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Secluded in a tower, Salvador Dali still bewilders UPI Arts & Entertainment

By
SARAH NICHOLSON

FIGUERES, Spain -- A blank garden wall is now Salvador Dali's sole source of inspiration. Recently, a friend says, he saw Greta Garbo's lips float past.

At 83, the 'Divine Dali' spends hours on end staring out his bedroom window at the wall, but he no longer turns his surreal visions into art.

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Beset by what doctors say are imagined infirmities, Dali has withdrawn to a tower wing of the Dali Museum in Figueres, his native town near Spain's northeastern Mediterranean coast, and he has not ventured from his bedroom in six months.

The tower, designed by Dali and renamed 'Galatea Tower' after his late wife, Gala, is a typical Dalinian extravaganza -- hundreds of plaster replicas of three-cornered bread rolls dot the facade, and the roof is turreted with 12-foot-high plastic eggs.

But beyond the entrance, where private security guards stand watch day and night, Dali lives secluded in spartan quarters -- his bedroom walls are bare and a simple metallic night table stands next to his single bed.

There is little trace of the eccentric Dali, who began making news more than 50 years ago when he appeared at a New York art exhibit wearing a loaf of bread as a hat to expound on the 'paranoic-critical method' of his melting watches and ant-infested sand dunes.

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'He is content just gazing at the wall,' says Antoni Pitxot, 53, a painter who visits Dali nearly every evening. 'He has chosen to be an ascetic now. It is a sign of intelligence to be able to change one's ways at his age.'

Dali, whose paintings draw the highest prices for a living artist, no longer flaunts his 'baroque love of money' that paid for his Cadillacs, suites at New York's St. Regis Hotel, trans-Atlantic cruises and the upkeep of an elephant and an ocelot.

His only whim, his aides say, is to be awakened at 11 each morning to 1920s tango tunes. His favorite -- 'In Dim Light' -- is played over and over as he is dressed and lifted to his armchair.

'A kind of cowardice has overcome the senor,' says Arturo Caminada, Dali's chauffeur and valet of 38 years, whose main task now is to trim the artist's trademark moustache and shoulder-length locks.

'He is afraid to swallow, to walk ... The fear of dying haunts him but he does so little to keep himself alive.'

A feeding tube hangs permanently from Dali's nose because he says he cannot swallow, and his nurses feed him liquids through it every three hours.

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Once a day a physiotherapist comes to lift his legs and bend his knees because he refuses to move of his own accord.

'There is no physical reason why Dali cannot eat or walk, he simply does not want to,' says his physician, Dr. Juan Garcia San Miguel. 'He has found a comfortable chair and has chosen to spend his last days sitting in it.'

Since moving to the tower in October 1984, after he was seriously burned in a fire at his 12th-century castle in the nearby hamlet of Pubol, Dali has shunned visitors.

His secretary, Maria Teresa Brugues, 27, solicitously shows reporters and old friends around the silent tower residence but she invariably explains that Dali regrets that he is 'too tired' to be seen.

In a recently published biography of Dali, American writer Meryle Secrest described an interview two years ago with a pitiful and barely coherent Dali:

'I realized, by the way he banged the arm of the chair as he tried to concentrate, how very tired he was. The effort to put on one more performance was just too much.'

But Dali's entourage of attendants and around-the-clock nurses insist that the 'maestro' is still the lucid genius that he always claimed to be.

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'Dali's mind is very alert and when he wants to be understood. He speaks up clearly. ... He is cranky, but was he ever known for being simpatico?' Brugues asserted.

She says that Dali takes a lively interest in the news and has her read three newspapers to him each day.

'But he does not say much to me. I think he looks down on the rest of us. He reserves his comments for Pitxot,' she said.

'Pitxot, this will kill you,' the fellow painter quoted Dali as saying to him after he learned of the 21-year-old West German pilot who landed in Moscow's Red Square in June.

'That entire monster of defense comes tumbling down when an outstanding person acts with decision. It is enough to kill you with laughter.'

Pitxot's links to the painter go back to his childhood and the close ties between both his and Dali's family. By all accounts, Pitxot is Dali's only friend and the only person who addresses him in the familiar 'thou.'

Pitxot rebuffs reports in the Spanish press that the ailing Dali has been 'kidnapped' by his keepers as 'the typical morbid speculation that has always surrounded him.'

Moving to the tower, he says, gave Dali a new lease on life after he plunged into a dark depression following the death of Gala, his muse and wife of 47 years, in June 1982.

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For two years, he refused to open the shutters at the Pubol castle. One of his last paintings, entitled 'Two nightstands and a bed violently attacking a cello,' reflects the tantrums and the anger that nurses reported during that period.

Now Dali, according to Pitxot, has at least resumed his interest in the world and in his museum. The ancient wall beyond his bedroom window is food enough to fire his imagination and, if he does not paint, it is 'because he does not feel the need to.'

Explaining why he did not want workmen to plaster the wall, Dali recently told Pitxot: 'You know, each day I see new things in the shape of the stones: Raphael, the Emperor Francis Joseph and the lips of Greta Garbo.'

Dali last visited the Dali Museum in August 1985 when he went to see a sculpture he designed -- Gala's small fishing boat set atop a huge pile of varnished truck tires -- but officials say he still keeps a hand in running it.

The museum, which detractors have dubbed the 'Temple of Kitsch,' was opened in 1974. It now draws 370,000 visitors each year, making it the most visited museum in Spain after the Prado.

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This spring Dali designed a plastic hat in the shape of a bread roll that will be sold as a souvenir alongside the Dali thimbles and Gala ashtrays.

Why in the shape of a bread roll?

'Dali says that time will unravel the mysteries of his symbols,' explained museum board member Evarist Valles. 'In the meantime, people will be bewildered. Dali enjoys that.'

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