With the early death of his mother, incestuous feelings for his sister and a lifelong obsession with the promiscuous Gala – Dalí's life was governed by women, reveals Alastair Smart
In the night of 31 August 1984, a fire swept through Salvador Dalí's castle in Púbol, Catalonia. The octogenarian artist, who had been fast asleep, suffered second-degree burns to his legs and groyne. He was taken to Nuestra Señora del Pilar hospital in Barcelona, where he was visited by someone he hadn't seen in over 30 years. Her name was Ana Maria: his one and only sibling.
This was no teary reunion, however. As she entered, Dalí strained every sinew in his enfeebled body to rise from the bed and physically eject her, firing insults all the while. The pair never saw each other again.
What had prompted such animosity on Dalí's part – and also the three-decade silence beforehand? Brother and sister had once been remarkably close, with Ana Maria serving as Salvador's muse for numerous portraits early in his career – not least among them 1925's Figura de perfil (Figure in Profile), which is offered in London at the Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in March.
Dalí and his sister were born in the Catalan town of Figueres in 1904 and 1908 respectively (neither of them met their older brother, also called Salvador, who had died as a baby in 1903). Their father was a well-respected local notary, and the family lived a comfortable bourgeois existence. They owned a summer house in the coastal village of Cadaqués which Dalí called "the most beautiful place on earth".
In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, published in 1942, the artist portrayed his youth as one of constant rebellion – even including a tale of kicking his baby sister in the head on the night Halley's Comet passed. He was, however, so fond of inventing stories – so keen to craft an image of himself as provocateur – that it is impossible to take anything he wrote at face value. (He also claimed, wholly apocryphally, to be descended from Dalí Mamí, the 16th-century Ottoman pirate who had held Cervantes captive for five years in Algeria.)
Salvador and Ana Maria were, in fact, inseparable when young – whether making transfer drawings together in Figueres or swimming in the sea together at Cadaqués. The bond deepened after their mother died of breast cancer, when Salvador was 16 and Ana Maria 13. In her memoirs, Salvador Dalí: As Seen by his Sister, Ana Maria adopts the tone of a substitute mother towards her brother – remembering her "concern about his grades" at school; his "boyish ecstasy" at the Louvre during a family trip to Paris; and her pride at the impression he had made on fellow students at Madrid's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, with his floor-length cape and gilded cane.
Dalí's best friend from his student years was the poet Federico García Lorca. Lorca declared Ana Maria to be "without doubt, the most stunning girl I've seen in my life", and he was bewitched by her cherubic face, coquettish smile and cascades of curly hair.
Her beauty wasn't lost on her brother either, who repeatedly had Ana Maria model for him. The intriguing thing about these images, though, is how little we see her face: Dalí prefered to capture his sister from behind. They include the famous Figure at the Window, now in Madrid's Reina Sofia museum, and the Bonhams painting, Figura de perfil, which featured in Dalí's first solo exhibition in 1925. Both depict Ana Maria indoors at Cadaqués, looking out of a window at the sea.
Some have interpreted the fondness for this pose in art-historical terms, saying Dalí was inspired by Ingres' paintings of women from behind, such as The Valpinçon Bather. The artist himself cited an apparition he'd seen at his bedroom window in childhood: of a mysterious woman with her back to him.
Might there be another explanation, though? Might, as mooted by Dalí's biographer Meredith Etherington-Smith, the relationship with Ana Maria have been incestuous? It's impossible to prove, though a poem he wrote in 1931, Love and Memory, does hint in that direction. In it, he reflects on highly intimate aspects of her anatomy such as "her lips of sex... ready to be touched" and, more pertinently here, "her anus red with bloody excrement".
The origins of the pair's falling-out date to two years earlier. In 1929, Dalí began his lifelong relationship with the sexually voracious Gala Éluard. It was also the year the artist was kicked out of the family home indefinitely by his father, who was furious at the inscription – "sometimes I spit with pleasure on the portrait of my mother" – that Dalí had made on a recent drawing. Not surprisingly, he thought it grossly disrespectful to his late wife. Ana Maria took her father's side, and things were never the same between brother and sister again.
Ana Maria also failed to comprehend the "horribly disturbing" Surrealist imagery Salvador was now producing. It was as if her beloved brother had been lost to satanic forces – and she knew who to blame. Ana Maria loathed Gala, whom she regarded as "a nefarious influence".
Dalí was infatuated, though. According to another of his biographers, Meryle Seacrest, Ana Maria "deeply resent[ed] the appearance of this seductive and predatory woman, who... assumed the role in her brother's life that had been hers".
During the Spanish Civil War, Ana Maria was imprisoned and tortured for 20 days by the SIM (the Republicans' secret service) on suspicion of espionage. She was entirely innocent and remained convinced for the rest of her life that Gala had denounced her.
Dalí and Gala spent most of the 1940s in the US and it seems distance, to some extent, made sibling hearts grow fonder. Salvador and Ana Maria exchanged several letters, including one in which he excitedly recounted his purchase of a Cadillac.
The publication of her memoirs in 1949, however, brought a permanent end to cordial relations. Fiercely protective of his own legend, Dalí was angry at Ana Maria's "manifest falsehoods" – the tweely charming picture she painted of their childhood was at odds with his own account in The Secret Life. He also fumed that she and his father had sold many of the artworks he had left at the family home 20 years earlier. "Isn't it incredible", he said, "that all the obstacles to my career come from my family?"
Dalí senior died in 1950, leaving everything he owned to his daughter. By now, Gala had long since supplanted Ana Maria as Dali's muse (he occasionally depicted her from behind too). It's hard not to see his final painting of his sister, Young Virgin Auto-Sodomised by the Horns of Her Own Chastity, 1954, as a piece of revenge. In this sexualised update of Figure at a Window, Ana Maria is naked, her posterior under would-be attack from flying phallic forms.
The siblings wouldn't see each other again until their curt hospital encounter in 1984. What prompted Ana Maria to visit Salvador again after all those years? Perhaps she finally saw the chance of reconciliation, Gala having died two years earlier. Perhaps, thinking her brother on his deathbed, she suddenly felt the need to say goodbye. The more cynical have suggested she (in vain) fancied a slice of his £100 million fortune.
Whatever the truth, Dalí died, childless, in January 1989, leaving his work to the Spanish state. Ana Maria, who never married, died three months later, also childless.
Figura de perfil, then, harks back to happier times. Long thought lost, it is now believed to have been given by Salvador to his sister, who then presented the work to friends in Barcelona. The painting now appears on the market for the first time. It marks an intriguing period of brotherly love in Dalí's youth, which reveals a great deal – yet conceals a great deal more – about his path towards art-world domination.
Alastair Smart is a freelance journalist and art critic.
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