Between heaven and hell: The Dali exhibit


The walls are lined with heaven and hell.

In between, of course, lays purgatory.

But, in some ways there is no distinguishing between the three as the University of Tennessee Downtown Gallery hosts an exhibit of Salvador Dali’s “Divine Comedy,” illustrations the master artist did to try to somehow entrap the works of Dante Alighieri.

The exhibit opened Friday night and I found myself visiting the gallery Saturday morning, slipping inside to find myself almost completely alone with the illustrations.

In 1950, the Italian government commissioned Dali to paint the illustrations as part of the 700th anniversary celebrations of Dante’s birth.

The poem Dante Alighieri wrote is timeless, a masterpiece in three 

parts looking at “Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso” (Hell, Purgatory and Heaven).

Dali, the Spanish master surrealist, set out to put his own mark on Dante’s piece.

Italians, though, were in an uproar that a Spanish painter was commissioned to show the work of Itay’s greatest poet and instead decided to withdraw the offer. Dali, though, was a fan of Dante’s and kept at the work, doing watercolors on his own and deciding to try to find publishers elsewhere.

Between 1951 to 1960, Dali painted 100 watercolors – 34 illustrating Inferno, 33 for Purgaotry and 33 for Paradise.

As you walk through the exhibit and see the prints gifted to the Downtown Gallery by alumnus Gary Johnson, it is easy to get lost down the path of Dante’s journey.

You can see the nine stages of hell. You see Lucifer and his grotesqueness.

You also see beauty. The wonderful beauty of Dali’s masterful strokes and imagination.

For me, some of his most masterful strokes, images and colors did not come from Paradise, but instead Purgatory. Dali had a checkered past with the Catholic religion, at one point rejecting it.

As I looked at the illustrations made up of Purgatory, I found myself imagining that, for the master artist, perhaps that was what heaven meant to him. Perhaps he made his greatest strokes and evoked his greatest visions to the one place he thought he possibly would make his way to in the afterlife.

The use of watercolors is soothing to the eye. It does not overburden the beholder, instead it draws the eye in peacefully and almost surprisingly. Something grotesque does not seem so at first, until your eye really grasps the vision in front of them.

It is Dante’s inspiration, but very much Dali’s art. 

To me, the two were almost destined to forever be linked together between poetry in ink and poetry in watercolor.

The exhibit runs in the UT Downtown Gallery until March 27.

It is part of the permanent gallery of UT Knoxville’s Ewing Gallery of Art + Architecture.

Cliff Hightower can be contacted at

Published on March 10, 2021

Salvador Dali