Stairway to Heaven

The Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum connects visitors with Salvador Dali

The Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum serves as the inaugural venue for Salvador Dalí’s Stairway to Heaven, an exhibition of the surrealist legend’s sketches and illustrations for novels that exemplify seemingly disconnected portions of humanity: the divine and the surreal.

Certain artworks are recognizable enough to everyone, making what was once considered too bizarre or engrossing is now sold in cellophane at Bed Bath & Beyond. If I say “melted clocks,” you’d have a vision in your head of “The Persistence of Memory,” Dali’s piece de resistance.>

It’s also all I really knew of the artist, whose melted clocks hung above college beds I would sit on while watching some boy play guitar. The exhibit, however, blossomed before me Friday night in ways I did not expect.

One hundred-forty individual pieces are derived from the 19th century poetic prose novel “Les Chants de Maldoror,” and preemptive Italian literary work Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” The latter is the exemplary narrative of Christian mysticism, and the former follows Maldoror, who has denounced conventional morality in favor of violence, debauchery and cannibalism.

We are well beyond dorm bedrooms.

The surrealist drawings feature contortions and desolate landscapes. A lone boy in a sailor suit, Dalí himself inserted into the frame, watches as what would become The Spectre of Sex Appeal points out of the frame. Beyond the obvious. It was while looking at this drawing that I discovered a secret I wish I would have found earlier. Maybe I had but wasn’t ready.

You can’t phone anything in. Even practice. Especially practice.

Some of the works in the exhibit were, at first, rejected for the initial use. First, the Italian Government commissioned Dalí to illustration an edition of “The Divine Comedy” to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the author’s birth. Dalí’s Spanish blood did not please the Italians, who wanted one of their own for the work, and his nihilistic reputation settled it. He would not contribute to the project.

Still, he continued illustrating. Fragments of sketches appear in other paintings and works, perhaps as callbacks or sharpened ideas. He’s put breadcrumbs everywhere. I relate to the obsessive need to make a mark, to say “I was here, and this is how you know it.” I believe we all do.

By 1960, what was once not Italian or hopeful enough suddenly was. The illustrations he was told were not wanted came together for the new edition of “The Divine Comedy,” and at a time when Dalí himself had developed an interest and influence in the spiritual and mystical, specifically Christianity.

I sometimes feel what I write is simply myself talking to myself. The things we make, be it tangible or auditory or visual, are our breadcrumbs. The audience changes, changes again, and so do we. You can’t phone in anything.

I was here, and this is how you know it.


Categories: Ça C’est Bon, Theatre + Art