The hell of modern media: on Robert Rauschenberg's Dante series

A new book on the drawings synthesises a range of information, but leaves certain questions unanswered

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

In 1958, Robert Rauschenberg, a dyslexic abstract artist not given to reading classic literature, took on the daunting project of illustrating all 34 cantos of Dante’sInferno. His illustrations were based on mass media and were made through a crude, experimental transfer method: cut-out magazine photos were placed facedown on paper, soaked with lighter fluid and rubbed with a ballpoint pen. Ink from the photos were transferred to paper, resulting in amorphous, grainy impressions. During the 1950s, Rauschenberg’s assemblage works were largely derided as Neo-Dada provocations designed to shock and offend. Yet his Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (1958-1960) were lauded by critics as an ambitious effort to engage with a serious subject in a thoughtful, inventive manner. In 1963, MoMA acquired the entire series. The drawings were published in a deluxe edition by Harry N. Abrams and sent on a successful international tour, paving the way for Rauschenberg’s Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964.

Numerous scholars have discussed the Dante series, but often as part of larger issues within Rauschenberg’s oeuvre. The drawings influenced the artist’s shift to his silkscreen prints, bringing him increased critical acclaim. Despite their pivotal importance to his career, Ed Krčma’s book Rauschenberg/Dante: Drawing a Modern Inferno is the first monograph devoted to them. The benefit of Krčma’s study is that he interweaves scattered research and works to synthesize and build upon diverse interpretations. Yet the book also has vexing analytical gaps and a variety of key questions remain unresolved.

The book is largely divided between a close iconographic and contextual reading of the illustrations, on the one hand, and a theoretical discussion of their technical and formal innovations, on the other. Krčma particularly focuses on the ideological themes of Cold War politics and coded sexuality, specifically the repression of queer culture in the McCarthy era. Race and the early Civil Rights movement are also addressed, but they are the least developed and resolved topics in the book.

The Inferno is the first of three canticles in Dante’s great medieval epic The Divine Comedy, which he wrote between roughly 1307 and 1321. In it, the ancient poet Virgil is sent by a heavenly agent to assist a spiritually adrift Pilgrim—a contemporary man, indeed Dante himself—to find the true path. Virgil instructs him on the system of divine justice by leading him through the nine circles of Hell, where Dante bears witness to the harrowing spectacle of punishments that await transgressors who have turned against spiritual reason. With Virgil he ascends to Purgatory and finally reaches a state of spiritual enlightenment and redemption in Paradise.

Rauschenberg based his illustrations on John Ciardi’s 1954 translation, which employed spare and idiomatic language that was immensely popular with American readers. It was close to Dante’s own style. In authoring The Divine Comedy, the poet chose to write in vernacular Italian rather than learned Latin. Moreover, his text is a mash-up of classical literary traditions and references to quotidian social and political realities in 14th-century Florence. These aspects of the Inferno no doubt appealed to Rauschenberg’s own iconoclastic and Realist impulses. Perhaps he sensed a kindred spirit in Dante that encouraged his vernacular interpretations of the classical text and his radical mixing of high and low cultures.

Although Rauschenberg’s images for the drawings were appropriated from lively magazines like Life and Sports Illustrated, the ghostly impressions resulting from the transfer method evoke Dante’s hellish world of spectral figures and shadowy torment. The technique was intentionally impersonal and mechanical and has been seen as a polemical rejection of Abstract Expressionism. The Dante drawings represent his Postmodern imagination and his submission to a capitalist order of readymade images and systems of facture. Rauschenberg operates as a photo-montagist, reconfiguring and redeploying pre-existing images to create new meanings, which are largely determined by the viewing public. In arguing these points, Krčma allies himself with theorists like Benjamin Buchloh, but he fails to consider that Marshall McLuhan’s media analysis of the 1950s had already defined this new form of visual culture. In his 1955 essay “New Media as Political Forms,” McLuhan perfectly predicts Rauschenberg’s practices, noting that as traditional print media and literary genres lose their cultural authority, artists and their audiences were increasingly relying on new modes of visual communication to manage modern reality.

In executing his illustrations, Rauschenberg frequently layered images and deliberately varied the clarity and detail of his transfers. This greatly enhanced the ambiguity of the works, investing them with multivalent meanings that served the dual task of illustrating Dante’s narrative while also making allegorical references to Cold War American culture. These qualities go to the heart of recent semiological debates on Rauschenberg’s works. On one side are the “iconophiles” who read his images literally for narrative meaning; on the other are post-Structuralist scholars like Rosalind Krauss, who argue against interpretations that close his radically open and indeterminate works. Krčma’s solution to this impasse is to borrow from the art historian Jonathan Katz, who argues that during the Cold War, political and sexual content in Rauschenberg’s art needed to be coded so that dangerous and inflammatory meanings would be more difficult to detect in a homophobic and ultraconservative era.

One of the illustrations that reveals Rauschenberg’s political views is for Canto XII, which depicts punishments enacted upon the Violent Against Neighbors, who are consigned to Round One of the Seventh Circle of Hell. They are plunderers and murderous sinners punished for their warring behaviour. In this work, the image of John Kennedy represents Dante, the heroic seeker of justice and truth, while the revered elder statesman Adlai Stevenson is a stand in for Virgil. The image of Richard Nixon is paired with a gun and represents bullying tyrannical souls cast into a river of boiling blood. Before Nixon was Kennedy’s opponent in the 1960 presidential election, he also served as one of Joseph McCarthy’s political henchman during the Red Scare. Rauschenberg admired many of Kennedy’s progressive Democratic policies and the Dante drawings suggest he was aligned with his more liberal, though still anti-Communist, agenda. For example, in Canto IX, Virgil and the Pilgrim seek to enter Dis, the City of Hell, wandering through a landscape haunted by the shades of Heretics. For his illustration, Rauschenberg used a magazine photo of the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. In the picture, the dome has been stripped of paint for restoration and glows with a reddish tint, which brings to mind Soviet associations. The monument is further distorted by being placed on its side, signifying that American democracy has been toppled by the threat of Communist aggression. However, on another level not considered by Krčma, this image may also be an ironic reference to the more extreme and delusional anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s.

With regard to seeing Rauschenberg’s gay identity in the series, the most notable example is the illustration for Canto XIV, which 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, most likely taken from a male “physique” magazine. It is juxtaposed with a red tracing of the artist’s own foot, representing the charred, bloody soles of the Sodomites. This tracing is placed over a faint image of two men embracing that was created by superimposing photos of nearly naked figures. The drawing also contains what Katz has argued are the red and white stripes of the American flag—an allusion to Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg’s lover at the time. Despite the coded construction, it is one of the Rauschenberg’s most forthright representations of a queer theme, making the Dante drawings even more significant. While Rauschenberg may have felt a creative kinship with Dante, 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.

Krčma’s study has numerous scholarly merits, but a more expansive cultural and biographical approach could have strengthened and enriched it. His interpretations are mainly limited to current theoretical frameworks and the topical political and social content of the illustrations. He places too much trust in the artist’s few, well-known statements on the series. Rauschenberg had often described the project as merely a creative exercise in moving beyond his habitual forms of abstraction. In his proposal for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958, he also insisted that his primary goal for the drawings was to capture the spirit and mood of Dante’s cantos, not their specific symbolic content.

Krčma’s approach leaves certain questions. What motivated and influenced Rauschenberg’s interest in Dante’s Inferno as a form of modern allegory? To what degree did he engage with the narrative details and cultural meanings of Dante’s text? It is surprising that scholarship on the series (Krčma’s included) has not addressed the New York School’s interest in theDivine Comedy, which may have had an influence on Rauschenberg. The avant-garde poet Charles Olson, who was closely associated with Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College from 1951 to 1952, was directly inspired by theInferno; his epic poem "In Cold Hell, In Thicket" (1950) borrows Dante’s major symbolic motifs. What’s more, the narrative structure of Allen Ginsberg’s anti-war poem “Howl” (1956) includes the seven deadly sins of Dante’s Circles of Hell. Like Rauschenberg’s drawings, the absurdist metaphorical elements of “Howl” critique the conservative values of Post-war capitalist society in the United States and contain daring references to homosexuality.

Given the spiritual theme of theInferno, what are the relevance of Rauschenberg’s own religious views? This question can be extended to include the role of spirituality within the New York vanguard of the late 1950s. Curiously, the artist only treated the Inferno section of theDivine Comedy, ignoring the Purgatorio and Paradiso canticles and the theme of Dante’s enlightened ascent through spiritual atonement and beatitude. This may partly be explained by Rauschenberg’s antipathy towards his conservative fundamentalist Christian upbringing in Texas and his possible ideological cynicism towards any spiritually redemptive view of evil, including corrupt forms of state power, violent militarism and sexual and racial prejudices. Rauschenberg’s rejection of spiritual enlightenment may also have been a way to critically distance himself from Abstract Expressionism, in particular the emphasis artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman placed on Modern art as a vehicle for spiritual insight.

An important final point is that there may be more specific allegorical intentions in Rauschenberg’s treatment of the Inferno than scholars have considered. Selecting the Inferno as the basis for his political and social commentaries indicates that Rauschenberg had a sophisticated understanding of the allegorical functions of the text. Exiled from Florence following the defeat of his political party, Dante used The Divine Comedy to attack all manner of political and social abuses in 14th century Italy and condemned many of his enemies to imaginary torments. Rauschenberg no doubt empathised with Dante’s maligned, outsider status, which allowed him to similarly construct hellish visions of human depravity and immorality based on the political events and public figures of his time.

Rauschenberg’s unconventional use of collage for the illustrations also reveals his inventive efforts to devise allegorical strategies in relation to theInferno. Dante emphasised the fragmentation of Hell to signify its disturbing infernal nature. The heterogeneity of Rauschenberg’s images and their discordant shifts in scale mirror Dante’s disoriented experiences in the fractured, convulsive environment of the underworld. Moreover, Rauschenberg once commented to Tomkins that he wanted to approximate Dante’s perceptual overload and moral confusion in struggling to make sense of human behaviour and suffering in Hell. Through media spectacle, Rauschenberg bore similar witness to the uncertainty of the Cold War, which seemed devoid of any comprehensible values or meanings. To underscore this point, in his 1961 essay “On Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work,” John Cage was the first to liken the Dante drawings to the flickering images of a television set, which the artist constantly watched in his studio as he laboured over the series.

Gregory Gilbert is Professor and director of the Art History programme at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He is currently researching Robert Motherwell’s early collages in relation to Pragmatism and modern American poetry.

Rauschenberg/Dante: Drawing a Modern Inferno

Ed Krčma

Yale University Press