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"Salvador Dalí: Dante's 'Divine Comedy'"

The persistence of "Comedy"

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Some stories seduce artists throughout the ages. There is a robust tradition of artistic interpretation of Italian writer Dante Alighieri's epic poem, "Commedia," known these days as "The Divine Comedy." The work has been an irresistible subject for such visionaries as Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré, William Blake, Franz von Bayros, Tom Phillips, and Robert Rauschenberg. Even Disney and the cartoon "Futurama" have referenced the work, providing testaments to its lasting relevancy as a cross-cultural treasure. Through March 29, you can see a complete set of "Divine Comedy" illustrations created by the iconic surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí, at the Tower Fine Arts Center at SUNY Brockport.

In anticipation of the 700th anniversary of Alighieri's birth, in 1957 the Italian government commissioned Dalí to create a complete set of illustrations, one for each canto of the "Divine Comedy." But soon after the artist began planning imagery for each of the 100 watercolor paintings, the government withdrew the commission under pressure from Italian citizens who were peeved that the job went to a Spanish artist rather than one of their own. Undeterred, Dalí continued the work, finishing the hundred works in nine years without funding or even a guaranteed publisher, trusting that support would come.

Soon after, the images were painstakingly translated into a set of wood engravings by expert engravers overseen by Dalí and Jean Estrade, artistic director of Parisian publisher Les Heures Claires. This task required about 3,500 separate plates to be etched for the 100 prints, with 40 or 50 blocks for some of the more complex and colorful images, according to provided information. The skillful translation was so complete, capturing every brushy stroke and watery wash, that I marveled that the prints on display at Brockport were prints at all and not, in fact, the original watercolors.

Very few of complete sets of Dalí's "Divine Comedy" prints remain together today, as images were sold individually throughout the decades. The set shown at Brockport is on loan from the Ewing Gallery at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and was donated by UT alumnus and businessman Gary Johnson, who wanted the suite to remain together in a university setting, according to provided information.

The exhibit is straightforward, with the prints ringing the gallery in perfect order and grouped under titles reflecting the three "books" of the poem: Purgatory, Inferno, and Paradise. There is no interference to the flow of the images other than an introductory essay that provides some background information on Dalí and how the suite of prints came to be. I enjoyed the uninterrupted imagery, but more than once overheard another viewer say that the experience would be enhanced if each image was paired up with its corresponding verses, and I couldn't help but agree.

The unbridled imagination and vision of the Spanish surrealist is well suited to Dante's beloved, bizarre trip through the allegorical mindscapes of Purgatory, the crucible circles of Hell, and the several spheres of Heaven. Dalí began his tribute to "Divine Comedy" with "Purgatory 1, The Reign of the Penitents," which has a winged, broken creature absorbed in intense self-examination, expressed here through its peering into drawers that have slid out from folds of flesh. This motif of the living chest of drawers is just one part of the symbolic language found here that is echoed in other works by Dalí.

Through his characteristic toying with spatial relationships, grotesque distortion of the body, and incredible imagery, Dalí perfectly conveys the depth of emotional experience as he guides us through Dante's many encounters and revelations. In pieces such as "Purgatory 20, The Avaricious," Dalí makes use of the surrealist style he called "paranoiac vision," in which human features emerge from components of the landscape to leer at the traveling poet and the uneasy audience alike.

As with much of the artist's work, Dalí offers up surprises in his many interpretations of the tale. His version of the intimidating ferryman seen in "Inferno 3, Charon" is not the mysteriously cloaked wraith we have come to expect, but instead a robust, nude man who bears the souls across the Styx. In "Inferno 6, Cerberus," the traditionally three-headed, beastly hound that guards the gates of Hell is a rearing, kinetic mass of inky circles that dwarf the poet. Under Dalí's hand, The Furies are a mere suggestion of electrified streams of light attacking a body, evoking a strangely potent horror nonetheless.

The scenes of Paradise are equally bewildering, and showcase Dalí's skills in storytelling through what is fully formed and in focus, and what is left pointedly vague and thus subtly nagging, difficult to dismiss.

No work of art is created in a cultural vacuum, and though these prints were inspired by the poem that reflects Dante's time and personal trials, Dalí's own experiences are symbolically evident as well. The Spanish artist successfully tempted his wife and muse, "Gala" (Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) away from her previous husband and child, so I viewed the particularly graphic nature of the punishment of the subjects in "Inferno 15, The Seducers" with a keen eye. And I was intrigued to notice that elements of Dalí's "Inferno 27, Lucifer," bear a startling resemblance to "Saturn Devouring His Son," a wrenching work by Dalí's near-contemporary and fellow Spanish painter, Francisco Goya.

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