the most prurient title of them all, Dirty Dalí: A Private View.

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Gibson is an engaging guide, with the advantage of being a fluent Spanish speaker able to engage in conversation with those who knew or worked for the artist. Several of the interviewees are familiar faces in Dalí films: Amanda Lear, art collectors Reynolds and Ellen Morse, Dalí’s first secretary and business manager, Captain Peter Moore, and painter Antoni Pitxot. 1997 was about the last time it was possible to make a documentary about Dalí that might feature interviews with people who knew the artist in his younger days, although José “Pépin” Bello, born the same year as Dalí in 1904, lived on until 2008. Bello was the sole surviving member of a Madrid student group in the 1920s whose other members were Dalí, Luis Buñuel and Federico García Lorca. He also turns up in The Life and Times of Don Luis Buñuel (1984), another BBC film which really ought to be on YouTube, where he makes unsubstantiated claims about having contributed ideas to Un Chien Andalou. It’s easy to be sceptical about the assertions of an uncreative man whose youth had been spent in the company of three great talents but according to this obituary both Dalí and Buñuel confirmed the claims. (The image of a rotting donkey, however, had appeared in Dalí’s paintings before the film was made.)

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Among the other people talking to Gibson are Surrealist poet David Gascoyne, and also George Melly, a man who for a long time was a ubiquitous presence whenever Surrealism was being discussed on British TV. The interviews are separated by clips from other films, two of which have featured in earlier posts: Hello Dalí! (which I keep hoping someone will upload to YouTube in better quality), and Jack Bond’s film of Dalí in New York in 1965. I watched both these again last year when I followed my viewing of the Svankmajer oeuvre with a number of Surrealist documentaries. Jack Bond’s film is especially good for its verité qualities, and for Jane Arden’s attempts to persuade Dalí to talk seriously for once about his art.

The Fame and Shame of Salvador Dalí: Part One | Part Two

Previously on { feuilleton }
Figures of Mortality: Lawrence versus Dalí
Être Dieu: Dalí versus Wakhévitch
Chance encounters on the dissecting table
Salvador Dalí’s Maze
Dalí in New York
Dalí’s discography
Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí
Mongolian impressions
Hello Dalí!
Dirty Dalí
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie revisited

The Art of Tripping, a documentary by Storm Thorgerson

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How does this sound? 100 minutes of solidly informative documentary about the use of drugs by artists from the early 19th century on; a production that calls upon a remarkable cast of contributors (see below), with music by David Gilmour, and the whole thing “devised and directed” by Storm Thorgerson, better known as one third of the great Hipgnosis design team.

The Art of Tripping was broadcast in two parts in 1993 during the Without Walls arts strand on Channel 4 (UK). David Gale was the writer, with actor Bernard Hill playing the part of the narrator and guide. The programme managed to deal with a contentious subject without indulging in hysteria or insulting the intelligence of the audience, a rare thing today. Twenty years ago it was still possible to make a documentary about a popular subject without having any low-grade celebrity-du-jour offering their wretched opinion. The contributors here who aren’t medical people are almost all writers of one kind or another; Thorgerson and Gale punctuate the proceedings with a few actors who impersonate various historical figures.

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Without Walls was a very good series on the whole but this for me was a real highlight (no pun intended). In addition to it being a rare example of Storm Thorgerson working in television, the direction showed how it was possible to match the theme without recourse to cliché or flashy visuals. There isn’t a single moment of archive footage either. Thorgerson’s history of “socially unacceptable” drugs is structured as a journey through the levels of a multi-storey building, from ground floor to roof; being familiar with the director’s free-associative working methods I can imagine this being a result of thinking about getting high. Bernard Hill encounters the various commentators in successive rooms, each of which is furnished and lit to suggestively imply the drug in question. The use of lighting as a key motif is a smart one, and another metaphor, of course, for literal and symbolic (or spiritual) illumination. Editing effects are also deployed to thematically correspond to the different substances.

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This would be very successful even without a wide range of contributors but Thorgerson and company assembled a stunning array of different writers, many of whom I’d never seen on TV before, and many of whom didn’t turn up again. Some of them fill dual roles, so JG Ballard is on hand to enthuse about Naked Lunch, and appears later talking about his bad LSD trip. Similarly, Brian Aldiss talks about Anna Kavan, and also about Philip K Dick. Below there’s a rough list of the drugs covered and the people involved. In the two decades since this was made many of the people involved have since died, the director included, so the film now has the feel of a historical artefact. The Art of Tripping can be see in full at YouTube. This is how good British television used to be.

Opium
Dr Virginia Berridge (author), Grevel Lindop (author), Marek Kohn (author), Dr EMR Critchley (author), Phil Daniels (as Thomas De Quincey), Dr Tony Dickenson (neuropharmacologist), Dr Ian Walker (author), Thom Booker (as Edgar Allan Poe), Dr Peggy Reynolds (author)
Hashish
Prof John Hemmings (author), Ronald Hayman (author), Patrick Barlow (as Theophile Gautier), John McEnery (as Charles Baudelaire), Jon Finch (as Gérard de Nerval), Bernard Howells (lecturer, King’s College, London), June Rose (author), John Richardson (author), Margaret Crosland (author), Danny Webb (as Jean Cocteau), Robin Buss (translator), David Gascoyne (poet), George Melly (collector, Surrealist art)
Mescaline
Prof Eric Mottram (University of London), Francis Huxley (nephew of Aldous Huxley), Jay Stevens (author), Laura Huxley (widow of Aldous Huxley),
Psilocybin
Brian Cory (as Robert Graves), Paul O’Prey (author)
Marijuana / Nitrous Oxide
Harry Shapiro (author), Carolyn Cassady (author), Prof Ann Charters (author), Allen Ginsberg (poet)
Kief
Paul Bowles (author)
Heroin
JG Ballard (author), Prof Avital Ronell (author), Hubert Selby Jr (author), Brian Aldiss (author)
LSD
Dr Oscar Janiger (experimental psychiatrist), Diana Quick (as Anaïs Nin), Prof Malcolm Lader (psychopharmacologist), Dr Timothy Leary (author), Todd Boyco (as Andy Warhol)
Amphetamine
Lawrence Sutin (author)
Cocaine
Robert Stone (author), Prof. Annette Dolphin (neuropharmacologist)
MDMA

Previously on { feuilleton }
Storm Thorgerson, 1944–2013
Hipgnosis turkeys
Enter the Void
Opium fiends
La Morphine by Victorien du Saussay
In the Land of Retinal Delights
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
Storm Thorgerson: Right But Wrong
Demon rum leads to heroin
The art of LSD
Hep cats
German opium smokers, 1900

Weekend links 102

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Flannery O’Connor with one of her many peacocks.

When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent.

Flannery O’Connor

Essay of the week was without a doubt Living with a Peacock by the great Flannery O’Connor, originally published in Holiday magazine in September 1961. I’d heard about Flannery’s peacocks before but had no idea she was such a pavonomane. Thanks to Jay for the tip!

• “‘He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature.’ But he was more like the very hungry caterpillar, munching his way through every musical influence he came across…” Thomas Jones reviews two new books about David Bowie for the LRB.

• In June Mute Records release The Lost Tapes by Can, a 3-CD collection. Here’s hoping this doesn’t merely repeat the outtakes that’ve been circulating for years as the Canobits bootlegs. This extract is certainly new.

• Animator Suzan Pitt, director of the remarkable Asparagus (1979), discusses her new film, Visitation, inspired, she says, by reading HP Lovecraft in a cabin while wolves howled outside.

Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne, a biography by Robert Fraser reviewed by Iain Sinclair.

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The Dangerous Desire (1936) by Richard Oelze (1900–1980) at But Does It Float.

• Making the Mari: the stuff of nightmares brought into the world by Jefferson Brassfield.

• The Background to the Moorcock Multiverse: Karin L. Kross reviews London Peculiar.

Orson Welles’s lost Heart of Darkness screenplay performed for the first time.

The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome: the new BFI DVD collection reviewed.

• Page designs by Alphonse Mucha for Ilsée, Princess de Tripoli (1897).

• A Slow-Books Manifesto by Maura Kelly.

Tim Parks asks “Do we need stories?”.

Musical table by Kyouei Design.

Horror Asparagus Stories (1966) by The Driving Stupid | Peacock Lady (1971) by Shelagh McDonald | Peacock Tail (2005) by Boards of Canada.