Rauschenberg / Dante: Drawing a Modern Inferno

Rauschenberg / Dante: Drawing a Modern Inferno BY Ed Krcma. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 208 pages. $50.

THE VIVID DESCRIPTIONS of human suffering in Dante’s Inferno have long attracted visual artists. It’s no surprise that Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré, William Blake, Auguste Rodin, and Salvador Dalí all tried their hand at depicting the Italian poet’s demonic landscape. That dark world is rich in dramatic occasion (“an old man, his hair white with age, cried out: / ‘Woe unto you, you wicked souls’”) and irresistibly pictorial (“These wretches . . . / naked and beset / by stinging flies and wasps / that made their faces stream with blood, / which, mingled with their tears, / was gathered at their feet by loathsome worms”). In 1958, Robert Rauschenberg, too, wandered into Dante’s world, embarking on a nearly three-year project to illustrate each of the Inferno’s thirty-four cantos. It might seem odd that Rauschenberg, a neo-Dadaist who made assemblages of all-American junk, chose to enter such a decidedly nonsecular domain. In a 1961 essay, his friend John Cage implied that the affinity might not be especially strong, writing that Rauschenberg saw Dante as “an incentive, providing multiplicity, as useful as a chicken or an old shirt.” Yet according to the artist, the poem wasn’t just another piece of cultural detritus to be deployed provocatively, as he did in his trademark Combines; in 1997, he told Rosalind E. Krauss that the work was “a private exercise for my growth and self-exploration to face my weakness. A Test.” It’s easy to imagine Dante, the great poet of the spiritual journey, articulating his intentions in strikingly similar terms.

Robert Rauschenberg, Canto XX: Circle Eight, Bolgia 4, The Fortune Tellers and Diviners, 1960, transfer drawing, wash, and pencil on paper, 14 1/2 × 11 1/2".

Along with watercolor and gouache, Rauschenberg employed a recently developed technique that used a solvent to transfer photos he had selected from magazines and newspapers. By collaging contemporary locales and figures, Rauschenberg pursued an allusive rather than literal interpretation of the poem, achieving images quite unlike other renderings of hell. The action-packed theatrics of, say, Doré’s or Rodin’s underworld yield readily to conventional understanding. But Rauschenberg aimed for subtler reactions; his images register their whiff of brimstone only after the viewer has been immersed in each chaotic—and often opaque—tableau. In this volume, Ed Krčma assists the viewer by sharing his near-epic research: He’s tracked down the sources of the numerous repurposed pictures. Canto XX: Circle Eight, Bolgia 4, The Fortune Tellers and Diviners, for instance, suggests the tumultuous crowd of the damned recognizable from Rodin’s Gates of Hell but is populated by spectators hunting for a lost golf ball as well as some tennis players lifted from Sports Illustrated. Hovering above them are Dante and Virgil, both represented by bare-chested fellows from a golf-club advertisement. And a face that initially appears to be Freud’s (surely a twentieth-century diviner) is identified as art historian Bernard Berenson (another sort of fortune-teller). Has Rauschenberg recast leisure activities and aesthetic connoisseurship as fraudulent endeavors, or are the images just that—shapes meant only to conjure an unsettlingly familiar realm of punishment? Either way—or in both cases—Rauschenberg’s obliquely cast inferno is one that requires us to decipher rather than descend in order to experience its depths.