Want to see a surreal depiction of Hell? Head over to Colorado Springs.
Not for the city itself, mind you – but rather for an exhibition of prints by Salvador Dali currently on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The prints depict not just Hell, but Purgatory and Heaven as well, or at least the version of them described in “The Divine Comedy,” the epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in 1320. The poem, now considered one of the greatest works of world literature, follows Dante’s imaginative travels through the three locales of the afterlife and doubles as an allegory of the soul’s progress toward God.
In the early 1950s, the Italian government commissioned Dali to paint 101 watercolor illustrations for the poem to celebrate the 700th anniversary of its author’s birth. Italy abandoned the project, allegedly because of public outcry against handing over one of the greatest works of Italian literature to a Spaniard. Dali nevertheless finished the set and produced a six-volume set with the help of a French publisher.
One hundred of Dali’s paintings were reproduced through about 3,500 woodblock engravings, and when the final run of prints was completed in 1974, the blocks were destroyed. In January, 28 of the prints were donated to the Fine Arts Center and are now a part of its permanent collection. Presently, the Fine Arts Center is displaying them alongside the passages of the poem from which Dali drew inspiration.
Divided into the three parts of “The Divine Comedy” – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the prints are unquestionably Dali’s works. Even moderate fans will be able to pick up on the artist’s hallmarks – in fact, several of the images from the Inferno depict people and faces melting and stretching not unlike the famous clocks from “The Persistence of Memory.”
The Inferno is where this exhibition really shines. Dante’s descriptions of Hell provide Dali with ample opportunity to go nuts. In the context of Dante’s underworld, Dali’s images don’t seem that strange. After all, Dante’s portrayal of this place of eternal punishment is already the stuff of madness. Within the story, poetic justice is meted out through tortures fitting the sins of the damned. For example, Archbishop Rugeri, who locked up Count Ugolino and his children until they starved to death, is shown by Dante and Dali in Inferno as having his head eternally gnawed on by Ugolino. Dali’s Inferno prints also feature a number of fantastical creatures, such as Cerberus, the multi-headed guardian of the underworld, and Geryon, a giant who takes on many forms.
Dali’s Purgatorio and Paradiso prints are understandably much calmer and serene. They depict Dante seeking out his love, Beatrice, in Heaven and meeting hosts of angels. Dali’s flair for the surreal is still on display, though, as in “Dante Purified,” in which the viewer gazes at Dante through a large hole in the body of an angel.
Though they don’t tell Dante’s whole story – there are another 72 prints that the Fine Arts Center does not have – the prints are delightfully weird. Their current exhibition lasts until Dec. 31.