Numerous illustrations—absorbing, beautiful ones—of both the Vulgate Bible and the Divine Comedy by the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí are now on view (and for sale) at Manhattan’s William Bennett Gallery . “The Spiritual Art of Salvador Dalí” runs through January 9, 2008, and is not easily reconciled with prevailing notions of a supposedly secular century’s art.

At mid-career, Salvador Dalí embraced two chief taboos of modern art: Renaissance-style figurative painting and the traditional imagery of Christian faith. Dalí charged—with characteristic audacity—that his contemporaries might as well be painting with their own excrement, for “their material comes so directly from the tube of their biology without mixing in it even a bit of their heart or soul.” The Surrealist may have been on to something. Not long after Dalí’s statement, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni produced Merda d’Artista , being a canned supply of said artist’s excrement. (The cans, incidentally, were recently purchased by the Tate Modern Museum in London with 22,300 pounds in government funds.)

What caused Dalí to abandon the Surrealist principles he had once embraced? He attributes the change to a new awareness prompted by the atomic explosion of August 6, 1945. “The decadence of modern painting was a consequence of skepticism and lack of faith, the result of mechanistic materialism,” explains Dalí’s 1951 Mystical Manifesto . Modern art painted nothing because it believed in nothing. Instead, Dalí sought to a combine the insights of contemporary physics with Old Masters technique and the Spanish mysticism to which he prayed daily that Picasso, too, would soon return. Dalí’s newfound Catholicism had yet to produce the fruit of humility. “Now the new era of mystic painting,” the Mystical Manifesto concludes, “begins with me.”

Fellow Surrealists were sickened, but not surprised, at Dalí’s religious turn. They had long suspected him of insufficient commitment. Early on, Dalí had been accused of “counterrevolutionary acts” and forced to sign a document stating he was “not an enemy of the proletariat.” Reactions to Dalí’s Catholic paintings read like critical response to Bob Dylan’s post-conversion albums, such as the bracingly Evangelical Slow Train Coming : There was everything from allergic aversion (Said Edward James, “This is about as far from the spirit of Raphael as Walt Disney is from Hieronymus Bosch”) to enthusiastic, popular embrace.

The religious Dalí, even after a reported exorcism in 1947, was still Dalí. The bizarre media antics and notorious extravagance continued. He was, after all, professionally weird. As flower children came of age, fresh bands of uninhibited youth arrived at Dalí’s door for disrobing, inspection, and arrangement. There was ample perversity to be sure, but Dalí was never to be touched and could not even stand the idea of actual sex. And there was Gala, both his chief muse and ruthless exploiter. Following their marriage in the Church, Gala continued her voracious affairs, encouraged by her husband. In short, Dalí’s was one of the century’s messier conversions. We might call it, after one of his paintings, an Explosion of Mystical Faith in the Midst of a Cathedral (1960).

Dalí’s religious period is where many art historians stop paying attention, and where many interested in religion might begin. This was the period that produced the famous Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951). Based on an actual drawing by the sixteenth-century mystic that Dalí was permitted to see at Avila, it was to be, in the words of Dalí, “a Christ as beautiful as the God that He is.” These are the years of The Madonna of Port Lligat (1949), which was shown in a private audience to Pope Pius XII. Using Dalí alone for illustration, one could teach an effective catechism, from Chaos and Creation (1960), one of Dalí’s many films, to The Resurrection of the Flesh (1945). It would include the National Gallery of Art’s Last Supper (1955), The Crucifixion (1954), The Ascension (1958), The Ecumenical Council (1960), and would be wonderfully supplemented by the illustrations now on view in New York.

The paintings on display are a reminder of the necessity of proactive religious patronage. The Biblia Sacra series would never had been executed had not a wealthy Catholic physician, Guiseppe Albaretto, commissioned them to facilitate the deepening of Dalí’s fragile newfound faith. Some of the pieces are straightforward watercolors. In others, Dalí enjoyed what was perhaps the first paintball game—he loaded an antique gun with pigment, fired, and composed around the effects. A quirky method—he called it “bulletism”—but with enduring results. To choose just one example, Dalí’s ubiquitous sexual imagery (he was fascinated with Freud) finds suggestive context in his illustration of the Tower of Babel : A phallic tower purporting, and failing, to reduce everything to sex.

Dalí has joined the ranks of Sandro Botticelli to produce some of the best Dante illustrations in the history of art. In the opening illustration, The Delightful Mount , Dante’s pose is also Dalí’s—having crossed the line of modernity, preparing for a spiritual ascent. In the Inferno paintings, Dalí’s famously contorted explorations finally find a proper context, enabling his works to progress from titillating suggestion to actual communication. Here, the bending and blending of reality is not the revolt against bourgeois rationality that his fellow Surrealists wished such arrangements to be—a truncated vision; instead they represent rebellion against the created order, that is, Inferno . In his famous dismissal of modernity, Art in Crisis , the controversial German art historian Hans Sedlmayr suggested as much. Surrealism corresponds “absolutely with the state which to the Christian is Hell.” It is a statement now dismissed in art historical circles as the dangerous musings of a Fascist, as “tasteless, gothic demagoguery.” Sedlmayr was, after all, once a Nazi. But the Inferno shows that the observation need not entail any connection to Hitler’s 1937 “degenerate art” show. Dalí, quite literally, made the Surrealism-hell connection himself.

The illustrations of Purgatorio , again mirroring Dalí’s artistic path, sport a newfound cohesion. It is a mercy—one might infer—that we awake each morning not to the subconscious contortions of the dream world but to objective reality (however unfashionable it may be). And in Paradiso , the professional provocateur paints with a startling innocence—a directness that also pervades so many of the biblical illustrations. The fire of Dalí’s undeniable talent once burned recklessly, but here glows in the hearth of Christian tradition.

Attending this exhibit is a less dramatic example of what it was like to have seen a similar show several years ago, just a few blocks away from the William Bennett Gallery at the SoHo Guggenheim. On display was not Dalí, however, but the religious art of Andy Warhol. Massive silkscreen variations of Leonardo’s The Last Supper lined the walls, and the initial impression was that Christ had become as much fodder as Mao or Marilyn. But the negative impression didn’t last. For those with eyes to see, there emerged a message. No matter how many commercial logos one plasters over The Last Supper , no matter how the image is twisted, colored, or copied—Christ’s gesture of self-sacrificing love is tirelessly constant. For once, irony lost. It was Warhol’s final and perhaps largest series, almost certainly his finest—the resuscitation of what had become a tired visual cliche.

Warhol, it seems, had an undeniable religious side as well. Like Dalí, Warhol too had a papal audience, when the Pope of Pop briefly met with John Paul II in 1980. Like Dalí, he also hosted scads of libertine youth, but in Warhol’s case, sexual exploitation was remarkably absent. Once he was asked whether the beautiful people who gathered at his studio, dubbed The Factory , excited him. Warhol’s response: “After 25 you should look but never touch.” The theme of the Catholic Warhol has since been beautifully explored (and, by much of the art world, ignored) at book-length by Jane Daggett Dillenberger. There was daily prayer with his Byzantine Catholic mother, the crucifix and prayerbook at his bedside, frequent Mass and service at the soup kitchen. It is difficult not to conclude with Dillenberger that, in the Last Supper series, “the cool and distanced artist abandoned his mask. Warhol finally created paintings in which his secret, but deeply religious nature flowed into his art.”

None of this is to suggest that Warhol was another “Beato Angelico” any more than was Dalí, but simply to assert that both artists were seriously, un-ironically Catholic. What is truly remarkable, however, is not that God meets celebrity artists—but that the ravages of fame leave enough of their selves to be met.

Though the Dalí illustrations now on view are not on the scale of Warhol’s Last Supper , both series are hard material evidence to counter a cherished illusion. The artist Isamu Noguchi represented a main thrust of twentieth century art when, at a Yale lecture in 1949, he asserted, “Religion dies as dogma, it is reborn as a direct personal expression in the arts.” Dalí and Warhol both tell a different story: Art dies as dogma, it is reborn as a direct personal expression in religion.

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com .

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