A rarely seen collection highlighting some of the illustration work of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí is on view at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Main Art Gallery through Nov. 15.

The Salvador Dalí‘s Stairway to Heaven exhibit is comprised of illustrations originally made for two very different literary works: a 1934 edition of Les Chants de Maldoror, a prose-poem by Comte de Lautréamont, and a 1960 edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.

Scott Sherer, art history professor at UTSA and gallery director for both the university’s Main Art Gallery and Terminal 136 in the Blue Star Arts Complex, said the exhibit represents a singular opportunity for the university community and the city at large to see Dalí like they never have before. 

Sherer said that the body of work on display contains “themes that percolate through different eras of art history.” The exhibit’s breadth stems from the considerable gulf between the subject matter of the two works for which these pieces were created.

For Les Chants de Maldoror – which curator David Rubin describes in an essay on the exhibit as “a poetic novel of sorts that unfolds in a non-linear fashion … [and] describes the violent and perverse character of a despicable protagonist who has renounced God, humanity, and conventional morality” – Dalí tapped into a macabre, surrealist style recognizable for those familiar with his work. 

“Influenced by Freudian psychology, which explains much of human activity in terms of repressed sexual desires,” Rubin writes, “Dalí’s illustrations are loaded with a plethora of sexual references and symbols that parallel Lautréamont’s preoccupation with sexual violence.”

Despite and in part because of the challenging and grotesque nature of the images in the 43-piece Les Chants de Maldoror folio, Sherer sees it as an edifying collection to experience.

“These are dark aspects of the human experience that aren’t typically talked about,” he said, noting that the work is ultimately an exploration of the human condition.

For The Divine Comedy, which Dalí worked on much later in his career, after he had embraced Christianity and moved somewhat past his surrealist disavowal of traditional moral and religious forms, the artist imbued his work with a nearly devotional quality.

The Italian government drew considerable ire when it selected Dalí to illustrate The Divine Comedy to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the poet’s birth. Not only was Dalí not Italian, but his history and reputation as an amoral surrealist provocateur appeared at odds with the project. He was ultimately not chosen to illustrate the project, but Dalí, already enthralled with the work, finished anyway.

The interplay between “an artist’s reputation and the work that they are able to do” that this backstory invites viewers to consider is important and unique, said Sherer. This part of the exhibit, boasting 100 colorful illustration plates, overlaps with the darker Les Chants de Maldoror work in that it also contains “dramatic themes of desire and redemption,” he said. 

Rubin writes that in this work Dalí saw a “vehicle for experiencing repentance by projecting himself into the narrative in the guise of Dante.” In his work on The Divine Comedy, he adds, “Dalí may have found a saintly path to finding his own personal redemption.”

David S. Rubin, former San Antonio Museum of Art Curator and Artist, awaits his turn to speak about his career which took him around the US. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
David S. Rubin

Taken as a whole, Rubin notes that the exhibition finds Dalí exploring personally significant subjects and identifying with the central characters of Maldoror and Dante.

In an interesting instance of interdepartmental cross-pollination, Chris Prosser, composition and music theory professor at UTSA, has enlisted the six budding composers in his New Music Lab to create new musical compositions inspired by the exhibition. The new pieces, in which student-composers will employ unconventional methods of singing or playing musical instruments that result in unusual sounds or timbres, will be performed in a showcase on Dec. 4 at the university’s Recital Hall.

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.