Dali & Dante | The Quest for Life’s Meaning

By Eleanor M. Hight

“ Surrounded by countless people who murmur my name and call me “maitre,” I am going to inaugurate the exhibition of my one hundred illustrations for the Divine Comedy at the Galleria Museum. It is a very pleasant sensation, this admiration, that flows over me in magic waves, again and again confounding abstract art, which is dying of envy. When they ask me why I have depicted hell in bright colors, I answer that romanticism committed the ignominy of making us believe that hell was black as the coal mines of Gustave Dore, where you cannot see a thing. All that is wrong. Dante’s hell is illuminated by the sun and the honey of the Mediterranean, and this is why the errors of my illustrations are analytical and supergelatinous with their co-efficient of angelic viscosity. The hyperaesthetics of two people devouring each other can be observed in my illustrations in broad daylight for the first time.  It is a light that is frenzied with mystical and ammoniacal joy.”
-Dali, Diary of a Genius (1965)

The diary entry by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dali is dated the 19th of May, 1960, the day of the opening of his exhibition of one hundred watercolors for Dante’s Divine Comedy at the Musee Galliera in Paris. As flippant as it seems at first glance, underneath the showmanship lies the essence of Dali’s project to illustrate the richly imagined and intensely visual world of The Divine Comedy.  Unlike earlier artists who had been inspired by the work, including Botticelli, Flaxman, Blake, Delacroix, and Rodin, Dali created a new and distinctly Surrealist interpretation of the work. Rejecting the most popular and readily available illustrations of the day, the moody, romantic wood engravings by the nineteenth century artist Gustave Dore (the one artist Dali mentions in connection with this project), Dali chose instead to infuse Dante’s world, as had the great Italian poet himself, with light and color. And in the era of the reign of Abstract Expressionism, he continued to give figuration a powerful raison d’etre. This inventive and original interpretation of The Divine Comedy, issued in a series of wood engravings, shows the quintessential Dali: the Surrealist provocateur, the creator of a complex personal symbology, the Catalan searching for the meaning of life through mysticism, the husband who worshipped the divine image of his wife, and the sublime colorist.

The Divine Comedy all but consumed Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) during the last decade of his life.  Lonely and disillusioned, a political exile from his beloved Florence, Dante used the vehicle of The Divine Comedy to vent his passionate responses to everything from thirteenth century Florentine politics to his quest for salvation at the end of his life.  A long narrative poem, written in the terza rima Dante invented (a verse form consisting of triplets in which the middle line rhymes with the first and third lines of the following triplet), it was the first great work of literature to be written in Italian (rather than Latin), and thus it served as the progenitor of romance languages. The title itself refers to the search for the “Divine,” or spiritual salvation, according to the doctrine of Catholicism (Dali and Dante were, of course, both products of Catholicism) and to the classical dramatic form of the comedy, in which life’s problems are resolved in a happy end. The beauty of its poetry, the rich and complicated imagery that appears to all the senses, the elaborately described settings and fully characterized dramatis personae have captured the imagination of readers, scholars, and artists alike in the six and a half centuries since its completion.

Divided into three sections, the Inferno or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, The Divine Comedy explores the theme of life after death with Dante himself as the main character. The story begins with Dante lost in a dark wood, and the scene functions as a metaphor for what he perceived as his unworthy life and the evils of society. On Good Friday, after a night of painful wandering and soul-searching, Dante meets the Roman poet Virgil, who offers to serve as his guide out of the forest and through the underworld. Virgil, himself the author of an epic journey, The Aeneid, and Dante’s “gentle leader” and “sage master,” stands for Reason and Poetry. Virgil is portrayed as broody and melancholic, for as a pre-Christian he can never see Paradise, while Dante is characterized as a more inquisitive and exuberant personality. The two poets descend into Hell, a horrible cone-shaped pit consisting of nine circles that drop to the center of the earth where Lucifer rules. Hell teems with masses of suffering people, who are punished for their sins by monsters, devils, and other fantastic creatures.

In the second state of their journey, the two travelers emerge from Hell on a beach at the island of Purgatory, a mountain covered with bright terraces where the dead seek forgiveness for their sins. Its atmosphere of peace and hope contrast with Hell’s suffering and despair. Virgil takes Dante up a series of seven ledges, one for each of the mortal sins, to the top of Mount Purgatory. But this, the threshold of Paradise, is as far as Virgil’s human knowledge can take them. Here he gives Dante a new guide, Beatrice. Modeled on a passionate but unrequited love of Dante’s own youth, Beatrice possesses a moral beauty that gives her the power to lead Dante to a state of enlightenment. As they pass through the ten spheres of heaven, Dante meets the souls of the blessed. Arriving at the throne of God, Dante glimpses for a moment the Divine Glory. Although essentially an allegory, the three parts of The Divine Comedy are peppered with actual people and political debates from the poet’s own life.

In the early 1950’s, shortly before the septecentennial of Dante’s birth, Dali was invited by the Italian government to produce a series of illustrations for a deluxe edition of The Divine Comedy to be published by La Libreria dello Stato in Rome. Between 1951 and 1960 Dali created a series of 101 watercolors for the book, which was unhappily never completely realized in its textual form. The watercolors were exhibited at the Palazzo Pallavicini in Rome. However, the reception of Dali’s project in Italy was extremely negative, since it did not seem appropriate for a Spanish (rather than Italian) painter, much less an irreverent Surrealist and sometimes fascist sympathizer, to illustrate a commemorative edition of the greatest Italian poet’s masterpiece to be published by the State Press.

Although the project was dropped in Italy, Dali strove to see its completion. In the late 1950s Dali met the French publisher, Joseph Foret, who had issued Dali’s series of lithographs for Cervantes’s Don Quixote in 1957-58. After viewing a group of the watercolors for The Divine Comedy at Dali’s studio, Foret enthusiastically set out to find support for the creation of The Divine Comedy.  He took it to the well known French editors and book publishers Les Heures Claires where he received equally enthusiastic support for the project. A contract was then made between Mr. Foret and Salvador Dali, and at exactly the same time, between Mr. Foret and Les Heures Claires. Mr. Foret was essentially the broker between Salvador Dali and Les Heures Claires who handled all aspects of the creation of The Divine Comedy and purchased all rights which were assigned by Dali for it. The directors of Les Heures Claires then immediately took full charge of the project; Mr. Riviere, the Financial Director, Mr. Blainon, the Marketing and Sales Director, and Mr. Estrade, the Artistic Director. It was Mr. Estrade’s responsibility to work directly with Dali and the engravers to create the works. The engraver, Raymond Jacquet with his assistant, Mr. Tarrico, created the wood blocks necessary to transfer Dali’s watercolors to wood engravings, a medium chosen because of its ability to recreate subtle washes of color and delicate linear drawing.

In Dali’s case anywhere from twenty to as many as thirty-seven separate blocks were needed to reproduce the watercolors. Although in the 1970s and 1980s Dali’s forays into printmaking were often embedded in controversy, due mostly to the undocumented and seemingly unlimited printing of some of his images, this series of prints was strictly controlled, and the approximately 3000 wood blocks used to create them were destroyed after the printing. Furthermore, it is clear that Dali’s interests in such a project were literary, artistic, and spiritual, rather than financial.

Despite his self-constructed image as an irrepressible trickster and outrageous bon vivant (as is true in his more recent art, the artist’s creation of his own identity was a kind work of art in progress), from his early school days Dali was interested in literature and poetry, which he discussed endlessly with his fellow Catalan, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. As was the case with many artists of the twentieth century, including the Spanish artists Picasso, Miro, and Tapies, he directed his artistic efforts toward creating images inspired by his extensive readings in a wide variety of texts, from Goethe’s Faust and le Comte de Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (a book highly regarded by the Surrealists) to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.  Over a fifty year period he created around 500 prints in a variety of processes (etching, lithography, color wood engraving) that were devoted to literary cycles. However, the prints for The Divine Comedy offer not only his most extensive cycle (101 wood engravings), but they also serve as a kind of summa of both the development of his art and Dali’s relationship to his wife Gala.

Dali must have known earlier visual interpretations of The Divine Comedy, but his is more telling of the transformations his own imagemaking underwent over the first three decades of his career. Divided into three groups of prints related to each canto of The Divine Comedy (thirty-four from the Inferno, thirty-three from Purgatory, and thirty-three from Paradise, plus an additional image called La Danse), the prints demonstrate his evolution from the early grotesque figurations to the mystical paintings that occupied him after the Second World War. Dali’s visions of the world through which Dante and every soul must journey are not merely illustrations of the text. Rather they are his own interpretations from the orientation of his Surrealist method.

In his illustrations of the Inferno, this orientation is made clear. Dali adopted the format of the two small figures of Dante and Virgil observing larger figures used previously by Botticelli and Dore. Dali also derived the physiognomies of the two poets from types used by Dore. However, in the first image, Departure on the Grand Voyage (Inferno 1), Dali’s setting typifies his early Surrealist style with its bleak empty landscape, the rapidly receding perspective, the long afternoon shadows, and the sense of loneliness that many Surrealists adopted from the work of the Italian “metaphysical” painter Giorgio de Chirico. Dante is seen wandering off his path to explore the world of the soul. But rather then beginning as The Divine Comedy had with Dante lost and frightened in the woods, he chose to start his series with the moment when Dante spies the hill illuminated by the early sun and proceeds toward it. Virgil is not present in this image, for ultimately the journey belongs to Dante (or Dali) alone.

As might be expected, Dali quickly became immersed in imagery of the most gruesome kind. Dante’s description of the terrifying existence of sinner’s souls – the carnage, pain and suffering – provides the fuel for Dali’s imagination, but the specific imagery is his own. Prints such as Legs (Inferno 4), At the Edge of the Seventh Bolge  (Inferno 11), Imposter (Inferno 18), Falsifiers (Inferno 29) and Men Who Devour Themselves (Inferno 30) are reminiscent of the strange atrocities that populated his paintings, as well as his etchings for Lautreamont’s scandalous Les Chants de Maldoror, in the 1930s. In order to decipher such repellent imagery, it is important to understand Dali’s aesthetic attitude in the late 1920s and 1930s. As a way to flaunt the importance of aesthetic freedom, to reject traditional social values, and to depict an obsessive interest in dreams and psychoanalysis, many of the Surrealists turned to subjects that were considered taboo, especially those pertaining to sexual fantasies of male aggression (or impotence).

Thoroughly familiar with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams during his student days in Madrid in the mid-1920s (he actually met the Austrian psychoanalyst in 1938), Dali turned to dreams, to sexual fears and fantasies, and to his own hallucinations as sources for his imagery. The result was what he called his “paranoic-critical method,” which he defined as “the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations.” Dali was able to transform his own delusions into visual images through a process of metamorphosis, in which forms evolve into something else and then combine with other fantastic imagery to create new levels of meaning. The free association of seemingly unrelated images, the technique underlying the Surrealist concept of automatism, and the inherent sexual content were anticipated by Lautreamont, whose famous line “as beautiful as a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table” became a kind of mantra for the Surrealists. Adhering to his visual distortions, his anti-aesthetic bias, his imagery of blood, excrement, and putrefaction, Dali created tableaux that analyzed various mental and social conditions. Thus, the inextricable mass of figures and monsters engaged in some kind of sadomasochistic sexual orgy in Legs or At the Edge of the Seventh Bolge can serve to illustrate simultaneously Dali’s psychoanalytic analyses of his own extreme sexual neuroses and the hordes of writhing suffers of Dante’s poem. Or, in Falsifiers, a grotesquely mutilated and contorting figure consisting only of an upper body, is mounted on a base with nails and becomes a gruesome tortured reminder of a specific sin.

As was the case with Dante’s own tale, Dali’s underworld contains images that are part of his own personal iconography. An example of this can be seen in The Dishonest (Inferno 22). Accompanied by a group of Demons on the fifth chasm, Dante and Virgil see a swindler caught below in the rock with his fat organ of a tongue sucked out of his face and draped over the rock in front of him. The ever curious Dante, typically dressed in red (Virgil is always in blue), looks down at the sight. The face of the swindler closely resembles the strange mutated head, a self-portrait Dali used in his painting The Great Masturbator of 1929 and The Persistence of Memory of 1931. In the background the Demons form a row of faded forms, the silhouettes of which repeat the shape of the figure of a peasant that he appropriated from Millet’s painting The Angelus and used repeatedly in the 1930s. One of the most popular nineteenth century paintings, Millet’s painting of 1857-59 depicts two peasants bowing their heads in prayer after a day’s work. Dali’s complicated obsession with this seemingly innocent symbol of piety, of rural virtue and simplicity, was manifested in a number of paintings from the 1930s, etchings he created for Les Chants de Maldoror, and the book The Tragic Myth of the Angelus of Millet, a Paranoic-critical Interpretation that he wrote in 1933 (published in 1963). As an adult Dali remembered contemplating the reproduction of The Angelus that hung outside his classroom door when a small boy in Figueras, Spain. For him the female figure on the right came to represent “the exhibitionistic eroticism of a virgin in waiting – the position before the act of aggression, such as that of a praying mantis.” In the Millet, according to Dali, the male on the left holds a hat over his genitalia as if to protect them from the predator which eats her mate after copulation. Thus, the bending female figure came to represent Dali’s terror of sexual intercourse, his mother, and his new lover Gala, the wife of the Surrealist writer Paul Eluard. This bending figure becomes a kind of spectre of the sinner in The Dishonest, and it appears again in several later images, namely The Beauty of the Sculpture (Purgatory 12) and The Second Level (Purgatory 13).

Dali’s first two images for Purgatory serve as a paradigm for the changes in  subject matter and style that occur in the second part of The Divine Comedy.  The first is an image of The Fallen Angel (Purgatory 1). As is often the case with the Inferno, the pictorial motif of a nude figure with drawers in her body relates to works from the mid-1930s: the painting Anthropomorphic Cabinet, the drawing The City of Drawers,  and the sculpture Venus de Milo with Drawers.  “The unique difference between immortal Greece and the contemporary epoch,” Dali declared, “is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, which was purely neo-platonic at the time of the Greeks, is today full of closed drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable of opening.” Therefore, looking into the drawers becomes for Dali a way of finding out who we are. In this image a person’s search for identity is reinforced as the theme of the poem. In contrast, the second image The Grim Boatman’s Boat (Purgatory 2) presents an entirely different world suffused with a light that obliterates all sharp edges and material qualities.

Some of the most beautiful and moving images come toward the end of Purgatory as Virgil bids farewell and Dante meets his future guide Beatrice. Now the larger scale of  the three protagonists makes them dominate the image, and our attention is focused on their physical, psychological, and spiritual conditions, rather than on a whole scene. In The Last Oratories of Virgil (Purgatory 27) and The Announcement of the Grand Event (Purgatory 30), we observe the Roman poet investing Dante with a crown and mitre in his rite of passage and see Dante weeping when Virgil leaves him. Despite the power of Beatrice’s presence at his side, Dante looks sadly over his shoulder at a kind of unreachable distant memory in Dante’s Confession (Purgatory 31). The soft and sweet mood of love lost and found also pervades Meeting of Dante and Beatrice (Purgatory 29). Here the flowing washes of their bodies (now Beatrice is in heavenly blue) lock together as Dante at last is united with the woman whom in real life he is reputed to have loved since the age of nine. Though they are thought to have come from the same social circle, Dante and Beatrice were each betrothed to another in marriages arranged by their families, and they were never united in life. Beatrice then died at an early age, around twenty-five, in 1290. Now, in his later life and in The Divine Comedy, she has become his spiritual guide and divine inspiration.

The parallels between the Dali/Gala and Dante/Beatrice relationships had not escaped the Spanish artist and his wife-muse during their life in Catalonia, and their interest in Dante must have been a further incentive for undertaking the project. From the first days of their companionship in 1929, Dali saw Gala as his guiding light, and he was devoted to her until her death in 1982.  Always his primary model, Gala became Dali’s Holy Angel and Divine Mother in numerous paintings created after the Second World War. Dante Purified (Purgatory 33) shows Dante in a cavity cut out of the body of an angel, and though her back is to us, the heavenly blue robe identifies her as Beatrice. This motif of placing a smaller form within an open cavity of a figure appears in several paintings, including Dali’s well-known painting The Madonna of Port Lligat, 1949, in which Gala is depicted as a madonna against the landscape around the fishing village where they lived on the southeastern coast of Spain. Dante’s cleansing by Beatrice becomes analogous to his union with Gala.

Dali’s representations of Dante and Beatrice repeatedly reflect his symbiotic relationship with Gala.  In Paradise’s first two images, Dante and The Angel (Paradise 1, 2), they are represented in glorious red and blue washes and are shown facing each other in mutual reverence.  Then in The Opposition  (Paradise 11) the bodies of Dante and Beatrice shatter into hundreds of shimmering fragments as they rise to the immaterial world of heaven. This last work Dali executed in the style of his mystical paintings of the early 1950s, when deeply affected by the explosion of the atomic bomb, Dali devoted his energies to developing a new kind of art that combined religion, mysticism, and current scientific theories on the divisibility of matter.  The techniques of shattering form in some prints and utilizing luminous color washes in others, such as his final image of Prayer of Saint Bernard (Paradise 33), enabled Dali to take his vision of Dante’s world to a true level of “surreality.”

Though an allegory, The Divine Comedy represents Dante’s personal quest for the meaning of life in his last years. Botticelli directed all his attention to illustrating the work late in life, Blake was on his deathbed.  Only Dore, as a true Romantic, conceived his project to illustrate Dante when a young man. Although Dali was only middle aged, his tremendous fear of death, exacerbated as it was by the war, his turn toward mysticism and religious subjects, and his adherence to surrealism and figuration in an era dominated by abstract art gave his series of images related to The Divine Comedy the kind of retrospective and introspective tenor that one might expect at the end of one’s career when death seems near and the future is uncertain.

About the Author

Eleanor M. Hight received her doctorate from Harvard University in 1986 and is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at the university of New Hampshire in Durham. A specialist in twentieth century art, her publications include the article “German Art 1905-1925: Technique as Expression” in German Expressionist Art: Selections from the Rosi and Ludwigh Fischer Collection (Washington University Press, 1987) and the book Picturing Modernism: Moholy-Nagy and the German Avant-garde.