Robert Rauschenberg’s 34 Illustrations of Dante’s Inferno (1958–60)

Per­haps more than any oth­er post­war avant-garde Amer­i­can artist, Robert Rauschen­berg matched, and maybe exceed­ed, Mar­cel Duchamp’s puck­ish irrev­er­ence. He once bought a Willem de Koon­ing draw­ing just to erase it and once sent a telegram declar­ing that it was a por­trait of gal­lerist Iris Clert, “if I say so.” Rauschen­berg also excelled at turn­ing trash into trea­sure, repur­pos­ing the detri­tus of mod­ern life in works of art both play­ful and seri­ous, con­tin­u­ing to “address major themes of world­wide con­cern,” wrote art his­to­ri­an John Richard­son in a 1997 Van­i­ty Fair pro­file, “by uti­liz­ing tech­nol­o­gy in ever more imag­i­na­tive and inven­tive ways…. Rauschen­berg is a painter of history—the his­to­ry of now rather than then.”

What, then, pos­sessed this artist of the “his­to­ry of now” to take on a series of draw­ings between 1958 and 1960 illus­trat­ing each Can­to of Dante’s Infer­no? “Per­haps he sensed a kin­dred spir­it in Dante,” writes Gre­go­ry Gilbert at The Art News­pa­per, “that encour­aged his ver­nac­u­lar inter­pre­ta­tions of the clas­si­cal text and his rad­i­cal mix­ing of high and low cul­tures.”

Crit­ic Charles Dar­went reads Rauschenberg’s moti­va­tions through a Freudi­an lens, his Infer­no series a sub­li­ma­tion of his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and repres­sive child­hood: “The young Rauschen­berg… came to see Mod­ernist art as a vari­ant of his Tex­an par­ents’ fun­da­men­tal Chris­tian­i­ty.”

The most straight­for­ward account has Rauschen­berg con­ceiv­ing the project in order to be tak­en more seri­ous­ly as an artist. Such bio­graph­i­cal expla­na­tions tell us some­thing about the work, but we learn as much or more from look­ing at the work itself, which hap­pens to be very much a his­to­ry of now at the end of the 1950s. Though Rauschen­berg based the illus­tra­tions on John Ciardi’s 1954 trans­la­tion of the Divine Com­e­dy, they were not meant to accom­pa­ny the text but to stand on their own, the Ital­ian epic—or its famous first third—providing a back­drop of ready-made iron­ic com­men­tary on images Rauschen­berg ripped from news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines such as Life and Sports Illus­trat­ed.

“To cre­ate these col­lages,” explains MIT’s List Visu­al Arts Cen­ter, “he would use a sol­vent to adhere the images to his draw­ing sur­face, then over­lay them with a vari­ety of media, includ­ing pen, gouache (an opaque water­col­or), and pen­cil.” Steeped in a Cold War atmos­phere, the illus­tra­tions incor­po­rate fig­ures like John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who, in the 50s, Gilbert writes, “served as one of Joseph McCarthy’s polit­i­cal hench­men dur­ing the Red Scare.” We see in Rauschenberg’s col­lage draw­ings allu­sions to the Civ­il Rights move­ment and the decade’s anti-Com­mu­nist para­noia as well its reac­tionary sex­u­al pol­i­tics. “Polit­i­cal and sex­u­al con­tent… need­ed to be cod­ed,” Gilbert claims, in such an “ultra­con­ser­v­a­tive era.”

For exam­ple, we see a like­ly ref­er­ence to the artist’s gay iden­ti­ty in the Can­to XIV illus­tra­tion, above. The text “describes the pun­ish­ment of the Sodomites, who are con­demned for eter­ni­ty to walk across burn­ing sand. Rauschen­berg depicts the theme through a homo­erot­ic image of a male nude… jux­ta­posed with a red trac­ing of the artist’s own foot.” Maybe Dar­went is right to sup­pose that had Dante’s poem not exist­ed, Rauschen­berg “would have been the man to invent it”—or to invent its mid-20th cen­tu­ry visu­al equiv­a­lent. He draws atten­tion to the poem’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal cen­ter, its sub­ver­sive humor, and its den­si­ty of ref­er­ences to con­tem­po­rary 15th cen­tu­ry Ital­ian pol­i­tics, adapt­ing all of these qual­i­ties for moder­ni­ty.

But the illus­tra­tion of Can­to XIV—depicting “The Vio­lent Against God, Nature, and Art”—also encodes Rauschenberg’s vio­lent tram­pling of artis­tic con­ven­tion. Many crit­ics see this series as the artist’s reac­tion against Abstract Expres­sion­ism (like that of De Koon­ing). And while he “may have felt a cre­ative kin­ship with Dante,” writes Gilbert, “he also admit­ted to the art crit­ic Calvin Tomkins his impa­tience with the poet’s self-right­eous moral­i­ty, a state­ment like­ly direct­ed against this Can­to.” Like his 1953 Erased de Koon­ing Draw­ing, Rauschenberg’s Infer­no draw­ings also per­form an act of erasure—or the cre­ation of a palimpsest, with Dante’s poem scratched over by the artist’s wild, child­like strokes.

In recog­ni­tion of the way these illus­tra­tions repur­pose, rather than accom­pa­ny, the Infer­no, MoMA recent­ly com­mis­sioned an edi­tion of Rauschenberg’s 34 draw­ings, accom­pa­nied not by the straight trans­la­tion by Cia­r­di but poems by Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis, whose por­tion of the book is titled “Dante Comes to Amer­i­ca: 20 Jan­u­ary 17: An Era­sure of 17 Can­tos from Ciardi’s Infer­no, after Robert Rauschen­berg.” Rather than view­ing the illus­tra­tions against Dante’s work itself, we can read their par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­can pro­to-pop art char­ac­ter against lit­er­ary “era­sures” like Lewis’s “Can­to XXIII,” below. See the full series of Rauschenberg’s 34 illus­tra­tions at the Rauschen­berg Foun­da­tion web­site here.

Can­to XXIII.
by Robin Coste Lewis

                “I Go with The Body That Was Always Mine”

Silent, one fol­low­ing the oth­er,
the Fable hunt­ed us down.
O weary man­tle of eter­ni­ty,
turn left, reach us down
into that nar­row way in silence.

Col­lege of Sor­ry Hyp­ocrites, I go
with the body that was always mine,
bur­nished like coun­ter­weights to keep
the peace. One may still see the sort of peace

we kept. Mar­vel for a while over that:
the cross in Hel­l’s eter­nal exile.
Some­where there is some gap in the wall,
pit through which we may climb

to the next brink with­out the need
of sum­mon­ing the Black Angels
and forc­ing them to raise us from this sink.
Near­er than hope, there is a bridge

that runs from the great cir­cle, that cross­es
every ditch from ridge to ridge.
Except—it is broken—but with care.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

New Robert Rauschen­berg Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion Lets You Down­load Free High-Res Images of the Artist’s Work

Hear Dante’s Infer­no Read Aloud by Influ­en­tial Poet & Trans­la­tor John Cia­r­di (1954)

Artists Illus­trate Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Bot­ti­cel­li, Mœbius & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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