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DANTE, DALÍ and the Divine Comedy

By B. John Zavrel



The first illustration of Dante's poetry: Dante starts his journey to eternity. The first step to this goal is a mysterious hill. There he expected an entrance to the other side of existence.

Copyright Dali-Archive



Rome/Madrid/Port Lligat (bpb) Salvador Dalí is the most successful illustrator of Dante's poetry in the 20th century. Dante Alighieri is Italy's most important poet. He was born in Florence in May, 1265. According to historical documents, he died on September 14, 1321 in Ravenna at the age of fifty-six, where he is presently buried in the monastery of the Order of St. Francis.

Dante's main work is La Divina Comedia (The Divine Comedy). This allegorical and mystical poem contains 100 cantos (songs) with 14,230 verses of poetry in terza-rima (a verse form consisting of three line stanzas with an interlaced rhyme scheme). This form of verse originated in Italy, and was later used among poets of other languages, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), August von Platen (1796-1835) and Hugo von Hofmannstahl (1874-1929).

Beatrice Portinari was Dante's great love, although it remained Platonic until the end of his life. When Dante first saw the daughter of Polco di Portinari when was at the age of nine. She died at the age of 24 years in June, 1290. Dante made Beatrice immortal through his poetry.

La Divina Comedia, written in the dialect of Tuscany, has been translated into a great number of languages, and it is considered to be one of the masterpieces of world literature. Many artists of the past century have made illustrations for this monumental poem. Among them, the most outstanding and most beautiful illustrations are those created by Salvador Dalí.

The reproductions in this catalogue have been ordered by art historians according to the sequence as envisaged by Salvador Dalí and his publisher, Joseph Forêt. Some experts on Dante might no doubt like to rearrange some of the motifs to correspond more closely with the poem's verses. However, the International Committee EKS has recommended that for the "Dalí Year 2004," the original order as envisaged by Salvador Dalí be used. The ongoing international controversy amongst literary critics and art historians regarding the proper sequence of the motifs has been disregarded for the purposes of this publication.

Thus, illustration No. 41 in the Purgatorio is titled "The Face of Virgil," yet the observer sees a female form in the portrait. An image of Beatrice? Perhaps. In 1976, Joseph Forêt and Joe F. Bodenstein discussed the question of which order the woodcuts should be presented. Forêt stated that Dalí did match the watercolors to the text, but more so emotionally than literally. "No doubt it may be that a certain motive would better suit a different verse. But that is unimportant, since ultimately Dalí's pictures allow for various interpretations."


A legend in his lifetime

Salvador Dalí was a painter who has became a legend in his lifetime. For the illustrations of the Cantos, 100 watercolors were selected from a body of works much greater than the final cycle. In addition, a large-format illustration was added, which shows Dante. It has become known as "The Dance." Furthermore, watercolor No. 63 (Encounter between Dante and Beatrice, Purgatorio, 29th canto) has been printed on hand-made French paper with the Arches watermark. Both of these representative graphics were published outside the small-format series of the 100 motifs, and were offered for sale separately.

The watercolors, selected by Dalí and his wife Gala, served as proposals for the woodcut experts Raymond Jacquet and Jean Taricco. These most gifted craftsmen worked for many years to transfer Dalí's visions--under his guidance--into the new medium of woodcutting. According to experts, approximately 3,500 printing plates were created, each 25.5 by 18.2 centimeters. The first edition from Joseph Forêt (Jean Estrade, Les Heures Claires, Paris) is dated 1960, and 4,765 books were published. The Dalí woodcuts of the Divine Comedy were published in various editions. Among them was a deluxe edition of only 33 exemplars in a satin box, which were mostly kept in reserve by Joseph Forêt. Watercolors were added to this edition.


At the beginning of this unique journey, Dante is confronted with a beauty. In this motive for the Inferno illustration, the geniality of Dalí as a painter is to be seen.

Copyright Dalí-Archive



Some of the portfolios of the 100 woodcuts included one suite of decompositions, which were required for the printing of the unusual graphics. One of these will be exhibited in 2004 during the exhibition on the occasion of the 100th birthday anniversary of the master. The curator of the Dalí Archives of the EKS, Detlef Lehmann, has expertly arranged and labeled the sequence. Thus it is possible that the viewer can have a feeling for the development of one such woodcut: the problems associated with the printing procedures in all the stages will become more understandable. In order to reach the final stage, each illustration needs thirty or more color tones, thus a unique luminosity and color effect are achieved for the woodcuts in this original edition. The woodcuts look remarkably like watercolors. Thus, Dalí has with his Divine Comedy created a unique, total work of art in the 20th century, the quality of which has not been surpassed. Since then, there have been neither the craftsmen in Europe so technically and artistically talented as to be capable of producing such etchings or woodcuts, nor a publisher who would finance such a demanding and expensive project.


103 watercolors for the publisher

Originally, the illustration of the Divine Comedy was planned as a commission by the Italian government for the Dante Anniversary. But at the last minute, the commission was cancelled. In the end, the project was realized by private publishers thanks to the initiative of Joseph Forêt.

There exists a certificate by Salvador Dalí, hand-signed in blue crayon, dated August 13, 1959. It confirms the handing over of 103 watercolors for the illustration of Dante's poem. The pictures were created over the years since 1950. Finally, in 1960 it became certain that the plan could be realized. But the work on the "Publication of the Century" began a long time before 1959. The preparation of the printing plates took many years.

In addition to the colored woodcuts, there was the intention to publish Dalí's sketches as etchings in another edition. However, this book with black and white etchings was only produced in a very limited edition. Back then, there was not enough demand for such a book. For that reason, even the authorized exemplars were not all printed.


Signed and unsigned sheets

Salvador Dalí signed some of the portfolios of the colored woodcuts. In addition to 150 numbered and hand-signed graphics for the German-speaking lands (including Switzerland), signed exemplars for France, Italy and the United States are known to exist. In general, the signed prints have the following color signatures:


Cycle: The Hell. 34 prints; red signature

Cycle: The Purgatory. 33 prints; violet signatures

Cycle: The Paradise. 33 motives, blue signatures


Joseph Forêt owned a limited number of woodcuts with signatures in black and red ink. This kind of signature is given by artists to their publisher and collaborators, most often free of charge. Usually, such a signature is combined with the initials H.C. (horse commerce)--which means "not for sale." The other possible mark seen is E.A. (épreuve d'artiste). It means "the exemplar of the artist." Such graphic works are much sought after by collectors.

The publisher Jean Estrade also had a number of woodcuts, signed in pencil, but without any such marks. Furthermore, "Les Heures Claires" had a number of woodcuts to which Dalí added small drawings in pencil, ink or ball-pens: small landscapes, boats, horses, figures. These precious miniatures were sold out at once.


Three great artists of the 20th century admired the poet Dante and his Divine Comedy: Ernst Fuchs, Arno Breker and Salvador Dalí. These three friends of "The Golden Triangle" are seen in this photograph in Dalí's home at Port Lligat in Spain in 1974.

Copyright Dalí-Archive / Marco-VG



So far, there exists no publication which contains the entire graphic works of Salvador Dalí. In the case of the Divine Comedy, we do not know all of the facts surrounding it, such as how the illustrations were made and what happened to the plates. Even the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí in Spain is not yet able to give clear answers about all the graphic editions, their sizes and signatures, since the size of Dalí's artistic work is so extensive. We still do not know of all the graphic works made after Dalí's designs.


Dalí felt to be Dante

With respect to the Divina Comedia, it appears that Dalí often identified himself with Dante. His preoccupation with Dante took place over many decades. Many, many times Dalí and his mistress, wife and muse Gala have found themselves repeatedly reflected in the life and in the story of Dante and Beatrice. Dalí said of himself that he had used his "hyper-aesthetic paranoia-critical method to try to approach the world of chastity and spirituality of the angels."

This enabled him to illustrate, in a unique way, the overwhelming poetry of the Divina Comedia describing the imaginary journey of the soul after death. Dalí created thirty-four watercolors for the Inferno, thirty-three for the Purgatory, and thirty-three for the Paradise. One additional watercolor was transformed into a woodcut and published on a larger-size hand-made paper with the watermark "Arches." This edition of prints titled "La Danse" is signed in pencil and in blue crayon.

In a meeting with sculptor Arno Breker in 1974, Salvador Dalí revealed that he had never read the original Italian text of the Comedia. However, he used the French versions, as well as the Spanish translations. "Of course I did not study the Comedia from the first to the last lines. But from the fragments I grasped at once the whole complex of the poetry and its message."



© PROMETHEUS 100/2005


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Copyright 2005 Museum of European Art

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, News, Politics and Science.

Nr. 100, OCTOBER 2005