Author David Francis finds surprising familiarity in the relationship between painter Salvador Dalí and poet Federico García Lorca, brought to life in the new film Little Ashes.
A couple of years ago I was in Paris on a writing fellowship. I was searching for inspiration when I discovered a poem by the celebrated and gay Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. It was his “Ode to Salvador Dalí”: Art is not the light that blinds our eyes -- it’s love…painted like a game of snakes and ladders. After reading the piece, I stared out from my studio window to the Centre de Danse across the street, where a young dancer suspended French ballerinas -- one and then another. He stared back.
When we met in the street later that afternoon, he told me his name was Olivier, that he’d been a young music star in Cameroon, and that he’d been forced to flee the country (or face five years in prison) after he came out of the closet to his audience one night.
In 1920s Spain, when Lorca was a student in Madrid, the penalty for sodomy was 15 years in custody, and still he published his erotic love poems to the eccentric young painter and fellow student Salvador Dalí. Their affair became legendary, inspiring the new film Little Ashes, flush with dreamy scenes of Lorca (portrayed by the Spanish actor Javier Beltrán) and Dali (played by Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame). In one scene their young bodies swirl together under moonlit water as they share their angelic first kiss. In another, in the midst of an attempt at lovemaking, Dali, on the verge of being penetrated, panics. He abruptly departs for Paris, leaving the devastated Lorca behind: And yet I suffered for you. I gashed -- my veins -- white lilies dueling jaws about your waist.
In Paris, after reading Lorca and hearing the rest of Olivier’s experiences, I began writing my own story -- about a young Australian painter who travels to Soviet Moscow, where he falls deeply in love with a dancer. This story, which was also inspired by the time I spent in Moscow in 1984 (when being gay could mean five years in the gulag), grew into a novel, Stray Dog Winter. Dalí writes in his early autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí that in Lorca, “the poetic phenomenon in its entirety and ‘in the raw’ presented itself before me suddenly in flesh and bone, confused, blood-red, viscous and sublime, quivering with a thousand fires of darkness.” Yet Ian Gibson, Dalí’s biographer, dismissed the affair on the grounds that “Dalí was terrified of being touched by anyone,” and Dalí insisted that “Lorca never succeeded in persuading me to put my arse at his disposal,” as if penetration were all that love entailed. Still, in the 1927 photos of Dalí and Lorca on the beach in Cadaqués, they look unmistakably coupled.
Lorca joined the Popular Front and in 1936 was arrested by Franco’s army and executed in a field. Near his unmarked presumed grave outside Alfacar in southern Spain, an olive tree now flowers with quotes from his poems pinned there by visitors.
I promised myself a trip to Alfacar to leave a verse on Lorca’s tree. Instead, I wandered Paris with Olivier and wrote my novel. Last year, when I returned to Paris, I was told that Olivier had disappeared. Immigration officers had arrived at the Centre de Danse, and he was never seen again. As Lorca wrote: From behind the gray walls -- Nothing is heard but the weeping.
I’m back in Los Angeles now, with the lush visuals of Little Ashes still fresh in my mind, trying to write something new. The film’s potent images of the 38-year-old Lorca, blindfolded and buckling in front of a firing squad, are emblazoned in me, exaggerating my fears of what might have awaited Olivier. My dream of traveling south through sunflower fields and orange groves to Alfacar, to Lorca’s poems nesting in the olive branches, has been hijacked. And as for Olivier, am I brave or foolhardy enough to follow my heart or even a story to a place like Cameroon? Lorca, the poet revolutionary, would have gone. Lorca, who lay dead in his prime, his soul intact, while Dalí got old and sold his soul to commerce. The film of their desire for each other has me filled with yearning, unsure if I can weather another lost love by turning it into fiction, while haunted by images of Olivier trapped against gray African walls for being who he is, who I am -- art and politics, and life, feel too inextricably mixed.