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"You can consider Dante even more of a surrealist than Dali," wryly observes Jorge Luis Gutierrez, director of Miami Dade College's art gallery system and curator of an intriguing exhibit of the Spanish painter's work at the Freedom Tower.
"The Divine Comedy" features 101 Dali watercolor prints commissioned by the Italian government to illustrate Dante's masterpiece on the occasion of the Italian poet's 700th birthday.
Dante, who wrote The Divine Comedy between 1307 and 1321, divided his opus into three parts: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In its pages, he is guided by the Roman poet Virgil into the nine rings of Hell and to the top of a mountain purgatory. His muse, Beatrice, leads him to paradise. Each section comprises 33 cantos. Dali created a drawing for each one.
Dali had been working on the prints from 1951 to 1954 for a deluxe edition of The Divine Comedy to be published by the state press in Rome. But when it was publicly announced, the response to Dali's project in Italy was outrage. Critics argued it was inappropriate for a Spanish rather than Italian painter to illustrate an emblematic Italian work. Worse, Dali was an irreverent surrealist and occasional fascist sympathizer whose public antics had become the stuff of legend.
Dali struck back, inciting scorn by declaring to the press that he had never even read Dante's book. In the end, the luxury tome planned was axed and commemorative stamps were issued by the government. Dali kept the millions of lira the Italians had paid him, and skated with the originals.
Although the project was dead in Italy, Dali was determined to see it completed. In the late 1950s, the painter met French publisher Joseph Foret, who commissioned the series, produced as wood engravings from 1959 to 1963 in Paris. Dali considered the series among the most important of his career.
And at the Freedom Tower, the evidence seems clear that the union between Dali and Dante was a match made in heaven. "Both of them are extremely complex because they have very dense proposals," Gutierrez says. "As you look at these works, it strikes you that both Dante and Dali were geniuses and experimenters who created subtle narratives of surrealism using the absurd and unreal as expressions of reality."
The exhibit is arranged in three separate halls where walls have been painted to complement Dante's Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The first is highlighted in crimson, the second in an odd custard yellow, and the third in baby blue.
The illustrations were created using nearly 3,000 wood blocks to transfer watercolors to wood engravings. The medium was chosen to re-create Dali's subtle washes of color and delicate linear drawing. "To achieve the final product, he created thousands of sketches," Gutierrez explains, "and as many as 35 separate blocks were used to reproduce each of the images."
In the depictions of Hell, one encounters many of Dali's familiar themes, including his melting biomorphs, crutched figures, and twisted limbs emerging from trees and stone. One also immediately notices Dali's talent as a remarkable draftsman and his gift for a dreamlike perception of space.
In Canto 1, Dante appears in the distance cloaked in a scarlet robe while embarking for the underworld. In Canto 3, Dante and Virgil are being ferried across the Acheron by Charon, who carried the souls of the newly deceased to Hades on the river dividing the world of the living from the dead.
For those unfamiliar with Dante's classic, the lack of wall text explaining each work is a drawback. Other than a sign announcing the three separate sections and occasional written remarks noting Dali's approach to the text, one is left to interpret the images.
Dali illustrates Dante's inferno with ghostly apparitions, quixotic sphinxes, and forests of tortured souls. Suicides are transformed into gnarled bushes and ripped at by Harpies. Blasphemers and sodomites are crisped in a boiling desert as fire rains upon them from the sky.
Canto 21 depicts Dante standing before a towering rock from which the tangled, disembodied limbs of a crowd of sinners protrude. Next to it, in Canto 22, Dante coils in horror from a huge, deformed, naked harlot whose enormous ass is propped on a crutch. As one walks through Dali's interpretation of Hell, bony specters adopt increasingly angular postures, hold their severed heads aloft, and decompose into slices of geometric rot.
Canto 30 features a familiar motif of Dali's iconography: two soft faces reminiscent of his famous melting watches. One of them is cannibalizing the other — representing the painter's alter ego, the "great masturbator" symbolic of self-cannibalism and impotence, according to an accompanying statement.
In the first canto of Purgatory, an angel appeared to Dante glowing in a brilliant light that kept the poet from contemplating him. Dali was fascinated with angels and believed in them and "their correspondent in quantum physics," wall text informs.
Dali depicts the nude angel with clawed limbs and ravaged wings, using drawers encrusted into the being's torso to hint at a vision of the interior world. The image is reminiscent of his Venus of Milo with drawers, which he painted in 1936 as an interpretation of Freud's theories. In this illustration, the angel places a lock of its hair in a drawer in its chest; the drawer obscures the angel's gender.
Another illustration that induces shivers is Canto 12, which alludes to arrogance. Dali interpreted it by inventing a monstrous arachnidlike female. As the unsightly strumpet splays her spindly legs like a Hustler centerfold, Dante and Virgil cower behind her.
Each of the levels of purgatory through which Virgil guides Dante corresponds to one of the deadly sins. During the journey, they encounter the proud, who are purged by carrying giant stones on their backs; the envious, whose eyes are sewn shut; and the lustful, who are burning in a wall of flame.
The illustrations of paradise are the most stunning. In Canto 13, Dante and his beloved Beatrice appear together in the sun. Dali paints Dante in front of a crucified Christ as Beatrice kneels, venerating the vision. The scene in this otherworldly image is a metaphor for light as a vehicle of creation.
Dali's scenes of paradise are all the more striking for his ecstatic celebration of color and his ethereal, biblical figures. Unfortunately, making sense of the rich symbolism isn't always easy. But it's well worth the effort.
"We are hoping visitors will become inspired by Dali's exhibition to learn more about Dante and The Divine Comedy and experience the surrealist nature of both their contributions," Gutierrez prays.