Friday, August 29, 2014

Dalí, Psychoanalysis & Dante’s Divine Comedy

A watercolor illustration of a small figure in red standing in a vast, barren landscape.During the 1950s, Salvador Dalí began working on a series of watercolor illustrations to accompany Dante's Divine Comedy. These illustrations, which follow the trajectory of Dante's journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, were commissioned by the Italian government to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth in 1965. But when word got out that a Spaniard instead of an Italian had been recruited to create the artistic tribute to one of Italy's greatest literary legacies, a general public outcry broke out, pressuring the government to revoke the commission. Undeterred, Dalí pushed forward on his own to complete the series, and found enthusiastic support from the French publisher Joseph Forét. The project was eventually taken up and completed by the French publishing firm Les Heures Claires, which released Dalí’s work in 1965 as a suite of limited edition prints to accompany an exquisitely letter-pressed, six-volume set of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

A title page for "La Divina Commedia."
The prints consist of one hundred color woodcuts, which carefully recreate Dalí’s watercolors, capturing their subtle washes of color and delicate linear drawing. It took the woodcut artists over five years to hand-carve 3,500 wooden blocks. Throughout the printing process, anywhere from twenty to as many as thirty-seven separate blocks were needed to reproduce each individual watercolor.

Dalí’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy are far from a literal engagement with the medieval Italian text. Implementing a psychoanalytic lens, Dalí extracts the metaphoric potential of Dante’s poetry. Dalí’s aesthetic idiom to represent dreams versus reality derives from explorations of the unconscious and subconscious.

An abstracted watercolor illustration of a distorted figure partially nailed to a board.
Most of the Inferno and Purgatorio prints contain motifs referencing the elementary nature of human drives. Dali’s surrealist practice translates man's sins and frailties into unconscious drives. Crutches, bones perforating skin, soft or crystallized bodies, scatological and cannibalistic metamorphoses abound in his interpretation of the medieval text. For instance, Dalí’s interpretation of the twenty-eighth canto in Inferno, "The Hypocrites," plays with the crutch motif, with the naked Caiaphas nailed to the ground. In this print, the crutches indicate social weakness, flaccidity and vulnerability, but most importantly, the evil speeches of hypocrisy. One of the deceitful tongues, which a hypocrite is known to have several of, has been overused and hangs limply over a crutch. Caiaphas grasps desperately at another tongue as he simultaneously clutches his innards spilling from his body. The remaining two tongues are nailed to the floor.

A watercolor illustration of a seated angel looking into the five open drawers emerging from its body.
Another illustration that draws heavily from psychoanalysis and surrealism is the print accompanying the first canto in Purgatorio. In this print, "The Fallen Angel" examines the drawers of his body. This iconography recalls the famous 1936 Venus de Milo with Drawers. Dalí used this sculpture, as well as the fallen angel illustration, to symbolize the ways in which Freud's analytical tools could be used to scrutinize the human soul.

To take a look at Dalí's surrealist illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy, come to Rauner and ask for Presses S153dadi.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Natural History of the Hankey Bird

A Hankey Bird figurine attached to the base of a lamp.Soon after the publication of And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street in 1937, Ted Geisel '25 (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) produced a new creation for a very different audience: the Hankey Bird.  This grotesque, drunken bird was designed to hang on the neck of a bottle of Hankey Bannister Scotch whiskey inviting you to have a drink.

If it seems odd to you, it did to Geisel as well. "There's no sense to it," he said in Sales Magazine (January 1, 1939):
"The bird on the bottle is a replica of an actual bird, developed after years of painstaking cross-breeding in the Seuss Laboratories for a lofty purpose, namely, to produce a carrier pigeon for the Scottish army... a bird so distinctive that it would not be mistaken for a grouse and shot down by near-sighted American millionaires. After fifteen generations of wearing kilts, the Hankey Bird has developed sideburns. But most unfortunately his mating call is characterized by a distinct burr. Our only purpose in leasing him to Hankey Bannister is to finance further scientific effort to de-burr that mating call... not, I assure you, to aid in the crass business of selling whiskey."
We really should have a bottle to go along with our bird. We wrote to Hankey Bannister asking if they had an old bottle (preferably still full) that they could give us, but they did not have any samples.

To see it yourself, ask for MS-1100, Box 3.