Hell: Departure for the Great Journey

Dalí’s Divine Comedy

Dallas Museum of Art
Through February 21, 2021

All artwork: © 2020 Salvador Dalí
Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By Ben Lima

Growing up in the town of Figueres, in Catalonia near the French border, Salvador Dalí was born in 1904 to an anticlerical father and a Catholic mother. From an early age, he knew the power of art to channel powerful experiences.

When he later wrote about the long winter evenings in the Christian Brothers’ school in Figueres, waiting for the bell to toll the end of the day, he recalled that “my imagination was in fact constantly guarded by five sentinels, faithful, frightful, and sublime”: the two cypress trees outside; the two praying figures in the reproduction of Millet’s painting Angelus; and “God in the person of Jesus Christ — yellow, nailed to a black wooden cross standing on the brother’s table.” About Millet’s painting, he wrote that “this painting produced in me an obscure anguish, so poignant that the memory of those two motionless silhouettes pursued me for several years with the constant uneasiness provoked by their continual and ambiguous presence.”

Hell: The Men who Devour each Other

Perhaps building upon such tensions, by the time Dalí finished his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid and fell in with the French Surrealists in the late 1920s, his work had moved in a decidedly anticlerical direction. The Surrealists, along with Dalí and his art-school friend and collaborator, filmmaker Luis Buñuel, took the Freudian line that bourgeois repression, specifically including both Church dogma and sexual chastity, must be transgressed and overthrown in the name of liberating the individual.

Accordingly, the two notorious Surrealist films made by Buñuel in collaboration with Dalí made the Church an object of mockery. In Un Chien Andalou (1929), Dalí played a bumbling, clueless priest, while L’Age d’Or (1930), for which Dalí co-wrote the screenplay, aroused furious right-wing protest for its blasphemous final vignette, which juxtaposed a Christ-like figure with motifs from the Marquis de Sade. As part of the Surrealist avant-garde, Dalí achieved international fame and notoriety, as throughout the 1930s he made the uncanny, dreamlike paintings for which he remains best known today, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931).

Purgatory: Avarice and Prodigality

But by the end of the 1940s, he had definitively parted ways with his former avant-garde comrades. Officially expelled from the Surrealist movement in 1939 over his commercialism and embrace of the victorious Francoists in the Spanish Civil War, he left for the U.S., where he worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. In his 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, he announced his return to Catholicism and to classicism. As he returned to Franco’s Spain in 1948, and obtained an audience with Pope Pius XII in 1949, Dalí’s new direction was seemingly well established — one that would soon lead to his widely seen Catholic paintings of the 1950s.

However, Dalí’s story is not quite as simple as a “return to order,” although some might have seen it that way. Quite unlike most classicists and neo-classicists, Dalí never lost his penchant for the bizarre; his canny showmanship (which cast doubt on his sincerity); nor his amateur enthusiasm for modern science. For instance, in his rather eccentric program of “Nuclear Mysticism,” Dalí claimed that the strangeness of matter at the subatomic level, as revealed by modern physics, could be the basis for the mystical experience of saints such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, thus reconciling science and religion.

Paradise: Opposition

Most of all, despite embracing the institution and traditions of the Church, Dalí consistently denied that he had faith. In his 1942 autobiography, he wrote, “At this moment I do not yet have faith, and I fear I shall die without heaven”; as late as the 1970s, he said, “I believe in God but I don’t have faith. I know, thanks to mathematics and science, that God must exist, but I don’t believe it. It’s terrible. I get closer all the time, but I don’t believe.” This was the ambiguous position from which his later works emerged.

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In 1951, when Dalí began making the first of his 100 watercolor illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, not only was he was already midway through the journey of his own life, but the torments and trials encountered by Dante and Virgil along their journey must have been powerfully recognizable to the restless and imaginative artist. After his audience with Pius XII, the Italian national library had commissioned him to illustrate a new edition of the epic in advance of Dante’s 700th birthday in 1965, and by 1960, Dalí had produced 100 watercolors, one for each canto of the Comedy.

However, when political backlash led the Italians to back out, Dalí took the project to French publisher Joseph Forêt. Working closely with Dalí for over four years, artistic director Jean Estrade and engraver Raymond Jacquet made resin-block engravings from Dalí’s watercolors for Forêt’s company, Editions d’art Les Heures Claires. One of the resulting 100-print sets was eventually given to the Dallas Museum of Art by the fashion executive Howard B. Wolf and his wife Lois; a selection of 14 of these prints is now on view in a small second-floor gallery at the DMA, in time for the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 2021.

The high technical quality of the works is immediately apparent, not only in terms of Dalí’s virtuosity as a painter, but in the craftsmanship of the printers, who, in order to achieve the full range of colors and tones, reportedly made over 30 impressions for each print (that is, over 3,500 overall). It’s also apparent that Dalí, typically for a 20th-century artist, and by contrast with the great 19th-century efforts of Gustave Doré or William Blake, did not feel himself to be very much constrained by the literal sense of Dante’s text.

Purgatory: Leaving the Terrace of Anger

Just to take one obvious example of this, at the very beginning of the poem, Dante finds himself within a dark wood, having lost the straight way. Dalí, however, in his illustration for Canto 1 of the Inferno, shows the pilgrim in a wide-open space, only a few steps away from the straight path directly behind him, and still far off from the wood in the distance, which he has not yet entered. Likewise, his illustration for Purgatorio, Canto 17, is dominated by an enormous woman-spider, recalling the mythological Arachne, whose connection to Dante’s text is at best obscure. Or again, at the beginning of Purgatorio, where Dante has the pilgrims rowed across the water by a silent angelic boatman, Dalí chooses instead to show a seated, introspective “fallen angel,” seated in sunken isolation and preoccupied with a series of open drawers which emerge from its body.

Although Dalí’s somewhat fanciful approach means that, unlike Doré, he can’t be considered a wholly reliable artistic guide to the text, his preoccupations can nevertheless make for a striking accompaniment to the poem’s vision. In Inferno, Canto 30, the impostor Schicchi is reduced to a cannibalistic beast, sinking his teeth into the neck of his victim; Dalí’s illustration for this scene shows two of his characteristically flabby, shapeless Surrealist heads locked together in bloody congress as they drip over the edge of the wall.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Dalí’s renderings of the Inferno and Purgatorio is the artist’s vivid sense of the psychology of sin — a sense which surely must have fed into his own disavowal of faith and been intertwined with his transgressive and erotic obsessions. The isolation of the pilgrims in vast, empty, featureless spaces, defined only by thin, red, perspective lines; the bestiality of human lusts, culminating in cannibalism; the angel’s alienation from his own fragmented body — in each case, Dalí translates a spiritual reality into a visible form.

Purgatory: The Fallen Angel

Similarly, what most marks Dalí’s interpretation of the Paradiso is the sublime light that suffuses each of the spheres as the pilgrims ascend toward the divine presence — a light that comes, as Dante ultimately concludes, from “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” In his opening illustration for Paradiso, Dalí shows the forms of Dante and his beloved Beatrice facing, and embracing, each other. As their bodies dissolve into scores of shimmering fragments (recalling Dalí’s interest in the “mystical” properties of matter as revealed by nuclear physics), Beatrice’s form is pierced by rays of golden light from above (recalling Bernini’s rendering of St. Teresa). Here Dalí offers the merest glimpse of a transcendence of earthly finitude.

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Along with representatives of the secular avant-garde, Protestant critics, ranging from Francis Schaeffer, to Paul Tillich, to David Lyle Jeffrey, have been highly skeptical of Dalí’s “Catholic turn,” pointing not only to his professed lack of faith, but to doubts about his basic sincerity and about the overall coherence of his program. By contrast, Catholics, ranging from Pius XII to the theologian Michael Anthony Novak, have been more willing to grant Dalí a place within the broad mystical tradition. Meanwhile, the public at large has always been enthusiastic; Dalí’s Catholic paintings in Milwaukee, Glasgow, New York and Washington remain enormously popular.

Although Dalí’s ambition in the end outruns his ability to resolve all the contradictions that his work contains (quite in contrast to Dante), his attempt at the Divine Comedy is at least a reminder of the slow, cumulative, step-by-step nature of life as a pilgrimage, and that despite the notorious postmodern “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” the Dantean story is capacious enough for just about everyone’s biography to fit inside of it. In the light of divine love, and granted the right Beatrice and Virgil, even the worst Surrealist can find himself on the way back to the straight path.

Ben Lima (@lectionaryart on Twitter) is an art historian and critic, and a parishioner at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.