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Looking Back to Move Forward in the Time of a Pandemic

Robert Rauschenberg’s Modern Inferno

Opinions are divided as to whether lockdown conditions stimulate or inhibit creativity. We have been here before. In 1348, shortly after Dante Alighieri wrote his epic masterpiece the Commedia, the Black Death swept across Europe and killed half the population of Florence. Fear and uncertainty caused by that pandemic seemed to galvanize visual artists with a sense of greater purpose to illustrate Dante’s Commedia

Dante’s three-part epic poem portrays the journey souls take after death. Essentially a socio-economic commentary on Florentine life, with strong moral undertones and focus on the human condition, its themes can be adapted to any time. Today, in the face of Covid-19, the 700-year-old Commedia resonates strongly. Now is a perfect time to reflect on the work through its visual depictions. Although countless artists have illustrated the work since its medieval publication – Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré, and John Flaxman, to name a few – modern artists have shown how its relevance lives on to this day. Perhaps the most progressive modern rendering of Dante’s epic to date is seen through the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008).

Rauschenberg with three transfer drawings in his Front Street studio, New York, 1958
Photograph: Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Rauschenberg’s series of 34 illustrations for Inferno, the first book of the epic, began in early 1958, and by December 1960 he exhibited them in New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. Beginning the series aged 33, he was about the same age as Dante when he began his Commedia “– Midway in our life’s journey.” 

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465, Tempera on panel, Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore

While the Black Death had not yet occurred in Dante’s time, he nevertheless experienced a restrictive ‘lockdown’, having been a member of Florence’s ‘White Guelfi’ political party, as opposed to the ‘Black Guelfi’ who were more closely bound to the Pope. Fierce rivalries often split these political powers, and when in 1302 the Black Guelphs, in alliance with Pope Boniface VIII, succeeded in expelling the Whites from Florence, Dante was exiled alongside his party members, relocating to Ravenna where he wrote his Commedia.     

In the fall of 1960, Rauschenberg retreated from his studio in New York City to Treasure Island, a small fishing village off the west coast of Florida. Here he could escape the tumultuous New York art scene and focus his creativity to complete his Inferno illustrations. At the time, Rauschenberg was becoming a well-known, albeit controversial, figure in the art world. He chose to illustrate Inferno with the hopes of being taken more seriously as an artist and as a means to practice his new solvent-transfer printing technique, which involved penciling the back of a printed image, often sourced from contemporary editions of Life magazine or Sports Illustrated, so that it registered in reverse on his page. The technique inevitably filled his compositions with contemporary iconography, creating images of a modern-day Inferno, which invite the viewer to question the morals of the human condition of today. 

Dante begins the Inferno as a pilgrim lost in a dark wood, a metaphor for the everyman straying from his path in life. Rauschenberg transports this symbol into the modern world by replacing trees with an industrial jungle of cranes and derricks in the lower section of the composition. He mirrors Dante’s gloomy and chaotic atmosphere of the dark wood through harsh etched lines surrounding the machines and staccato pencil strokes throughout. Reference to a modern world recurs throughout Ruaschenberg’s compositions, beyond transfers of industrial machinery. When in Canto XXX for example, Dante condemns Florentine bankers for being motivated by greed, Rauschenberg inserts a transfer of an American Express card, among the first credit cards, introduced in 1958. 

Robert Rauschenberg, Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error, 1958
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Although Rauschenberg’s retreat to Treasure Island was voluntary, not a result of enforced restrictions, that is not to say he was not living in an oppressed state. Like Dante, Rauschenberg lived in an age when homosexuality was both socially and politically condemned. From 1950 to 1953, senators Joseph McCarthy and Kenneth Wherry worked to remove homosexuals from government employment, subjecting them to suspicion and harassment. Having divorced Susan Weil in 1950, Rauschenberg eventually became intimately involved with artist Jasper Johns in 1953 and knew all too well the stigmas imposed by a homophobic culture. 

Rauschenberg’s creative rendering of Canto XV is perhaps a reaction to his oppressed state. In this Canto, Dante is midway through the Inferno when he encounters condemned sodomites.  

Robert Rauschenberg, Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art, 1959–60
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Dante is ambiguous in his writing on the Sodomites, reflecting the reticence surrounding the subject of homosexuality in his day. Rauschenberg mirrors this ambiguity in his illustration with an empty speech bubble beneath a red outline of his own traced foot. The tracing inserts Rauschenberg into the narrative just as Dante the Poet occasionally appears in the text, separate from Dante the Pilgrim, a personal touch that is seldom seen in Commedia illustrations.

Both the speech bubble and the footsteps leading down the composition are suggestive of the language of comic books, as are the indistinct figures throughout. It is worth noting that the comic book industry of 1950s America was subject to conservative censorship; the Comic’s Code of 1954 strictly forbade ‘sex perversion or any inference to the same’. The footsteps moving from top to bottom of the composition are taken from an advert for TRIG deodorant: ‘TRIG keeps a man so odor-free a bloodhound couldn’t find him!’ Furthermore, the transfer of a naked man directly below the traced foot, referencing Dante’s description of the naked blasphemous that lie ‘stretched supine upon the ground’ (XIV,19), is centrally placed and explicitly nude, a further emphasis on the homoerotic context. Another factor to consider is the alternating red-and-white stripe on the left of the composition, depicting the River of Boiling Blood that ‘ran so red’ in Inferno (XIV,73). Art historian and activist Jonathan Katz regards it as an obvious reference to Jasper JohnsFlag, and so a reference to Rauschenberg’s estranged lover. With all these allusions, Rauschenberg’s intention to address the repressed homosexuality in his society is convincing. 

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55
Image on Wikipedia

Although we have only looked at a small fraction of Rauschenberg’s work on Inferno, it is enough to show how Dante’s words retain their relevance in the modern world. Rauschenberg’s work reinforces the idea that creativity has the ability to thrive under restrictive environments. Through fear and the unknown, even anger, it could be argued, creativity is channeled. Today, some feel burdened by lockdown, locked in, physically and metaphorically. Perhaps the secret of allowing creativity to flourish is to somehow escape the sense of restriction by getting stuck into something meaty like the Inferno and letting the creative juices flow.

Go ahead and take this time to view Rauschenberg’s full Inferno series here and use this Commedia resource to read along!

Written by Flora Igoe, Student Ambassador for The Art Story.
Flora is a recent graduate of Trinity College Dublin with a B.A. (Hons) degree in Italian and History of Art and Architecture. She is currently undertaking Ireland’s Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuer’s Fine and Decorative Arts Diploma.