Fake Paintings : 81 and Ill, Dali Still Confounds
There was a time when exhibitionism seemed to overshadow his art. But now Salvador Dali, 81, infirm and no longer painting, lives secluded here in an antique palace in his native town.
“He does not want to walk, to speak, to eat,” said Robert Descharnes, a close associate. “If he wants, he can draw, but he does not want.”
Since this is Salvador Dali, this is no ordinary seclusion. He lives behind walls decorated with rows of sculpted bread, under a roof that displays what look like enormous white eggs. And while he lives inside, a scandal and controversy grows outside about the incredible number of fake Dali prints loose in the world.
From time to time, Spaniards fret over the state and fate of Dali. Some even hint darkly that the small coterie around him must be guilty of Sevengali-like manipulation. But Judge Alfons Quinta of Barcelona, a former journalist who covered the problems of Dali for many years, said over lunch recently: “Dali is like a gardener who sprinkles water on himself instead of the garden. He himself is the cause of most of the problems.”
Museum Down the Street
A short block from Dali’s home, a visitor can find the Dali Museum, the pride of this little town in the Catalonia region of Spain. It attracts more visitors than any other museum in Spain except for the great Prado in Madrid. Brimming with the works of Dali, the museum in Figueras, a monument to Dali and a celebration of him, must surely fulfill the wildest, most wondrous dreams of the surrealist painter. Dali would probably be pleased to hear that an 8-year-old who visited the museum recently pronounced it “fun and ridiculous and stupid and nice.”
Dali is probably the world’s best-known living painter. His works are exhibited in all the major museums of modern art. His place in art history is secure as one of the most talented representatives of the Paris art and literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s known as surrealism. Influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud, these artists believed that art must describe dreams, for only dreams reveal the true imagination of man.
Tarnished at Home
Dali’s popularity and his eccentric dress, waxed mustache and wild quotes have upset other artists over the years. In Spain, his reputation has been tarnished by his unabashed adulation for the late dictator Francisco Franco.
In an interview several years ago, the late Joan Miro, the renowned Spanish painter, was asked his opinion of his fellow painter from Catalonia. “I admired the young Dali,” Miro replied.
Dali’s showmanship and careful draftsmanship and dramatic imagery have helped make him seem easier to grasp than many artists of the 20th Century. Many people who know little about modern art have nonetheless heard of Dali and seen reproductions of his work. This popularity has helped make him a wealthy man. Colleagues have often been contemptuous of his wealth. Andre Breton, leader of the surrealist movement, once mocked Dali’s greed by creating a sneering anagram of his name: Avida Dollars.
None of this ever seemed to discourage Dali, who thrived on parading his ego in public. “Every morning upon awakening,” he once wrote, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonder-struck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali?”
For many years, Dali, the celebrated painter and dapper showman, divided his time between Hotel St. Regis in New York, Hotel Meurice in Paris, and Pubol Castle in the village of La Pera in Catalonia. But events conspired in the 1980s to drive him into seclusion.
Some kind of illness began to weaken him in 1980. Doctors at first diagnosed it as Parkinson’s disease, but they have since changed their minds. The illness does have symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, causing, according to Descharnes, a trembling of the hand and a slight paralysis.
Dali’s spirits plummeted in 1982 when his wife, Gala, died at the age of almost 90. More than a decade older than Dali, the Russian-born Gala, whom Dali had met in 1929 when she was the wife of the French poet Paul Eluard, had seemed to dominate the painter and his work for years as a kind of mother, manager and model. Much of his best-known later work celebrates Gala.
With Gala gone, the depressed and ill Dali slipped into seclusion. His problems were compounded in 1984 when he was seriously burned in a fire in his bed at Pubol Castle. It evidently was caused by a short-circuit provoked by Dali’s continual pressing on a buzzer to call his nurses.
Moves to Castle
After the fire and hospitalization, Dali moved into Torre Galatea, the castle and tower named for his wife near the museum in Figueras. According to his associates, he remains in his room much of the time, is fed through a tube that runs into his nostril, and sees visitors only occasionally.
Descharnes, a French photographer and author of books on Dali, said the artist has not done any work since he completed a series of 26 drawings to commemorate Spain’s acceptance into the European Community more than a year ago. Dali titled the series “We Are the Bull That Has Abducted Europa,” and presented the drawings to King Juan Carlos of Spain.
The seclusion of a great and immensely rich artist, who sees very little of his closest living relative, a younger sister, lends itself to all kinds of suspicion about the people who hover near him.
After a series of articles in the Spanish, French and American press in 1980 accused Dali’s secretary and manager, Enrique Sabater, of mismanaging Dali’s business affairs and using the job to enrich himself, Dali pushed Sabater aside and replaced him with an old friend, the photographer and critic Descharnes. After the fire, Spanish newspapers accused Descharnes of neglect, but they produced no evidence, and a government investigation absolved him of all blame.
The three people closest to Dali now are Descharnes, who commutes between Figueras and his apartment in Paris; Miguel Domenech, a Madrid lawyer, and painter Antoni Pitxot, son of an old friend of Dali. Pitxot lives in nearby Cadaques and sees Dali almost every afternoon. Dali has shown his gratitude by alloting an entire floor of the Dali museum to the works of Pitxot.
On His Own
In an interview, Descharnes insisted that this coterie of associates cannot control what Dali does, not even in matters of health. “We are his friends,” Descharnes said. “We are not his family. We cannot tell him what to do.”
Dali’s popularity, carelessness and, by all accounts, greed have contributed to the creation of a monstrous market in fake Dalis, especially in the United States. Photographic reproductions of Dali lithographs and drawings with false signatures are often sold as original, signed works by Dali. On top of this, there is a brisk trade in Dali-style lithographs done by other artists under what is advertised as Dali’s signature.
In February, a New York County grand jury indicted seven people on charges of selling fake Dali lithographs. Customers were sold photographic reproductions of Dali works--worth about as much as a $10 poster--for $3,000 each. But these indictments barely touched the problem. Michael Stout, a New York lawyer who represents Dali, has estimated that $625-million worth of fake Dali lithographs have been sold in the United States in the last few years.
The Dali print market has long been confused by an old Dali habit of signing blank sheets of lithograph paper, supposedly for artisans to use to run off genuine Dalis from plates in his absence. There are stories that two aides would stand by his side, one pushing a sheet under his pen and the other pulling it away, so that he could sign a huge number in an hour.
Judge Quinta said that when he was a reporter he once discovered that Hotel Meurice in Paris had 50,000 blank sheets with Dali’s signature in its storeroom. A former manager, John Peter Moore, has estimated that Dali signed 350,000 blank sheets in his lifetime.
It is not clear how many of these signed sheets were obtained by counterfeiters. But Descharnes said that the practice of signing blank sheets, which stopped at the end of 1980, was “an open door.”
Fighting the counterfeiters has been made difficult by Dali’s reluctance to involve himself in any legal action against a dealer, partly because of the illness, partly because of a distrust of the courts, partly because of a pride over being faked.
“My problem as an assistant and friend of Dali,” Descharnes said, “is that it is very difficult to have the efficient help of Dali on this. And Dali is the only man who can definitely say that a work is a fake. I give only my opinion.”
The eccentric and playful Dali Museum is the only side of Dali that most visitors to Figueras can see these days. Its genesis reveals a good deal about the flamboyant painter.
In 1960, Ramon Guardiola Rovira, the mayor of Figueras, asked Dali to donate a few paintings to Figueras so that the town museum could have a Dali room. Dali went further than that. He promised to donate enough of his works to fill a whole museum and proposed that the Municipal Theater, destroyed by fire in the Spanish Civil War, be rebuilt to house a Dali museum. The theater had sentimental significance since some paintings of Dali had been exhibited there when he was a student of 14 years of age.
The mayor and City Council agreed to Dali’s suggestion but soon found that dealing with the most famous native son of Figueras could be a bit bizarre. Dali insisted, for example, that a promotional fiesta in honor of both him and the proposed museum feature a bullfight that would end with a helicopter lifting up the dead bull as a sacrificial tribute to “the verticality of Spain.” The dumbfounded town leaders gave in to the demand but were relieved that bad weather prevented the helicopter from reaching the bullring.
Many Spanish skeptics doubted that Dali seriously intended to help create the museum. Their doubts increased when Dali proclaimed that the museum would not contain any of his original works but only photographs of them. “Photos have an advantage,” he said. “They are better than the original works.” After that, Mayor Guardiola wrote recently, “the general feeling was that he was crazy.”
Dali talked so much about a museum of his photographed works that the Spanish government’s Department of Fine Arts decided to stay as far away from the project as possible. In the end, the museum was built only because the Ministry of Housing agreed to pay for the reconstruction. Dali, however, did not hold to his threat. When the museum opened in 1974, it was full of Dali originals, including new Dalis painted on walls and ceilings.
The museum is somewhat confusing since it is not always clear what is the work of Dali and what is the work of his friends. Most visitors, for example, believe that the huge statue in front of the museum is by Dali, but it is really by Francisco Pujols. Yet there is little doubt that the museum is a surrealist’s dream, a whole building fashioned to the artist’s fancy. The most spectacular work is probably the room where Dali has assembled mad furniture that, when viewed through a glass hanging over a stuffed camel, turn into the features of Mae West.
In an era when Spain is proud of its democracy, Dali’s old tributes to the dictator Franco sound embarrassing. He once hailed Franco for “breaking openly with false tradition, re-establishing clarity, truth and order in all the country during its moments of greatest anarchy.”
But most Spaniards are not in a mood to reopen old wounds. In November, Enrique Tierno Galvan, the old Socialist who was mayor of Madrid, came to Figueras to sign an agreement with the ailing Dali to put up a monument to Dali in Madrid based on a sketch by the painter. This act by Tierno, a few weeks before his death, was looked on by most Spaniards as an act of political reconciliation with their eccentric painter.
The atmosphere within Torre Galatea cannot be a happy one. Descharnes said: “Dali keeps saying, ‘I am dying.’ I say, ‘You have been telling me that since 1981; that is a long time.’ He is concerned not so much about dying but about the process of dying.”
Stanley Meisler recently reported this story in Figueras, Spain.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.