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Dalí’s Dante

Ben Lima on a new exhibit in Dallas
Salvador Dali with His Head of Dante

Did you know that Salvador Dalí created 100 watercolor illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy? Ben Lima reviews a new exhibit in Dallas:

In 1951, when Dalí began . . . not only was he was already midway through the journey of his own life, but the torments and trials encountered by Dante and Virgil along their journey must have been powerfully recognizable to the restless and imaginative artist. After his audience with Pius XII, the Italian national library had commissioned him to illustrate a new edition of the epic in advance of Dante’s 700th birthday in 1965, and by 1960, Dalí had produced 100 watercolors, one for each canto of the Comedy.

However, when political backlash led the Italians to back out, Dalí took the project to French publisher Joseph Forêt. Working closely with Dalí for over four years, artistic director Jean Estrade and engraver Raymond Jacquet made resin-block engravings from Dalí’s watercolors for Forêt’s company, Editions d’art Les Heures Claires. One of the resulting 100-print sets was eventually given to the Dallas Museum of Art by the fashion executive Howard B. Wolf and his wife Lois; a selection of 14 of these prints is now on view in a small second-floor gallery at the DMA, in time for the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 2021.

The high technical quality of the works is immediately apparent, not only in terms of Dalí’s virtuosity as a painter, but in the craftsmanship of the printers, who, in order to achieve the full range of colors and tones, reportedly made over 30 impressions for each print (that is, over 3,500 overall). It’s also apparent that Dalí, typically for a 20th-century artist, and by contrast with the great 19th-century efforts of Gustave Doré or William Blake, did not feel himself to be very much constrained by the literal sense of Dante’s text.

In other news: Christopher Hitchens’s wife and his literary agent are trying to quash an unauthorized biography of the late writer. They shouldn’t: “What we can infer from their refusal to cooperate with or respond to the ‘entreaties’ of this ‘self-appointed’ biographer and his publisher, W.W. Norton, is that they prefer a biographer who has been appointed, no doubt by them. In publicly discouraging the publication of a book that has not yet been written because they do not think much of the proposal, they are playing a zero-sum game. Either they will succeed in dissuading Phillips and Norton from moving forward or, more likely, the biography will be published and the publicity generated by their opposition will create the sort of buzz that marketers dream of.”

John McWhorter examines the overblown rhetoric of anti-racist manifestos across America.

Radical Milton? “Poet of Revolution is not a soup-to-nuts biography. Instead, McDowell trains his focus on the development of Milton’s ideas about culture, politics and religion. His answer to the conundrum of Milton’s radical turn has two parts. First, he employs some deft comparisons to show that the young Milton’s conformism was never more than ‘small-l Laudian.’ Second, and with genuine audacity, he argues that Milton’s political radicalism is an offshoot of his poetic vocation.”

Kyle Smith reviews Dear Comrades! in National Review: “Ordinarily an exclamation point in a movie title indicates satiric comedy, especially if there’s a communist allusion, but Dear Comrades!, which is Russia’s entry for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars, is a harrowingly detailed black-and-white portrait of a society in the process of being devoured by its avowed ideals.”

David Patrikarakos on Robert Kaplan and Robert Gersony: “Robert Gersony is a man who indeed did wonders. The son of Holocaust survivors, he dropped out of high school, earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam and then, Kaplan writes, ‘spent 40 years interviewing… over 8,000 refugees, displaced persons, and humanitarian workers in virtually every war and disaster zone on earth’. The results were the ‘Gersony reports’, legendary for their granular detail and on-the-ground reporting, which he wrote for the various arms of the US government (and UN and others) that contracted with him over the years . . . If The Good American is a biography of an extraordinary man, it is also about an approach to the world that has informed Kaplan’s career no less than Gersony’s. Kaplan acknowledges their similarities. Both, he says, are introverts and also ‘cowards’ — by which he means they both felt fear in the many dangerous situations in which they nevertheless chose to remain (which seems to me to be the definition of bravery). Both ‘could have gone wrong’ early in life. Most of all, both were perennial freelancers, in work and ‘in the spiritual sense’. Though each held many affiliations over the course of their careers, neither ever had an institution to call home. Kaplan told me that he decided to write the book because it’s a great story, but also because of something that emerged when the two men had dinner in Washington: ‘I said to [Gersony]: “You’ve been in the State Department your whole life, where did you go to school?” And I expected him to say Harvard, Yale or Princeton or something like that. And when he said embarrassedly, “I didn’t go to college.” I said, “Where did you go to high school?” And he said, “Well, I never graduated high school either. I went to Vietnam.” That’s when it clicked. That’s when I said wow! This is an extraordinary individual.’ Of all the extraordinary things about Gersony’s life, this seems mundane. But it matters a lot. For Kaplan, having neither an Ivy League education nor even a high school diploma means something very specific: being someone who ‘doesn’t quite fit the part’.”

Denis Johnson and death: “Death was Denis Johnsons’ subject: the already dead, the dying but not yet dead and the rush of life in its last seconds.”

Photos: 2021 Dakar Rally

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