Mining the CUAG Collection: Salvador Dali’s “The Delightful Mount”

By Jimena Martinez Gerhard

You might not be aware, but the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) holds a rare print by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989). The print is part of a series of watercolour illustrations Dali created for the centenary publication of Dante’s The Divine Comedy originally commissioned by the Italian Secretary for Education.

This print, called The Delightful Mount (c.1950s), is the cover illustration of the first chapter from Inferno’s Canto I. At the time, the Italian public was outraged by the choice of a Spanish citizen to commemorate the literary genius and because of this, the Italian government decided to abandon the project. Dali, who already started the arduous work, decided to continue to publish it with Joseph Foret. This collection of prints has been exhibited in Rome, Venice, Milan, New York and Paris.

The Delightful Mount depicts a dream-like figure clothed in red in the middle of an open and bright space walking away from the road and towards a forest in the distance. At the beginning of Inferno, Dante finds himself “again in a dark wood wherein the straight road no longer lay”.[1] The print could symbolize the unknown nature of how Dante arrived to the dark woods the moment when he lost his direction. Dali might have decided to depict the poem before it even began, moving towards the past in Dante’s narrative and symbolizing both his and the reader’s journey that they are about to take.

Known for being a Surrealist painter, Dali’s artistic style began to lean towards Classicism after the 1940s. The Italian Renaissance provided a great source of inspiration in subject matter rather than aesthetic style. For him, illustrating from another text did not cause limitations, but rather helped the unconscious produce images.

Dali’s new classical interest encouraged the artist to fashion himself as a twentieth century Renaissance man. His creative outlets began to expand in fashion, jewellery, magazines and films, leading to the commercialization of his work. This Renaissance inspiration and his recent conversion to the Catholicism might have been a motivation to work on The Divine Comedy. The text is a narrative of a spiritual journey towards heaven, which Dali feared he might not reach due to his apparent lack of faith.

Raymond Jacquet and Jean Tarico, a wood engraving duo were the ones that achieved the unique quality of the print by continuously cutting into the wood blocks to apply a single colour. Finally, the French publishing house Les Heures Claires bought the rights to the prints and decided to produce photomechanical reproductions as well. The success of Dali’s work brought renewed interest to the Italians. We can see this because in 1964 the publisher Salani ordered versions of the deluxe edition.

The print is fascinating when we consider the apparent lack of Surrealist irrationality as seen in the other prints from The Divine Comedy which have multiplying human figures in Dali’s known contorted style. Likewise, previous depictions of Inferno from Sandro Boticelli, William Blake and Gustave Dore differ immensely in the emotions they evoke through the use of dark colours. Dali was interested in the differences between his and Dore’s romantic depiction of hell. When asked about the bright colours in his, he said that a hell where everything is “black as coal mines” is all wrong since “Dante’s hell is illuminated by the sun and the honey of the Mediterranean, and this is why the errors of my illustrations are analytical and supergelatinous with their coefficient of angelic viscosity.”[2]

“The Delightful Mount” commemorates Dante and provides insight into the strange and rather unique mind of Salvador Dali while contributing to The Divine Comedy’s elevation to visual art instead of literature alone. As Carleton students, we are lucky to have such a rare and significant object close to us as we step foot through the gallery’s door.

About the Author: Jimena Martinez Gerhard is RENDER’s undergraduate blog contributor. This is her second year contributing to Render. Jimena is a third year undergraduate student at Carleton University completing a double major in Communication Studies and Art History. Originally born in Mexico, she also lived many years in Costa Rica before coming to Canada.

[1] Alighieri, Dante. “Canto I,” from The Divine Comedy, Inferno. c.1308 – 1320. Translated by Peter Dale, 1993.

[2] Dali, Salvador. Diary entry, 19 May 1960 published in Diary of a Genius. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1965.