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.