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Dalí’s Stairway to Heaven

Essay by David S. Rubin

Throughout his prolific career, Salvador Dalí was the illustrator of more than 100 books.  Among the most celebrated of his book illustrations are his portfolios for the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1868-69) and Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-20).

Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) was a favorite literary work among the Surrealists, many of whom found beauty in art and literature devoted to the pursuit of the irrational and the macabre. A poetic novel of sorts that unfolds in a non-linear fashion, Les Chants de Maldoror describes the violent and perverse character of a despicable protagonist who has renounced God, humanity, and conventional morality. In a 2009 book review of Les Chants de Maldoror for the London Independent, Richard Milward wrote that “it is perhaps the most kaleidoscopic, stomach-churning piece of literature you’ll ever come across.”[i]  To illustrate his point, he goes on to explain that the reader will encounter “descriptions of sleepy hermaphrodites (who) rub shoulders with randy octopuses and lice ‘as big as elephants’. When Maldoror, the sadistic protagonist and master of disguises, isn’t giving himself a Chelsea Smile, he’s torturing people or having sex with a female shark (the only living creature with anything in common with him – a violent temperament).”[ii]

Dante’s The Divine Comedy is considered to be one of the most important works in the history of Italian literature. Although it too is a poetic narrative, The Divine Comedy is told sequentially, taking its readers along with Dante on a journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise. In the text, Dante conceives of Hell as consisting of nine circles with steps descending into the depths of the earth, while Purgatory is described as a mountain surrounded by seven circles where souls are purged of their sins in order to reach Paradise, which is made up of nine circles. Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory is the Roman poet Virgil who, upon reaching Paradise, turns him over to Beatrice, who was a woman Dante had met in childhood and for whom he felt Platonic love and admiration. With Beatrice and angels taking him through Paradise, Dante ultimately finds God.

The impetus for Dalí’s illustrations for Les Chants de Maldoror dates to the early 1930s, when Pablo Picasso suggested to the Swiss publisher Albert Skira that he commission Dalí to create a series of intaglio prints for a new edition of Lautréamont’s celebrated book.  Between 1932 and 1934, Dalí produced 44 intaglios for the project, and all but one appear as plates, headpieces, or tailpieces in Skira’s edition of the book. Rather than respond to specific passages of text by Lautréamont, the majority of Dalí’s illustrations are free interpretations and are tied to themes that are prevalent in his Surrealist paintings of the 1930s, which include disturbing visions of sexual violence and death, with a strong emphasis on psychological paranoia and human mortality. One exception where Dalí refers directly to the text is his use of a dissection table as a staging device, since the image can be found in Lautréamont’s description of “the fortuitous encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”[iii] Dalí also depicts the sewing machine in the act of repairing a broken skull in Plate 19.

One of the dominant motifs that can be found throughout Dalí’s portfolio is that of the mutilated human body, shown either decomposing naturally as a reference to death, or being destroyed through acts of cannibalism, with human flesh pierced by eating utensils or protruding bones. Influenced by Freudian psychology, which explains much of human activity in terms of repressed sexual desires, Dalí’s illustrations are loaded with a plethora of sexual references and symbols that parallel Lautréamont’s preoccupation with sexual violence.

Art history also influenced Dalí’s art of the 1930s. In Dalí’s Chants de Maldoror, there are a number of direct references to The Angelus (1859) by the French Barbizon School painter Jean-François Millet. Dali had seen a copy of this work as a child, but had forgotten about it for many years until he came across a reproduction of it in 1929. Upon seeing the image again, he remembered how the painting had made him feel anxious, and wrote an essay in which he analyzed the work using what he called his “paranoiac-critical method”.[iv] For Dali, this process, which he also used when painting, entailed entering into a self-induced state of paranoia to find connections among seemingly unrelated things. In many of his paintings from the period, Dalí’s interpretations of objects often appear as apparitions or optical illusions which suggest that something’s meaning is ambiguous or in flux.

In responding to Millet’s The Angelus, which shows a male and female peasant standing in a field while engaged in prayer, Dalí experienced an uneasiness, as if something was missing. Such feelings were reinforced by having received a letter stating that the painting was supposed to have included a depiction of a coffin with the couple’s dead child. Seeking to solve this puzzle, Dalí requested that the painting be X-rayed by the Louvre’s conservation laboratory and the findings were that Millet had indeed painted out a shape that resembles a coffin. In keeping with the tone of Lautréamont’s writing, Dalí’s representations of The Angelus in the Chants de Maldoror illustrations are highly imaginative and violent, with the Angelus figures shown in various states associated with sex, death and cannibalism, such as being sexually aroused, attacking and mutilating one another, corroding and decaying, and transforming into skulls.

Dalí also incorporates several autobiographical elements into his illustrations for Les Chants de Maldoror. In many of the plates, the open landscape is based on the flat plains or distant mountains of Empordà, a region of Catalonia where the artist was raised. In Plate 1, Dalí introduces the series with a nude portrait of his wife Gala, who holds the eating utensils that appear elsewhere, puncturing or tearing apart human flesh, and two lamb chops, which are repeated throughout as metaphors for human bones. The artist himself appears in a number of plates as a young child witness who seems mystified, confused, and fearful of anything sexual.

By the 1950s, Dalí had embraced Christianity and his interests had shifted to spirituality and mysticism. Accordingly, many of his paintings of the period include representations of the Virgin Mary and the Crucifixion, and his imagery tends to be less macabre than that of his Surrealist period.  It is not surprising, then, that Dalí was excited by the opportunity to illustrate The Divine Comedy, in which Dante accepts God, as opposed to repudiating the idea of a divine being as Maldoror had done.

Dalí was Initially commissioned by the Italian government to illustrate The Divine Comedy in 1950, to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.  Dalí’s hiring for the project became controversial in the Italian Parliament, however, because he was Spanish and not Italian. On top of that,  he had once declared himself “a Surrealist void of all moral values.”[v]  As a result of these concerns, the government sponsorship was cancelled, but Dalí persevered. Already immersed in the project, he offered it to the French publisher, Joseph Forêt, who was happy to produce the portfolio for his Editions d’art Les Heures Claires

Between 1951-1960, Dalí painted 100 watercolors in preparation for the publication of The Divine Comedy. The wood engravings that appear in the portfolio, which was published in 1960, are based on these watercolors. While some of the illustrations for The Divine Comedy reveal Dalí’s penchant for incorporating his own dreamlike visions into the project, the imagery overall is faithful to scenes described in Dante’s narrative. Yet, in comparing the Divine Comedy illustrations with those that Dalí created for Les Chants de Maldoror, there are nevertheless a number of affinities, particularly in the Inferno,where Dante and Virgil encounter the most depraved sinners.

In more than one third of the Inferno plates, Dalí returns to the familiar setting of the plains of Empordà, where he lived during childhood. Some familiar motifs that appear in both portfolios include contorted or elongated limbs, fragmented bones, and the crutch, which in several examples from Chants is used to hold up flaccid body parts, including breasts, buttocks, and penises. In Dalí’s Inferno illustrations, the crutch supports the large nose of a grotesque figure in Imposter, the elongated tongue of the tortured soul in Falsifiers, and the enormous buttock of the woman in Traitors Against Their Hosts.

Also as in Chants, Dalí turned to some of his classic Surrealist art works as image sources in illustrating The Divine Comedy. For Plate 11 from Chants, Dali had appropriated the central figure from his 1934 painting The Spectre of Sex Appeal, a ravaged, mutilated, and headless nude female whose torso with bandaged breasts is supported by Dalí’s familiar crutch.  For his illustration of Dante’s Men Who Devour Themselves, from Inferno, the artist chose to use one of his iconic self-portraits, which he introduced in his 1929 painting The Enigma of Desire–My Mother, my Mother, my Mother, and repeated in The Great Masturbator (1929) and The Persistence of Memory (1931).  Dali also incorporated one of his best known images into the initial illustration for Dante’s Purgatory.  For the Fallen Angel, the female with a chest of open drawers that appears in the paintings The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936), The Burning Giraffe (1936-37) and the sculpture Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936), serves as a perfect metaphor for the purging of sins (hence, leaving the drawers empty).

In a few of the illustrations for Purgatory, Dalí employs some of his signature early stylistic motifs, such as the elongation of limbs as seen in the legs of the gargantuan spider depicted in Leaving the Level of Anger and in the protruding breasts and buttocks of the figures who appear in Lavishness. For the most part, however, Purgatory and Paradise reveal Dalí’s technical mastery of watercolor. In the hands of Dalí as a mature artist, thin transparent washes evoke a convincing sense of mystical light, particularly in examples from Paradise where Dante experiences some of his most religious moments. In Dante’s Ecstasy, for example, Dante and Beatrice appear perched before an earthly cloudy blue sky, with perspectival lines linking them to a Heaven that is illuminated by golden yellow washes. A similar glow bathes the figure of Saint Bernard in the final print from the series.  In this instance the felt presence of a divine light results simply from the contrasting impact of unpainted sections of paper.

In illustrating Les Chants de Maldoror and The Divine Comedy, Dalí explores subjects that were significant to him personally and, in both works, he self-identifies with the central characters, Maldoror and Dante.

As Paul Karlstrom points out in his essay “The Dalí Enigma: Art, Ambition, and Abnormal Psychology,” Dalí was himself filled with sexual insecurities during the 1930s, the years when he worked on Les Chants de Maldoror. Basing his observation in part on Dalí’s self-promotional fictionalized memoir The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, published in 1942, Karlstrom notes that the artist “swore that he never had sex with anyone, and he feared being ‘unmasked’ as impotent . . . It seems likely that Dalí’s relationship with Gala was largely asexual, except in the various and repeated rituals that they substituted for actual intercourse . . . Dalí’s surprising practice—acknowledged and observed—of masturbating during the theatrical spectacles he created in rented palaces with androgynous young men and women, also rented, and presumably in the beginning with Gala’s encouragement as a collaborator, may have been the extent of their conjugal life.  On the other hand, Dalí gratefully claimed that Gala ‘saved’ him by introducing him to ‘normal’ sex.”[vi]

It is hardly a stretch, then, to imagine the young Dalí seeing himself as a sinner, particularly at a time when he was obsessed with Freudian psychology and undoubtedly experiencing some feelings of guilt. In The Divine Comedy, Dalí saw a vehicle for experiencing repentance by projecting himself into the narrative in the guise of Dante.  In his 1951 “Mystical Manifesto,” Dalí refers to himself as an “ex-Surrealist” who has become a mystic who knows how to draw.[vii] “The purpose of mysticism,” Dalí explains, “is mystical ecstasy” . . .” which he describes as being ,”‘super-cheerful,’ explosive, disintegrated, supersonic, undulatory and corpuscular, and ultra-gelatinous, for it is the aesthetic blooming of the maximum of paradisiacal happiness that a human being can have on earth.”[viii]  Indeed, in illustrating Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Dalí may have found a saintly path to finding his own personal redemption.


[i] Richard Milward, “Book of a Lifetime: Les Chants de Maldoror, By the Comte de Lautréamont,” Independent (London), February 27, 2009.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 274.
[iv] Salvador Dalí, “The Tragic Myth of Millet’s L’Angélus: Paranoiac-Critical Interpretation,” written in the early 1930s but lost until 1962 and then published in 1963.  See Eduard Fornés, Dalí Illustrator (Paris: Les Heures Claires, 2016), 105-106.
[v] Fornés, op. cit., 125.
[vi] Paul Karlstrom, “The Dalí Enigma: Art, Ambition, and Abnormal Psychology,” in Fornés, op. cit., 26.
[vii] Finkelstein, op. cit., 363.
[viii] Ibid. 364.