Dali in Hell: Improvisations

By Justin Cord Hayes, lasvegasweekly, Sept. 16-22, 1998


Salivador Dali (5/11/04-1/23/89) is best known for 1) his painting "the Persistence of Memory," which contains several melting watches; and 2) the film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), which he worked on with auteur Luis Bunuel.  The film is infamous for the unforgetable spectacle of eyeballs being slashed with razor blades.  Dali co-wrote the film with Bunuel and even acted in it, playing a seminarian.  This last fact serves as a good segue to Dali's impressive "Vision of Hell," on display for the next six months at the Las Vegas Art Museum (9600 West Sahara Ave., 702/360-8000).

What's the connection?  It was a seminarian - whose name is unfortunately lost to history - who requested of Monsignor Harold Colgan that the surrealist be commisioned to paint a vision of hell based on that seen by three children in Fatima to whom Mary allegedly appeared in 1917.  Colgan was enlisted because he was a founder of the Blue Army, a Catholic organization that promotes a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima.  In 1960, Dali began "Vision of Hell" and completed the work two years later.

The story does not end there, however.  "Vision of Hell" is unusual because it "disappeared" for almost 40 years, suddenly "reappearing" in the fall of 1997 - 80 years after Mary's alleged appearance in Fatima.  Various stories arose to explain its disappearance, including that the painting languished in a convent under a nun's bed.  The most likely story is that the painting, which was last seen in 1962 in a travel agency that arranged bus tours to the Fatima shrine, was rescued by a member of the Blue Army who placed it in storage at the organization's headquarters in New Jersey.

The painting belongs to the period in which Dali began to turn away from surrealism to subjects taken from Western tradition, such as "Atomic Leda" (1949), "The Dream of Columbus" (1958-59) and several paintings detailing religious subjects such as "Christ of St. John of the Cross" (1951), "Crucifixation" (1954) and "The Last Supper" (1955).

"Vision of Hell" marks a rare instance of Dali returning to the surrealistic style that distinguished his earlier work.  It features an elongated body pierced  with eight wooden forks.  The forks resemble those I've seen in museums that are used by cannibalistic tribes for the consumption of human flesh.   Seven forks would seem to make more sense, since they would indicative of the seven deadly sins, which are responsible for sending one to hell in the first place, according to Christian tradition.  Or perhaps they represent the fires of hell that are said to consume the spirit incessantly for eternity.

Also in view in the painting is what looks to be a village in the aftermath of (atomic?) war - probably meant as a reminder of the aftereffects of even so-called Cold Wars and finally, floating above and to the right of the central image is the benign figure of Our Lady of Fatima.  So benign is she, that she seems helpless to altar the scene of carnage unfolding beneath her.

Now you can view this impressive ""Vision of Hell" for yourself, right here in Las Vegas.  According to museum President Joseph Palermo, the painting is meant to be a bellweather to test the city's response to art masterpieces.

"("Vision of Hell") is a test, since we aren't sure if Las Vegas will really come out for such work.  That's why we plan to exhibit it long term - for at least six months.  We're working on a deal right now to acquire Dali's Tarot Card paintings - hopefully, we'll have them for March and can have a real blockbuster show featuring Dali."

If the past is any indication of future museum attendance, then the proposed Dali exhibition will be only the first of many such "blockbusters."   According to Palermo, "Getting the museum into its new building and creating a 90-percent-new board to oversee it has been a slow process, but our attendance has tripled in the past year, so we seem to be on the right track."

You can help the Las Vegas Museum of Art to continue on that track by supporting it with your patronage.


Justin Cord Hayes is lasvegasweekly's editorial assistant.