Eugene Paul Nassar
In my Illustrations to Dante's Inferno (Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 1994), I argue a position towards illustration which will perhaps seem too limiting to some: that "closeness to the Dantean text in tone and detail, to his complex attitudes and his descriptions, ... in summary must be the common-sense definition for the good Dantean illustration. " I had in fact argued the case earlier in an article in Bulletin of Research in the Humanities (87:4, 1988), and again in Dante Studies (CXI, 1993), the latter dealing with the iconography of Hell frescoes and paintings in Italy just prior to and in the two centuries after the appearance of Dante's Divine Comedy. I note in the earlier article and in the book that with the rise of Romanticism, and especially with the work of William Blake, the dominant impulse in artists of major talent has been to use the Inferno for one's own artistic purposes, rather than to illustrate (''illustrate'': to light up, to illuminate) the subtleties and complexities of Dante's text and purposes. Both impulses I assert, are laudable, but should not be confused with one another.
Recent artists of the stature of Rico Lebrun and Renato Guttuso have managed, as, say, Delacroix managed earlier, to create major art works while creating true illustrations, remaining faithful to profound attitudes in Dante's text. Others, I argue, have not been inclined to the truly illustrative, but to what I have called a "complete personal recasting" of the Inferno to create their own personal, perhaps major, artistic statements. Among these are Salvador Dali and Robert Rauschenberg. I want here only to sketch my reasons for not including these artists in my anthology devoted to illustration of Dante's Inferno. I hope my respect for the work of each will be clear, while at the same time I make equally clear my sense of what the definition of "illustration" ought to encompass.
Dali's watercolors for the 100 cantos of the Divine Comedy date from 1951-2 and appeared in a six-volume French edition (1960-4), converted by two master craftsmen (under Dali's supervision) to the process of "color-xylography. " The watercolors are fairly late in Dali's career and often use personal imagery developed in his earlier work, as, for instance, dresser drawers extending out from a torso, an extended buttock held up by a crutch, elongated arms and legs extended into space. Some of the images are visual references to previous Dante illustrators' work (Doré's wood of the Suicides and Geryon, J.A. Koch's snake-entangled Thief, Yan Dargent's Satan) as well as to Picasso and other contemporaries. Dali clearly has his own metaphysic musings and symbology involved in these drawings. The question is, how involved is Dali in illustrating Dante's attitudes and imagery?
Dali's drawing for Canto 14 (fig. 1) can, I think, serve as an example of the artist's methodology in the series of drawings. Dante's canto deals in part with the Blasphemers against God, who suffer in Hell under a rain of fire. The major sinner characterized in the canto is Capaneus, who defied the Gods as he scaled the walls of Thebes. He is depicted by Dante as still defiant of God's authority in Hell, refusing to show pain or even admit his circumstances. For this he is despised by Virgil: "Only your own rage/ could be fit torment for your sullen pride. "
William Blake found in Capaneus an icon for his own sense of being oppressed by the Christian establishment and so makes of Capaneus a radiant, heroic figure, an illustration not of Dante's Capaneus, but his own. Dali's Capaneus is not in Dante's dark place of raining fire, but in a lighted, geometrical metaphysical space we see often in the artist's work. The enormous tongue with teeth obviously represents the blasphemer's tongue, which has reduced him to a flaccid cripple, upheld by a crutch at one end, and flowing over a boundary at the other. The symbol is simply a meditation on the idea of blasphemy, and could have been created without the Dantean imagery at all, pure Dali. The case is not always as extreme, but there is no question that the enormous zest in Dali for his own symbologies and his own whimsy are the primary driving forces in the Inferno drawings, not a desire truly to illustrate Dante's text. He is not necessarily in disagreement with Dante, as Blake often is, but generally doing his own thing with themes supplied by Dante.
Robert Rauschenberg's drawings date from 1959-60 and were published in a limited edition of 300 copies in 1964. Rauschenberg's work of the Fifties were generally semi-abstract, large, colorful, beautifully composed collages of "found" objects or images. The 34 Dante drawings are small, approx. 12" x 15", and are composed of images suggested by Dante's text which are taken from magazines, books, and other print media, and impressed into the drawing by a method of solvent transfer, lighter fluid used to lift the image from its source and rubbed onto the drawing by means of a ballpoint or other stylus. The drawings generally have the brilliant compositional flair and color that viewers find irresistible in Rauschenberg. The question is, however, as with Dali or with Blake (and others): are the drawings illustrations to Dante or from Dante. The latter really should not be called illustrations.
Rauschenberg's drawing for Canto 31 (fig. 2) attempts, as do all of his Dante drawings, to "scan" the given canto, as the artist creates images suggested by the text, operating generally by association and analogy, disposing the images on the page working from top to bottom with the compositional instincts that are certainly Rauschenberg's forte. Most images are rather bold and clear in the Canto 31 drawing; in many other Canto drawings the images are so submerged in the texture of the drawing as to be unrecognizable without great concentration and study, a process which soon becomes tedious. The difficulty suggests that Rauschenberg expects the viewer generally to appreciate the total composition rather than the imagistic details of which it is composed. In the upper left hand corner is the toweled image of a man lifted from a Sports Illustrated ad and used throughout the series of drawings to represent Dante as Everyman in a twentieth-century context. He has descended, presumably after his early morning shower, into a modern "Hell" (the recurrent "steps" image just below), which translates, in some of the drawings, Dante into John Kennedy and Virgil into Adlai Stevenson, and Dante's various sinners, devils, and angels into astronauts, racecar drivers, riot police, umpires, etc.
In the drawing for Canto 31, there is at the top reference to Nimrod's horn, he one of the six brute beasts, Earth-Giants, who guard the final pit of Hell. They are called by Dante "grim giants" of "evil will, " "raging, " " gross, " "sulking, " "furious, " "stupid, " and savage." The gentle quality of Blake's Earth-Giants is his commentary on the shackles he felt contemporary religious thinking had imposed on him. Botticelli centuries earlier had attempted to illustrate Dante's Giants; the chains are depicted, as they are by Rauschenberg and by Blake, but more importantly, Botticelli attempts the depiction of the savagery of the Giants' will in facial expressions and tortured gestures. Botticelli's personality seems not to have been attuned to depictions of savagery, however; the handsome nude bodies of the Giants dominate the drawing's tonality, and the drawing fails as illustration of Dante's scene to the extent that it does. In the Rauschenberg drawing the fist bearing Dante and Virgil to Satan's pit is depicted in the upper right-hand corner, with the Earth-Giants in a twentieth-century context depicted as Olympic Champions standing on pedestals. The analogy is certainly whimsical. Whatever Rauschenberg is saying about Olympic athletes in our time, he is certainly not illustrating therewith Dante's terrible monsters at the center of universal evil within us or outside of us. Dante's text serves as a stimulus to Rauschenberg's creativity; the Rauschenberg drawings do not attempt to capture the tonality, the complex body of attitudes, of Dante.
The Dali plate leaves the Dantean text behind and offers a purely personal symbolic landscape and image for the sin of Blasphemy, while the Rauschenberg offers the Olympic champions as analogous to Dante's Earth-Giants, an analogy which fails to illuminate the condition of either the sportsmen or the beasts. These are two highly sophisticated modern artists doing their sort of art taking suggestions from the Dantean text; their creations are not illustrations to the Dantean text, but art evolving from it.
Addendum (3 November 1999):
In my research for my critical anthology Illustrations to Dante's Inferno (1994), I worked without benefit of the splendid series of volumes edited by Corrado Gizzi, Director of the Casa di Dante in Abruzzi, whose work seems to have gone largely unnoticed in America. The volumes listed below are large, comprehensive, lavishly illustrated, and belong in every large academic library.
Dante e I'Arte Romantica: Nazzareni Puristi e Preraffaelliti,