Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Rauschenberg: Dante’s Inferno

Rauschenberg: Print made from the original 'Dante's Inferno' solvent transfer drawing. 1964

In my previous post I pointed to the fact that Rauschenberg was seen as one of the most influential artists on the 'Pop Art' generation of image makers. I was educated in art college during the late '60s and early 70's and together with Jasper Johns the two of them tended to hold an almost hypnotic hold over what was and was not interesting artwork. Johns holding court over what was then known as conceptual art and Rauschenberg over the new 'dematerialisation of the art object'. However looking back as a much older artist I tend to see them both within a much longer tradition of Western art practices that stretches back over a long long time, their innovations now appearing to be part of an ongoing tradition of always testing out the boundaries of a language in order to make sure it is fit for purpose and capable of carrying the complex narratives of the day. Botticelli's visions of the 'Inferno' relying on new Renaissance spatial representations to give them conviction, Rauschenberg on a method that made full use of the fact that our society provides so many images of itself that they in effect become 'throw-away'.

Both images above from Botticelli: Dante's 'Inferno'

Rauschenberg: Dante's Inferno

Started in 1959 and finished in 1961 these are probably the most powerful and profound of Rauschenberg’s drawings.
Rauschenberg treats our media soaked world as being an equivalent to Dante’s vision of Hell. Like many artists he is attracted by Dante’s structural vision, a coupling of an archetypal vision of the dammed with details of contemporary Italian life in the 14th century. 
Many artists face the same dilemma, how to use contemporary techniques, processes and attitudes to art making in such a way that they can still tackle the grand historical themes of art history. If you can find a way to do this you can then set your stall out alongside artists of the past and see if you measure up.
Rauschenberg: dante's Inferno

Rauschenberg’s solvent transfer drawings show us the horrors of the underworld in images that draw from many sources and use an all over, de-centered compositional process drawn from Abstract Expressionism. The all-over arrangements of forms and events in certain drawings can seem very ''post-Pollock,'' yet they can also call forth the continuous tumult of Michelangelo's ''Last Judgment'' or a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
Michelangelo's ''Last Judgment'' detail

Making one drawing per canto, Rauschenberg meticulously constructed the Inferno's visual equivalent using media images from his own time.

Rauschenberg's hell is populated by gas-masked National Guardsmen, weight lifters, astronauts, jockeys and men in dark suits. It includes an entrance gate that has a welcome sign, racing cars that speed out of control, modern landscapes of city buildings and athletes, many of which seem to be running for their lives.
Dante appears in nearly half the drawings as the man standing against a tile wall wearing white swimming trunks. He stands at attention as if he is awaiting an army physical or is about to take a dive. This he does quite dramatically in ''Canto II: The Descent,'' an indication of Rauschenberg's precise attention to Dante's text.
''Canto II: The Descent'' 

If you have a copy of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ you can use it go through each drawing and make a careful and detailed reading, when you do the relationship between titles and images suggests that everything is there for a reason. For example in ‘The punishment of the Simoniacs’ ''Canto XIX'', for selling holy offices they were stuck upside down in the ground with the soles of their feet exposed and on fire - and Rauschenberg gives us exactly that.
Rauschenberg: The punishment of the Simoniacs’ ''Canto XIX''
He also makes adjustments. For ''Canto XIV: Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature and Art,'' whose fate it is to wander eternally on burning sand rained down upon by fire, Rauschenberg depicts a yellow ground dotted all over with tiny, agitated figures. Above he outlines what are probably his own toes in red crayon, spelling out the Simoniacs' agony in relatively huge scale via a ''hot foot'' that overlooks the scene like a billboard at the beach.

 The solvent transfer technique turned out to be the perfect vehicle by which to retell Dante's horrific journey through hell, at the same time turning it into a modern allegory. In some cases the blurring of the drawing strokes gives these surfaces a dank, smoky atmosphere, in others, the images seem nearly buried in a blizzard of marks that increase as Dante, with the viewer in tow, approaches the Ninth Circle, the place where hell freezes over.

Rauschenberg: Dante's Inferno

But above all, the drawing strokes are the graphic equivalent of a strobe light; they make the images flicker in and out of view, keeping everything in constant motion and creating the effect of seeing an old movie-house newsreel condensed onto a progression of exquisite single surfaces. This also creates an effect rather like watching our collective lives pass before our eyes.

For an on line copy of all Dante's text see: Dante's Inferno

For how to use image transfer processes see: ITPs

Dore: From 'Dante's Inferno"

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