Tag Archives: Salvador Dali

The Venus Flytrap: The Exhumation of Salvador Dali

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It’s a suitably surreal story, the kind that would make a fascinating novel (and later, when the author can finally quit her day job after selling the film rights, a good movie too). Picture it: it is the 1950s. In a small Mediterranean village called Port Lligat, a celebrated painter builds a waterfront home where he spends some decades, most of them married to his muse. When not busy with her own work, she poses for him as the madonna, a sleeping nude about to be pounced on by tigers, and herself as a matrix of suspended spheres, among other renditions. The couple are childless, but there are families who live near them who employ a young, married nanny. The painter and the nanny have an affair, and more than sixty years later, a professional tarot reader comes forward and convinces the courts to order an exhumation of the painter’s body to determine whether he is her father, as her grandmother once told her.

So Salvador Dali is to be exhumed, although his estate – worth over 300 million euros – will fight the court order. The big hitch in the paternity suit is that Dali was rumoured to have a phobia of female genitalia. Unlike stereotypical muse-artist relationships, it was his wife, Gala, who enjoyed their open marriage (along with some other atypical dynamics like requiring Dali to receive her permission in writing before visiting her at the private castle she spent her summers in). The plaintiff’s mother, the nanny, is now in her late 80s and suffers from Alzheimer’s, and corroborated the parentage story only a few years ago.

The whole thing is mildly entertaining, but also mildly distasteful. Still, who are we to judge? So many people are still hung up the concept of bloodlines as proof of superiority – or something – and that’s even without millions of euros in the picture.

I was curious about precedents for Dali’s exhumation. The 19th century English poet Elizabeth Siddal, who also posed for her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings, was buried with the only copy of his early literary attempts, and her body was later exhumed so he could retrieve them. Then the poets Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca came to mind. The former had been a civil servant who died suddenly days after Chilean dictator Pinochet’s 1973 military coup; the latter was long known to have been executed, with three others, in 1936 by fascists in a Spanish civil war. Neruda was exhumed in 2013 to investigate murder claims, but when he was reburied in 2016, the mystery remained. Lorca’s corpse has never been found, although over the years numerous excavations have been made to determine where his remains lie.

What’s interesting about the search for the truth about Neruda and Lorca’s deaths is that, unlike the Dali exhumation, they speak to, and are reminders of, a larger cause. Thousands died in the same events, yet we only know of the famous few. And there are mass graves the world over: they contain not just the bodies of the dead who had no rites, but also the pain of the surviving who have no proof.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 29th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Touché ‘Tache

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When Salvador Dali appeared on the 1950’s American TV game show “What’s My Line”, in which a blindfolded panel deduced the professions of mystery guests based on a series of yes/no questions, he was correctly identified by a suggestion one panelist made to another: “ask if he could use his moustache to paint?”

Historically, moustaches symbolized both masculinity and various types of power in many cultures – from the warrior deity Parthasarathy (the only depiction of a Vishnu with whiskers), to Western intellectual elites from Nietzsche to Einstein, the examples are numerous. During the 20th century, they were sported by artists who represented a sort of hypervirility, including Freddy Mercury, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Selleck. The world’s most famous living lady with a beard, the striking circus artist and professor Jennifer Miller, wears hers proudly, saying, “It goes all the way back to Samson and his big mane of power. That’s why men don’t want women to have too much of it in too many places. So, here I am, a gal with a beard, prancing around the streets of New York.”

But does facial fuzz really have the kind of currency it used to? As one website put it, “moustaches are now the style equivalent of wearing a polyester leisure suit on your upper lip”.

It’s not that people don’t have moustaches anymore, or that those who possess them no longer take them seriously, as a walk down any Indian street will tell you – it’s that they’re no longer sexy in the popular imagination. Sure, a Johnny Depp goatee or some George Clooney scruff still warrants a second glance, but full-fledged whiskers are mostly the stuff of caricature.

In the past, emphasizing gender extremes, from rib-crushingly cinched waists in women to the bulging codpieces of Crete and medieval England, was fashionable. Today, trends veer toward something more androgynous – and bless androgyny for what how it frees us, but I wouldn’t mind being blessed, or rather brushed, with some serious bristles now and then! Has the fundamental sleaziness of the hairy face, with all it implies, lost its semi-subversive appeal? Look to typical old pop culture stereotypes: the baddie is bearded, the hero babyfaced. And who doesn’t secretly want the bad guy, with his swagger and his moustache twirl?

I don’t think I’ve ever actually wanted to have a moustache or beard, in spite of the many male accoutrements I have envied, so unlike Jennifer Miller, my contribution to a face fur revival is much smaller. I’ve invented an emoticon that hopefully conveys a sense of the yesteryear hotness of the whiskered man (or woman). I leave it to your imagination: :-{P.

The truth is, though, that my personal favourite story about facial hair relates to its absence. A Caucasian man, the type who probably thought it was enlightened of him to consider the question, once asked me how evil white people are portrayed in Indian comic books, given that villains are always shown to be dark-skinned. I thought it would be funny, because my sense of humour frequently sabotages my biological imperative and I liked him very much, to tell him that maybe they just had beards (like him). He showed up a day later, cleanly shaved. I could see his freshly smooth cheeks turn pink when I asked him why.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.