Salvador Dali's Illustrations of Dante's 'Divine Comedy' Make a Colorful Impression

While summer blockbusters leave long lines at the theaters, they have long left the museums behind. But there is a big-name (though far from a greatest-hits) show this month at the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery. It's not a traveling exhibition, but rather a donation from alumnus Gary Johnson. And if not a major work, it was no minor undertaking. On display is a collection of 100 prints by Salvador Dali, illustrating each of the cantos from Dante's Divine Comedy. The original watercolors were painted over a span of nine years, first commissioned by the Italian government (to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth), later decommissioned (after public outcry that a Spaniard—whose politics were questioned, if not verifiably questionable—should be awarded the undertaking), and finally published by a French house in 1960, at which time a limited series of prints were produced.

The major hallmarks of Dali's work all make an appearance, and watercolor frequently looks good on him. Here, his formidable draftsmanship, pointing to the Renaissance, is featured prominently in figures that lean toward anatomy studies ("Charon and the Crossing of the Acheron," "The Centaur"). Elsewhere, Dali's well-known warping of objects is used to its usual unsettling effect in more than one scene from Inferno ("The Blasphemers," "Bertram De Horn," and, naturally, "The Men Who Eat Each Other"). Matters of the soul never looked so much like concerns of the subconscious as in "Reign of the Penitents," in which a winged figure examines the, ahem, chest of drawers embedded in his torso, the contents of which we cannot see. And, always a smart colorist, Dali administers a vigorous and effective exercising of the primary colors.

But of course Dante's concern is spiritual, and for the purposes of this series, so, it would seem, is Dali's. A notorious self-aggrandizer, "sincerity" isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of the man who famously showed up to a costume party as the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. But all of Dali's talents are set to careful work in these prints, and there seems to be earnestness, if not outright sympathy, in illustrating Dante's tale of a spiritual journey. Hell is never unknown, but rendered as brightly as the illustrations of Paradiso—sin set in sharp relief. Things get murkier from there. After the delicate musculature and explicit grotesqueries of Inferno, you might be surprised to find that within a scene from Purgatorio a wash of gray forming two vague, shadowy figures is titled "The Neglectful Meets Violent Death." Further along, in "Extravagance," faceless figures are absurdly curved in all the right places, nearly to abstraction. While they may not be designed to induce impure thoughts, the loveliness of the lines makes condemnation tough to muster. Human moments continue, and "Virgil's Last Words" and "Dante's Confession" are easily the most tender images in the collection, made magnetic through a shock of yellow and swirls of blue, respectively.

Scenes from Paradiso are the least tethered of all. While Inferno illustrations feature several of Dali's recognizable vast, desolate landscapes, they quickly become scarce, and by the time you get to heaven, context has disappeared completely, traded sometimes for loose abstraction ("Dante Regains His Sight"), occasionally for portraits ("Dante in Doubt," "The Highest Beauty of Beatrice"). The latter are still ungrounded, but certainly expressive (a word, in fact, that well describes the whole endeavor—expressionistic, even), and gently touching. It's a pity the frames are a bit much.

Even so, the quantity of prints alone leaves the work plenty of impact, showcasing an overall interesting undertaking with a somewhat unexpected tone from Dali, and a pleasantly sleepy superstar summer exhibition.