Dali exhibit is 'Divine' St. John's features works inspired by the Dante epic

January 15, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

"The Divine Comedy," the allegorical poem completed by the great Florentine, Dante Alighieri, shortly before his death in 1321, knocked the socks off his late medieval, early Renaissance readers.

This classic detailing the author's descent through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise with the ancient Roman poet Virgil at his side continues to inspire and challenge us.

Writers like Coleridge, Longfellow and T. S. Eliot have extolled its virtues. The surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was so taken with the poem that he painted some 102 watercolors in 1952, each one illustrating an event of Dante's hair-raising journey.

Forty-one prints of these remarkable works by this one-of-a-kind artist are on exhibition at the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis. They are joined by 10 wonderfully bizarre photographs of the artist taken by Dali's friend and collaborator, Philippe Halsman.

The resulting show, "Dali: The Divine Comedy and the Halsman Photographs," is an eminently worthwhile exhibit that provides an opportunity to contemplate the relationship between these two modernists of their respective ages: iconoclasts old and new.

"Dante was fascinated by the mystical aspects of 'The Divine Comedy,' " said Hydee Schaller, director of the gallery. "Dante wrote of the unrequited love he felt for Beatrice. Dali experienced a unique, intense relationship with his wife, Gala. I think Dali felt that he and Dante were soul brothers."

The prints may surprise those expecting to see the surrealistic hallucinations for which the Spanish artist is best known. Multiple images, the crazy juxtaposition of unrelated objects and the melting watches made famous in his "Persistence of Memory" (1931) are not much in evidence.

"This is another facet of his talent," Ms. Schaller said. "It's a more thoughtful Dali who responded to the images of Dante."

Thoughtful, but often eerie and spookily evocative. In the Inferno, the forms are nightmarish indeed, as in the gnarled, menacing trees of the "Wood of the Suicides." ("The unhealthy branches, gnarled, warped and tangled, bore poison thorns instead of fruit," Dante wrote of this awful place, where the souls of those who committed suicide are tormented for eternity by their sadistic overseers, the Harpies.)

Less intense images emanate from Purgatory, among them a marvelously elongated Arachne, the proud spinner of cloth who challenged Athena and lost.

Paradise yields images of serenity and peace. Particularly striking is a stair-like "Celestial Ladder" marked with only the barest outlines of angels.

Dali's reverence for Dante is palpable. The artist is seconding T. S. Eliot's motion: "Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them; there is no third."

If you are a fan of the madcap Salvador Dali, the Halsman `D pictures are for you. Dali as Cyclopes; Dali fishing off his famed mustache; Dali without a face; Dali with a rhinoceros. It's surrealism with a smile, and it's all great fun.

I'd like to be able to tell you that Dali will never go away again, but the exhibit will only be presented through Feb. 28.

The Gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m., Sundays through Thursdays and Saturdays; and from noon to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays. Information: 263-2371.

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