Art History September 12, 2017
© Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Cold War Dante


As every Italian schoolchild knows, The Divine Comedy opens in a supernatural forest at nightfall on Maundy Thursday in the year 1300. Dante Alighieri, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and green with fear in a “dark forest” (una selva oscura). The Roman poet Virgil, sent by a shadowy woman called Beatrice, is about to show him Hell. The opening, in the American poet John Ciardi’s bestselling 1954 translation, reads: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood . . .”.

Begun in Italy in about 1307, Dante’s long poem gathers together an extraordinary range of literary styles, from narrative, dramatic, lyrical, biblical, epic and invective. Each of the poem’s three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – is made up of thirty-three rhymed sections or cantos, with an additional, introductory canto for the Inferno. The three-part journey through hell, purgatory and paradise is sometimes hard for us to understand today, such is our distance from medieval theology. The Inferno belongs to a world of infernal retribution and salvation, where the pitchforks and devilry of Hell were a reality to many.

Robert Rauschenberg, the bad boy of American Pop art, immersed himself for two years between 1958 and 1960 in John Ciardi’s translation of the Inferno. With Ciardi as inspiration, he made a delicate translucent cycle on the theme of damnation, one picture for each of Dante’s thirty-four cantos. Images of weight-lifters taken from Sports Illustrated, golf and deodorant adverts, news media shots of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were super­imposed onto smudgy watercolour, pencil and crayon backgrounds to conjure a twen­tieth-century Hades. The thirty-four exquisite little pictures, now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, enrich and re­interpret the Inferno for the contemporary American scene. Rauschenberg used his famous “solvent transfer method” to haunting effect. Ghostly replicas of magazine illustrations and headlines were made by damping them with lighter fluid and rubbing them on the reverse side with a ballpoint. Charon’s barge becomes a spectral oil freighter, the devilish city of Dis a confla­gration of oil derricks and smoke stacks, and Virgil a space-suited NASA test pilot.

Ed Krcma’s fascinating book, Rauschenberg/Dante, explores the interaction between the artist, the translator and the medieval poet, and the political and cultural climate in post-war America that enabled it to happen. According to Krcma, Ciardi’s translation sold over half a million copies in the first six months of its publication in the mid-1950s (versions of Purgatorio and Paradiso by Ciardi came out in 1961 and 1971 respect­ively). English language versions of the Inferno tell us much about changing attitudes to Dante down the centuries. While the Victorians were prone to reduce Dante’s crystalline cantos to a pious fustian, Ciardi’s was a sparse and stripped-down Dante, in which some critics were pleased to detect a “virile, tense American” vernacular. Rauschen­berg, who spoke no Italian (and was moreover acutely dyslexic), viewed Ciardi as his own “Virgilian guide” through the late medieval poetry with its adrenalin-quickening scenes of horror.

In his scholarly commentary on the pictures, Krcma interrogates evidence in Rauschenberg of racism and an awkward homosexuality. In Canto XXI, Satan’s henchman Malacoda (literally, “Stinky Tail”) makes a “bugle” of his backside and farts uproariously in Dante’s presence. Rauschenberg used a photograph from Life magazine of gas-masked riot police in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1959 to stand for Malacoda and his army of mischief-makers. In another of the thirty-four pictures, pointedly, black people are made to represent Dante’s most demonic and wildly obscene hellpit tormentors. Might this reveal a prejudice in the artist?

Rauschenberg, a gay man at work in homophobic America, was certainly troubled by Dante’s portrayal of his “beloved teacher and mentor” Brunetto Latini as a sexual deviant lost in Hell. Latini had exerted a formative influence on his pupil, yet Dante chose to put him in the Seventh Circle of Hell reserved for “sinners against nature”. The penalty for Latini’s presumed sin of homosexuality “might not have bothered Dante”, said Rau­schenberg, “but it bothered me”. In Canto XV, Latini is seen to emerge from a great desert onto which flames unceasingly rain, suggesting a reversal of nature, as fire usually burns upwards. In Rauschenberg’s solvent transfer picture, Latini is represented by the black champion hurdler and sprinter Glenn Davis, photographed in mid-leap by a Time reporter. Krcma speculates that Rausch­enberg made a covert link here between homosexuals and African Americans, both being outcasts from mainstream society.

One might ask what Rauschenberg, a likely atheist, saw in Dante. In the course of the Comedy’s combined total of 14,233 lines, the Florentine poet fathoms the nine con­centric circles of Hell, before a thorny climb to the summit of Mount Purgatory takes him to the mystical revelation of God in Paradise. Dante has seen all there is of human sin before he reaches this place of repentance and regeneration. Rauschenberg, who showed no interest in Dante scholarship, confessed an “impatience” with the poet’s Christian “moralizing”; it was hard enough for him that his parents were fundamentalist Christians.

The dominant theme of the Inferno is not mercy, after all, but justice, dispensed with a mafia-like severity and the ancient law of retribution. In a succession of nightmare cantos, money-brokers, grafters, corrupt popes, the Prophet Muhammad (believed by Dante to have been an apostate cardinal) as well as disgraced figures from classical Greek mythology address Dante directly from within the flames of damnation. In the Rauschenberg pictures, men and women weighted with different sins can be seen dimly amid a chiaroscuro of fuming mists and frozen shallows. If Ciardi’s translation sold so well in America, Krcma suggests, it was partly because the gross and gloomy atmosphere of Hell struck a chord with a nation riven by race riots and Cold War antagonisms. Victorian-era illustrations to the Inferno by Gustave Doré (which Rausch­enberg said he “hated”) were no less disconcerting. They showed the damned wedged “arsy-versy” against each other in snake pits, “watering their bottoms with their tears”, as Samuel Beckett put it in his prose work All Strange Away (1964). The long stony steps towards salvation and the radiance of Paradise are hardly Pop art themes.

If Dante spoke to Rauschenberg, however, it was not because he feared damnation or was moved by the beauty of the Christian revelation, but because Dante wrote the story of an ordinary human being who sets out in this life in search of hope and renewal. In his introduction to Dante in English (2005), Eric Griffiths notes that the poem is a pilgrimage of sorts – an act of “turning” or converting of the self to a better life. Having journeyed through a tragic land populated by the guilty dead, Dante is conducted to a world of light in Paradise. It may be that a part of Rauschenberg responded to this medieval scheme of despair mounting through hope towards salvation. By converting a fourteenth-century vision of self-knowledge and redemption into the everyday language of contemporary America, he made sure of Dante’s continued relevance in a secular world obsessed by shopping and celebrity.

The Dante cycle was a signpost in Rau­schenberg’s development as a post-Abstract Expressionist. It prepared the way for his triumph at the Venice Biennale in the summer of 1964, when he won the Grand Prize, and established him as rather more than a Pop fly-by-night interested in big finny cars and toothpaste commercials. Ed Krcma, a lecturer in art history at the University of East Anglia, is to be congratulated on this richly illustrated book, which tells how a medieval Christian poet served as unlikely inspiration for a Texas-born, neo-Dadaist maverick.