Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Drawing Dante

*Sigh* I was very disappointed by Salvador Dalí's illustrations of Inferno. Like T.S. Eliot and his astonishing poetry, Dalí had that uncanny artistic ability to transform the everyday mundane into a fantastically haunted mirror image of itself that nevertheless remains all too familiar. So . . . what happened with Inferno? Dante and Dalí should have been a match made in Paradiso: one, an exile who transmuted his hope and despair into a holy manifesto of truth and revelation; the other, a flamboyant visionary who saw beneath the surface.

So why am I unimpressed with Dalí's rendition of Canto 1? Because it looks like Dr. Suess drew it. Obviously it purports to show Dante departing from the "straight way" but it's too literal and too sparse. Dante is shown literally taking a sharp turn off the path and strolling towards a rather measly-looking grove of a few bushes, several lollipop trees, and a mound of grass. The actual text of Canto 1, however, describes a desperately confused Dante adrift in a dense wood that is "so savage and harsh and strong that the / thought of it renews my fear!" At one point he flees something terrible, turns back, and gazes upon a "pass that has never yet left anyone alive." Threatening beasts abound. He doesn't remember exactly how he got here – he is tired and disoriented and "the sun is silent." Dalí's interpretation, on the other hand, is simultaneously barren and whimsical. Dante's ambling off that path like he means it. A three-year-old couldn't get lost in that little copse. And with all that open, empty space around, Dante would have to be blind to be unable to find his way back.

It is interesting how the Modernist movement in which Dalí took part claimed to be throwing off the dead hand of dull realism and staid academic painting in favor of, as a character in Dos Passos' The 42nd Parallel puts it, disjointed abstraction and surrealism that can truly depict "the violence of our time." Yet it is Gustave Doré, a nineteenth-century French engraver of precisely that stuffy academic school supposedly so out of touch, that does the superior job of illustrating Canto 1. That is a scary-looking forest. Twisted ropes of vegetation blanket the ground; no path is visible. Towering trees form a canopy that blacks out the sky. Spindly root spread like claws over the face of an abrupt cliff. What lies ahead is shrouded in murkiness. It's no wonder Dante was so frightened when all of a sudden Virgil appeared to him and couldn't tell if he was man or ghost. Above all, Dante just honestly looks so very lost and very small.

All Dante quotes are derived from the Robert M. Durling translation of Inferno.


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