One evening the other week, bored with the menu on offer on my usual television channels, I found myself taking a look at Sky Arts. The actress, Samantha Morton, posed like a vampiric shadow in Gothic black, was describing Salvador Dali's long relationship with his wife and muse, Gala, formerly the wife and muse of the surrealist poet, Paul Eluard.
A strange, funny, curiously engaging man, Dali. Those Grand Guignol grimaces and costumes, that signature tache, the melting watches draped over branches in his enigmatic The Persistence of Memory
, those giant white sculptured eggs at Cadaquès in Catalonia, the fortune he made in America when he sold his artistic soul to the Mammon of Madison Avenue and lost caste among his kind as a result, not to mention returning to Spain under Franco.
With his fortune he was able to provide his beloved Gala with everything she might want, including the 11th-century Castell de Púbol he bought for her in 1969. He refurbished and redecorated it, filled it with furniture, paintings and sculptures, but was banished from it when, after 50 years, she eventually wearied of having him around. He could only visit if she gave him written permission in advance. Afraid of her advancing years, she was entertaining much younger men. After she died, he grieved in darkened rooms alone. Not even younger, later muses of his could gain access.
Back in the 1950s, one of my aunts took me to see Dali's painting of The Christ of St John of the Cross
after it was purchased by Kelvingrove Art Gallery. I was perhaps seven or eight. She was immensely excited about it and determined I should see it. I was bemused. I knew nothing about Dali, but I was willing to be hustled along. I forget how we got there from her nice red sandstone house in Alexandria. Probably by train and then by bus or tram.
The painting was displayed all by itself at the end of a long corridor. No crowds disturbed our contemplation of it. I wasn't a pious little girl, nor was my aunt demonstrably so, but she was enthusiastic about the arrival in Glasgow of a painting by this famous contemporary artist. Also, she loved Spain and often spent the holidays of her long widowhood there. It was certainly hauntingly impressive, the figure of Christ seen from above, not suffering but floating dreamlike on a cross that hovered into infinity above a fishing boat beached on the sand at Port Lligat where Dali lived. Influential critics denounced it as sentimental kitsch and Glasgow University students got up a petition demanding the gallery use its money to purchase works by local artists instead.
It's now in a different location in the gallery, with more information, more context. In 2005, in a poll conducted by The Herald
, it was voted Scotland's favourite painting. I prefer his watches, what they suggest about the nature of time, but it remains my first encounter with a distinctive work of contemporary art.
The programme on Dali was followed by one about the controversial portrait of Sir Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland, commissioned by both houses of parliament as a gift to celebrate his 80th birthday in November 1954. The portrait was designed to hang at Westminster after his death in memory of his long life and work in public service. But when he saw a photograph his wife took of it before the grand unveiling in Westminster Hall, he was appalled. He had trusted Sutherland to do him proud and felt betrayed.
From the photographs still extant we know it was a powerful portrait, but it did not conceal the wear and tear of his age. He had had a stroke not long before, which had not been made public. His expression suggested a bad-tempered exhaustion. He made the best of a public occasion he couldn't avoid, quipping with ironic ambivalence that it was 'a remarkable example of modern art'. But the portrait was not how he saw himself or as how he wished to be remembered.
The Churchills took it home with them to Chertwell in Kent, where it was never displayed and requests for it to be loaned to exhibitions were consistently refused. Churchill died in January 1965. When his wife died in 1977, it was understood that she had destroyed the painting herself. However, when her biographer, Sonia Purnell, was researching the story in 2015, she discovered a recording by Lady Churchill's assistant, Grace Hamblin. Hamblin admitted that at some point during the mid-1950s she, with the help of her brother, had, under cover of darkness, taken the painting away to the garden of his house, lit a bonfire and burned it to ashes. Lady Churchill wanted it destroyed at all costs because of the distress it was causing her increasingly ailing husband.
Recently, a Spanish artist was commissioned to try to recreate the original painting with the help of digital enhancement from a photograph by the famous American photographer, Larry Burrows. The programme indicated the meticulous research and painstaking work that went into the attempt, but nothing can truly restore Sutherland's original. It's a most extraordinary story of artistic vandalism, something for which Lady Churchill already had form, having destroyed two previous portraits of Churchill, one painted by Walter Sickert, showing him wreathed in cigar smoke when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1927.
None of us enjoys growing old. Some of us might feel many years younger than we actually are, but a glance in the mirror, an unposed photograph, generally reminds us of the truth. There is a time to accept the need to let go and move on. Telling truth to power, however, tends to carry more important consequences than for the rest of us. The Churchill portrait may not have been flattering, but even Churchill himself acknowledged it had 'force and candour'. He just couldn't accept what it revealed to him about himself. So, whatever its artistic merit, his wife believed it had to go.
Among the world's current strongmen, there's a lot of much more ferocious vanity around: Robert Mugabe in his 90s, allegedly falling asleep in meetings, surrounded by wolfish power brokers; Donald Trump unable to face the fact of a legitimate electoral defeat. And other leaders unable to cope with dissent other than by tear gas and imprisonment: Vladimir Putin attempting to suppress pro-Navalny protesters in Russia, Xi Jinping squeezing the life out of Hong Kong, Recep Tayyip Erdogan locking up anyone with a mind of their own in Turkey, General Min Aung Hlaing emphasising who is boss in Myanmar. Whither democracy in such a world?
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh