In the middle of the 20th Century, the Italian Government commissioned Spanish painter Salvador Dali to create a homage to their renaissance poet Dante, seven hundred years after his birth. Dali was by no means the first artist to honour the writer. Joining an illustrious list that included Botticelli and Borceló, in choosing The Divine Comedy he would let his surrealism flow in a unity of two great minds from very different times and artistic realms, brought together by Dante’s immortal words on the nature of the divine and human imaginations.
Dali worked for five years on the commission, drawing, painting and designing the system by which the images would be re-produced. In all, some 3,500 wooden printing blocks were made from which the Italian government could publish the watercolours in whatever magnificent form they chose.
Even the great Dali was not immune to the fickle nature of public commissioning, however, and the Italians cancelled their sponsorship, omitting Dali’s efforts from the 700-year celebrations. Eventually the Spaniard's huge work, comprising 97 images, was published by a French publisher in a seven-volume edition alongside the original text, all now on show at CAIXA Cultural.
The exhibition is divided into 3 sections; 'Inferno', 'Purgatory' and 'Paradise'. 'Inferno', which we visit first, is full of contorted bodies, consumed in impossible sexual positions and varying levels of pain. Here, Dali’s surreal genius is revealed, as we thought it might be, in the hellish conglomeration of images he creates. In ‘Purgatory’ we meet depictions of the seven deadly sins, by the end of which 'Paradise' is a welcome depiction of divine light, love and creation.
It is the aforementioned meeting of minds, though, that informs the whole exhibition. As we learn from the texts, Dali held a great interest in Classical and Renaissance history, and here we see him re-interpreting key Classical themes and tropes with his own unique, surrealist imagination. Hercules, with ruptured muscles as he struggles up the mount with his ever-rolling stone and Judas Iscariot, with a mis-shapen green body forced through his skull are just two examples of Dali’s reinterpretation of key Classical and Biblical texts, used as the keystone of Dante’s work, and passed on to Dali.
Dali’s draughtmanship, too, introduces a dialogue between ages and artists as he depicts the Classical muscular figure with exquisite fine lines, only to alter them with his surrealist touch. The Classical bodies become too muscular, turning into horrendous all-enveloping entities that distort and reinvent the Classical trope.
The Divine Comedy marked an important leap between medieval and Renaissance thought. Crucially, by using Latin in favour of the vernacular, it eschewed the language of the people. Dali’s re-invention of the text also marks clearly a time in art history, a pivotal moment of thought in the surrealist imagination and is a fascinating dialogue between the two mediums. This exhibition not only gives us a chance to see this chronically under-shown and little-known work of Salvador Dali, but also to dive headlong into the dark and limitless imaginations of both artists.