Salvador Dali’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy are on display at the University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery through July 9th.
In 1957, Dali was commissioned by the Italian government to illustrate the celebrated epic poem by Dante Alighieri, for the 700-year anniversary of Dante’s birth (in 1265.) Though Dali’s Surrealist sensibilities were a brilliant match for Dante’s trip through the afterlife, Italians were irked that a guy from Spain was chosen to illustrate the old Tuscan work and his commission was canceled. Dali finished the set of around 100 paintings anyway and had it published himself in 1960. Whew!
Inferno is where the clearly bad people go when they die, and the pieces are the most Surrealist in this section. Many of Dali’s greatest hits are reimagined here within the constraints of somebody else’s story. Melting clocks become melting heads. Dramatically lengthened limbs and grotesquely oversized body parts are held up by crutches, except these represent the unhappy dead, rather than the outer limits of a psyche that has dreamed itself into existence. Some of the pieces are also reminiscent of other painters–a centaur looks like a Leonardo sketch, and Lucifer looks like Goya’s Saturn in a stupor, mindlessly eating a body with a bone sticking out of his own forehead. There is a gleefully ghoulish air to the voyeurism, whistling in the dark at those who have gotten their comeuppance.
Purgatorio is softer, dreamier, an unpleasant place with less clearly-defined sins and paintings to match. The picture of neglectful people shows a woman who barely bothers to have any borders, a smear of a woman who just can’t get it together. These sinners are hazy, blurry, misty, possibly not even sinners. This is where the people go who aren’t quite bad enough for the regimented terrors of the Inferno but can’t quite make it to Paradiso. This is a lukewarm place for the lukewarm.
Paradiso is beautiful and strange as only Dali could imagine Heaven. Dante’s love Beatrice, saints, and angels await, with Dali’s skewed views of Christian icons emerging. It’s not really happy…but maybe heaven shouldn’t look too good before you get there.
This exhibit works on many levels–as a self-retrospective of Dali’s work, as an introduction or complement to Dante’s work, as an allegorical trip through the afterlife or the inner life, or as a collection of Surrealist and Impressionist paintings representing a single theme. The entire collection of prints was donated to UT’s Ewing Gallery and will be on display until July 9th at the UT Downtown Gallery at 106 S. Gay St. in Knoxville, TN. Gallery hours are Wednesday-Friday, from 11 am to 6 pm, and Saturday, from 10 am to 3 pm. Admission is free. Due to parking issues and road work, this location is not easily accessible but the exhibit is well worth the trek to reach it. For more information, call (865) 673-0802.