THE case would have undoubtedly pleased the incorrigible old surrealist. Directed by a paternity claim, the body of Salvador Dali was exhumed from its tomb in Figueres a few months ago. A DNA test was applied to some fingernails and bones, and the results came in this week. No joy for the claimant, unfortunatly, who was – of course – a TV fortune teller from Gironi.

And to top it all off, Dali’s embalmer proclaimed himself “delighted” that the artist’s famous waxed moustache was still intact and pointing at “ten past ten”. So the estate of Dali – its worth currently estimated at €300 million – remains indivisible.

The most authoritative biography of the artist is titled The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali. For those of us of a certain age, seeing him turn up in the media of the 70s and 80s, “embarrassing” would be the most obvious term.

With his manic eye stare, his rum costumes and castle orgies, his paintings that seem like a download of your worst fever dreams, Dali was the cartoon cliché of the avant-garde artist.

A search on YouTube renders up an excruciating arts documentary from 1972, titled Hello Dali, where the old monster rambles around his self-built castle in Port Ligat, spouting Dadaist gibberish in a variety of semi-military outfits.

Dali was condemned by his former surrealist friends for returning to France from the US after Second World War, declaring his support for Franco and converting to Roman Catholicism. The YouTube doc shows him completing the portrait of a daughter of a general in the Spanish regime of the time.

Yet as his biographer Ian Gibson says, the first third of Dali’s creative life is extraordinary. “Shameful” becomes exactly the right word. Dali’s most memorable art comes from an explosive encounter – between his own psychically and sexually tortured upbringing, and an artistic (and political) movement that saw truth in the eruptions of the unconscious: surrealism.

It’s quite a thought to imagine Dali, with the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and the poet Federico García Lorca, hanging out together as students in Madrid in the 20s. And when Dali encountered surrealism’s great thinker, Andre Breton, it was as if he had been “granted a second birth”. The surrealists were for him “a sort of nourishing placenta and I believed in surrealism as if it constituted the Tables of the Law”.

He certainly brought enough raw material to the movement. Dali was crippled by a sense of his own sexual inadequacy. Perhaps not helped by his mad, cruel father showing him pictures of advanced and untreated venereal diseases, in order to “educate” his son.

Dali turned all this into a theory about the impotency that haunts all great artists (repeated in the BBC doc), given the amount of psychic energy they must divert to their work.

One of his most extraordinary paintings in his vital early years is called, indeed, The Great Masturbator – a fleshy blob studded with various phobic objects for Dali (the locust his most feared). Most of his biographers doubt whether Dali ever had conventional sexual intercourse – he couldn’t stand being touched – which makes the paternity claim seem even more far-fetched.

This sexual condition – which Dali explicitly refers to throughout his career – was the power behind his extraordinary early art. Everything wilts and morphs under its force – even time itself, in the famous melting clocks of Persistence of Memory.

To look at Dali’s pre-war work is to see him as continuous with the greats of the surrealist movement.

His movie collaborations with Bunuel, L’age de Or and Le Chien Andalou, established a whole new vocabulary and grammar for cinema – sexuality and obsession rendered both obliquely and graphically (David Lynch is inconceivable without these films).

And like Duchamp, early Dali could bring his erotic attention to transform any object. His Lobster Telephone became one of his greatest clichés. But if you can strip from your mind the art-store replicas or souvenir key rings, it is still a startling crunch of nature and technology.

Objects like Dali’s Mae West’s Lips couch have, again, become dulled by familiarity (which is partly Dali’s fault). But the desire of the surrealists to seize the conventions of our ways of seeing, and shake them apart by irrational juxtaposition and exaggeration, still seems heroic and admirable to me.

Scotland’s connections to Dali lie most obviously in the Kelvingrove Museum’s display of the Christ of St John On The Cross (currently on loan to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, as part of their forthcoming Dali/Duchamp exhibition). Voted Scotland’s most beloved picture in 2006, critics have been divided on whether it’s a truly devotional picture, or just another surrealist stunt.

I’ve stood before it many times, and my own idiosyncratic reading (a practice Dali would have devoutly supported) is that we are deeply thrilled to take the God’s-eye view of the great sufferer.

And this is a God that hovers close, coldly examining Christ’s muscular pain and contortions, all sumptuously rendered by the Dali technique. I’m not surprised a Glasgow punter attempted to rip it apart in the 60s: it is the most beautiful challenge to pious contemplation.

The other artistic resonance between Dali and contemporary Scotland that (to me) is obvious is in the work of Rachel MacLean. She parallels the twin commitments of Dali – which is to match the best possible artistic technique (for MacLean, live performance with digital enhancement) to a wild psychological and sensual imagination.

MacLean echoes more with the earlier surrealist Dali. Both have an interest in showing the dark, uncontainable passions that roil beneath the surface of societies. It’s interesting to compare a picture like Dali’s The Enigma of Hitler (1939) to MacLean’s Again and Again and Again (this year, and available on Vimeo).

Whether examining fascism or consumerism, both artists are trying to lay bare the emotional underpinnings of these systems – Dali through his dream-like juxtapositions, or Mac-Lean through her mutated cartoon characters. Yet it will be interesting to see if MacLean, who appears in all her video artworks, will cross the line that Dali gleefully broke through – that is, marketing and merchandising his own iconicity.

Dali had been licensing his classic images for years, and had amassed a fortune of hundreds of millions by his death. Dali was also not averse to surrendering himself to the crassest ad campaigns – for airlines, wine, chocolate and (notoriously) Alka-Seltzer. He even designed the logo for Chupa Chups lollies.

Dali’s hustling (like Warhol’s) is a template for the multimillionaire careers of artists like Jeff Koons, Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin or the Chapman Brothers. And like them, the boundary between critiquing commercial culture, and profiting from it, is nearly fully erased.

Dali’s later fall into exhibitionism and brand management is a cautionary tale for any contemporary visual artist. But in this febrile age – where great political shifts and structural upheavals seem to ride on collective mood shifts and unexamined emotions – it seems to me that we could benefit from the surrealist eye once more. Looking under the normative surfaces; seeing what really writhes and squirms beneath.

It’s regrettable that something as crass as a struggle over paternity and property has brought us back to Dali. But I think the great chancer may repay the new attention.

Dali’s The Christ of St John On The Cross will appear at Dali/Duchamp, the Royal Society of the Arts, London, October 7, 2017 – January 3, 2018.