Salvador Dalí’s Side Project Illustrating Books—Including the Bible
Salvador Dalí was a bona fide global brand before the term became ubiquitous. From the end of World War II until his death in 1989, he was a fixture of the worlds of fashion, art, TV, film, and advertising—the loopy, household-name Surrealist who went to jail for his artworks as a young man, but lived long enough to lend his legendary panache to Hollywood movies and Alka-Seltzer commercials.
Throughout the second half of his life, Dalí had a curious side-project, one that has attracted remarkably little attention from art historians. When he wasn’t designing movie sets or appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, he was illustrating the Western canon: Don Quixote and Macbeth in 1946; The Divine Comedy between 1951 and 1964; the Bible between 1963 and 1964; Alice in Wonderland in 1969; Henry V and Henry VI in 1970; The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel in 1973; and Paradise Lost in 1974. Browsing a shelf of the West’s most renowned titles, it’s surprisingly hard to find one for which he didn’t do the pictures.
If the notion of Dalí illustrating the Great Books doesn’t sound strange to you, consider that this was the same artist who spent 35 days in jail for “anarchist tendencies” and took dead aim at the Catholic Church in L’Age d’Or (1930), the cinema milestone he co-wrote with Luis Buñuel. The naughty provocateur who thumbed his nose at tradition ended up using his gifts to celebrate and preserve Western literary tradition.
To be clear, Dalí’s illustrations aren’t some kind of subversive prank on their stodgy subjects. The luminous watercolors he produced for the Bible are, in the main, earnest renderings of their sacred subjects—a “complete passage through the Christian history of salvation” that shows “something of the spiritual side of Dalí,” according to Holger Kempkens, the director of the Diözesanmuseum Bamberg in Germany, which organized a recent exhibition of all 105 of Dalí’s Bible illustrations. While Dalí did bring his trademark flamboyance to his illustration projects (for Don Quixote, he smeared snails in ink and then let them crawl over his paper), overall, he illustrated too many classics, too well, and for too many years to dismiss his work as a big, ironic joke.
Art history is full of enfants terribles who grow into elder statesmen. And yet Dalí’s career pivot seems especially stark, not only because of his association with Surrealism, but because it occurred during a period when he was rich and famous, and presumably could have undertaken whatever projects he wanted. Few counterculture artists have embraced the canon quite so eagerly.For Dalí’s detractors, there’s a very simple explanation for all this: He was never countercultural to begin with. A typical Dalí hit-job portrays the artist as a hired gun, pledging his services to whichever faction made him the most attractive offer: the anarchists, the Communists, the Surrealists, and, finally, his doting multimillionaire patrons, A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse. He pretended to be political when it suited him, the story goes, but at heart, he was interested in defending the ideology of Dalí-ism, and the more money he could make while doing so, the better. The most famous version of this criticism is also the most concise: In 1939, André Breton, the father of Surrealism, cursed his rival with the anagrammatic nickname “Avida Dollars,” which sounded like the French avide à dollars, or “eager for dollars.”
Dalí’s defenders don’t deny that he was ideologically inconsistent. But who, they ask, expects total consistency from a great artist? More to the point, who actually wants it? As the critic Roberta Smith has pointed out, Dalí’s work continues to dazzle in part because it doesn’t fit into the facile categories of “liberal” or “conservative”—the radical content of his paintings (burning giraffes et al.) is counterbalanced, if not outweighed, by his fidelity to classical perspective and his indifference, at least in the long term, to politics. When Dalí’s Surrealist friends accused him of being soft on Fascism, he declared himself an “anarcho-monarchist.” The further his career advanced, the more appropriate this oxymoron came to seem.
Where other artists settle into dogmatic styles and beliefs as they enter middle age, Dalí can be said to have settled into his contradictions, becoming, as curator Ben Hickey has pointed out, “interested in spirituality and Christianity and mysticism.” He continued to explore shocking, destabilizing themes—forbidden sexuality, witchcraft, the end of the world—but he did so in between the pages of Shakespeare, Dante, and the Bible. His illustrations glorify the Western canon, but also emphasize its eeriness and otherworldliness—after all, what could be more surreal than Alice’s mad tea party or the witches from Macbeth?
Had Dalí’s images for Macbeth been his sole artistic output, he’d still be remembered as a master draftsman. To bring Act II, Scene II to life, he drew Lady Macbeth in profile and her husband head-on, two halves of one gruesome face. His illustrations for Don Quixote are rougher and less illusionistic—studying them, you’re always conscious of their being works on paper, perfect for a novel about a man driven bonkers by his own library. His take on Alice in Wonderland, completed at the height of the counterculture movement, may be his most beloved contribution to the art of illustration; for Lewis Carroll, Dalí eschewed the crispness and lucidity of his earlier work in favor of a dreamier watercolor aesthetic.
He’d return to this aesthetic when it came time to illustrate the Bible, and the results vary between reverential and brilliantly cheeky. His interpretation of the fall of man—one of the quintessential subjects of Western art—features a bland, black-and-white Adam and Eve; the serpent, by contrast, is a clever little imp smuggling color into a dull, faithful world. It’s tempting to see all of Dalí’s biblical illustrations as an exercise in biting the hand that feeds; most of the time, however, Dalí executes something more challenging. He stays true to the Bible’s moral perspective while defamiliarizing his subjects: As Kempkens observes, some of the images seem almost confrontational in their newness, giving viewers the sense that they’re learning about the Creation or the Annunciation or the birth of Christ for the first time. The same could be said of Dalí’s terrifying, hollow-eyed Nebuchadnezzar; his sublimely understated Jonah; or his Virgin Mary, blue robes glowing with divine warmth.
Nevertheless, what goes for Adam and Eve goes for Dalí, too: He traded the dogmatic purity of his youth for the worldly comforts of power, property, and eros. And worldly comforts, as the serpent would say, aren’t all bad—in Dalí’s case, they motivated him to keep producing images that are ideologically muddled, but which, as artworks, are undeniably virtuosic. Somewhere in the clouds, Breton is still moaning about Dalí the sellout, Dalí the betrayer of revolutionary values—then again, what fool would expect consistency from a Surrealist? Thanks to Dalí and—at least in part—his brilliant, challenging illustrations, the movement’s legacy today is staunchly anarcho-monarchist.