Saturday, February 18, 2017

Inferno XIII: The Forest of Suicides

















Inferno XIII: The Forest of Suicides
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In the second ring of the seventh circle of hell, Virgil encourages Dante to pluck a twig from a thorn tree. Our hero is shocked to discover that the tree is an unnamed suicide, whose plaintive cries and oozing black blood reveal the collective fate of the entire forest.


*    *    *

As Dante and Virgil enter the second of three rings in the Circle of the Violent, they encounter the fate of those who do violence to themselves. Disembodied moans surround them and Virgil tells Dante that if he were to pluck a twig from one of the mangled trees, he might learn the story.

Dante does so, and—weeping with despair and oozing black blood—the tree ultimately unravels his story. He walked the earth as Pier della Vigna, counselor to the Emperor Frederick II. Vigna’s fated suicide was in a strange way the result of his fierce dedication and love for Frederick. His contemporaries grew envious of their close relationship and they circulated ugly rumors, causing him great shame, despair and—ultimately—death by his own hand.


In search of a different language for this drawing, I’ve developed something more of a design. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Inferno XII: The Minotaur




















Inferno XII: The Minotaur
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In Canto XII, Dante and Virgil descend a steep slope and encounter at the bottom the mythic Minotaur, a beast with the head of a bull and body of a man. They are in the first ring of the Circle of the Violent, that which holds those who have committed violence against others.

*    *    *

The carnal essence of the Minotaur has alternately thrilled and terrified me since my earliest years. If there's an embodiment of the anxiety I experienced in a sexually repressed childhood (and much of adulthood) it would be this creature, with the physique of a dangerously muscled, hyper-masculine man, topped off with a smoky black bull's head, its dark features obscured by shadows and fur. The half-man/half-beast trope permeated my already anxious brain in many incarnations—including that of a lizard-man known as a Gorn, battling Captain Kirk on Star Trek. It was also fodder for a shitload of bad dreams. In retrospect, it's ridiculous that I would have been afraid of a guy in a plastic reptile suit, gingerly tossing fake punches at William Shatner, but it really did terrify me as a five year-old. 

A little history: I grew up with crippling self-consciousness about my body. I thought that my morbid shyness about it was in some way an index to inferior masculinity, and it remained with me until I first had sex in college. I dreaded going to the beach, turned down many a pool party invitation.  It's dissipated over the years and these days I'm pretty relaxed about my body (although there's certainly a ridiculously flawed logic to feeling less self-conscious about the body I have at 54). 

It started with my budding awareness of myself as a sexual being, I think, and that must have been at about age seven or eight. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in the South, I was at all times surrounded by boys who ran shirtless, dirty and unashamed of their bodies, and I both admired and feared their masculinity. Our equality (or perhaps my sense of intellectual superiority—I had what most of them didn't have, or at least I thought I did) existed only above the shoulders. No qualms about showing my head—it was a nice head, not bad looking, and it had nothing to do with sexuality. Funny things came out of my mouth from time-to-time, and I liked to show off with my face. The anxiety reached its peak in middle and high school years, when the same boys began to regard themselves as post-pubescent studs, exacerbating my insecurities.

But when you put a fecund, ferocious animal's head on an already sexualized, brutal body—primed to do violence against sensitive men—you eradicate intellect. Its mind has been supplanted with thoughtless force, and that's pretty scary.


When I began this drawing, I was reminded of the many depictions I had seen over the years, all of which used the body of the Minotaur to echo beastly savagery, a fitting partner to the bull's head. But, from the start, my impulse was to allow the body to be gently erotic, youthful and delicately drawn with lines that virtually disappear into the page. A grateful nod to Aubrey Beardsley, absolutely, but I hope it's more than imitation of a stylistic convention. I suppose it could have been driven by a latent enjoyment of male nudity, or maybe it's a taming of the beast that scared me so much as a boy. Not sure.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Inferno XI: The Circle of the Violent

















Inferno XI: The Circle of the Violent
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Canto XI is one of the more pedantic parts of L'Inferno. Dante and Virgil descend to the seventh circle, housing those who have committed violent acts in life. It is subdivided into three smaller rings to accommodate sinners who are guilty of various classifications of violence.

*    *    *

The violent are punished in a variety of ways, depending on the transgressions they committed on earth. The seventh circle is sub-divided into three rings, each of which metes out a unique punishment. In the first ring, flooded by a river of blood, those who have committed violence against God and nature languish eternally. These are the plunderers, murderers and thieves who once corrupted the earth. The second ring is reserved for those who committed violence against themselves. Ingeniously, Dante conceives of a forest of suicides, wherein sinners have been transmogrified into talking, thorny threes, oozing blood. The third ring is for those who have perpetrated violence against their neighbors, including blasphemers and usurers, who suffer eternally in a desert of burning sands. Virgil explains that fraud is the greatest of sins in this circle, because it is the transgression most unique to mankind.

The eleventh canto is unique in its instructive tone, with a large portion devoted to Virgil's explanation of how the circle is subdivided, classified and populated. I had a couple of goals in mind in structuring this picture: depiction of dialogue as key to its substance (the face-to-face, plain as day positioning of the two heroes), and a didactic representation of the three rings concentrically arranged—the river of blood, the suicide trees and the burning sands. I liken it to a conversation between teacher and pupil, poised before a diagram.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Inferno X: Farinata degli Uberti
















Inferno X: Farinata degli Uberti
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In one of the most theatrical and haunting moments of L'Inferno, Dante is recognized by Farinata degli Uberti, a Florentine military leader and politician. In passing an expanse of flaming sarcophagi, Dante is stopped by the voice of a fellow Florentine, who recognizes his Tuscan accent. The two have a little chat about Florence, their families and honor.

*    *    *

In the sixth circle of Hell, we meet two of the heretics damned to remain there, including Farinata, whose family feuded with Dante's in Florence. Farinata recognizes Dante's Tuscan accent and, rising eerily from his sarcophagus, he engages him in debate about the honor of their respective families. 

Early on, in the Gates of Hell illustration, I first integrated an iconic reference to Florence in the fleur-de-lis, and I've attempted to revive it here in the silhouette created by Farinata's figure and the flames bursting from all sides of his body as he rises from the grave. Additionally, much has been made of the imagery Dante evokes in Farinata's pose. Seen from the waist up he has reminded many a scholar of the Man of Sorrows, a trope of the newly resurrected Christ, displaying the wounds of crucifixion with profound grief. In this image, Christ is represented as both dead (as man) and alive (as God).





Thursday, February 2, 2017

Inferno IX: The Furies at the Gates of Dis






















Inferno IX: The Furies at the Gates of Dis
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”


Arriving at the gates of the city of Dis, Dante and Virgil are accosted by three furies, minions of Medusa. 

*    *    *

Dante and Virgil meet some formidable foes in the furies, Greek figures of vengeance with bat wings and snakes for hair, who carried instruments of torture and punishment: a whip, a chalice of poison and a torch. They hover at the gates of Dis, a walled city whose architecture included mosques (presumably inspired by Jerusalem of the 14th century). Because Islam was a relatively new religion—considered heresy in the eyes of the Church and was certainly not Christianity—its monuments were fitting features of a city whose primary descriptive elements contradict conceptions of Paradiso.


Inferno VIII: "Seize Filippo Argenti!"




Inferno VIII: "Seize Filippo Argenti!"
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Dante encounters the Florentine politician Filippo Argenti, and the wrathful cease their violent battle to consolidate their attacks on him. Argenti then begins to tear at himself in due course, making quite a bloody scene.


*    *    *

The wrathful turn on Filippo Argenti, but he literally beats them to the punch, tearing at his own flesh in a frenzy. In Bocaccio's Decameron, Argenti's ire is raised by a practical joke played by Ciacco,  It's been said that Filippo Argenti once slapped Dante, that his brother had claimed Dante's possessions after his exile, and that the whole Argenti family opposed Dante's return. Dante held some pretty big grudges and the Hollanders explain the character in this gloss from their edition of L'Inferno.

“From the cries of others the reader finally learns the name of this sinner (Dante has known exactly who he is—see v. 39). Filippo Argenti was a Black Guelph from a powerful Florentine family. His real name was Filippo Adimari de’ Cavicciuoli, but he supposedly was known as Filippo Argenti because he had his horse’s hooves shod in silver (argento). A number of early commentators relate that his brother, Boccaccino, got hold of Dante’s possessions when the poet was exiled. If that is true, we have here a pretty clear case of authorial revenge upon a particularly hated enemy. See Francesco Forti, “Filippo Argenti,” ED, vol. 2, 1970, pp. 873–76.”

Excerpt From: Dante, Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander. “The Inferno.” 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Inferno VII: The Wrathful Smite Each Other in the River Styx






















Inferno VII: The Wrathful Smite Each Other in the River Styx
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Canto seven includes a scene of great ferocity, as those whose anger and spiteful nature guided them in life are condemned to beat, kick and bite one another while floating in the River Styx.

*    *    *

Dante had a ferocious sense of humor and this is evidenced throughout L'Inferno, wherein he subjects friend and foe alike to dreadful fates—punishments ranging from the inconvenient to the inhumane. He reserved a great deal of his ire for political rivals who are eternally tortured, burned and humiliated in the bowels of Hell. And, while he pitied the misfortune of the timing, he added historical figures who (sometimes merely because they were born before Christianity was in flower) were doomed to lives of boredom, aimlessness or shame. 

In one of my favorite scenes, dozens of furious souls are damned to partake in a raging battle in the bloody River Styx in Canto Seven. Arriving on the scene he sees all manner of chaos and carnage happening among the participants—an angry, mud-soaked mob immersed in the bloody waters, biting, kicking, drowning, punching and slapping each other. 

And yet, somehow this scene carries with it a terrific sense of absurdity, and it's tough to explain why. I suppose the very notion of people immersed in blood, attacking one another with utter malice is terrifying, but somehow it's worth a chuckle:


In la palude va c’ha nome Stige
questo tristo ruscel, quand’ è disceso
al piè de le maligne piagge grige.

E io, che di mirare stava inteso,
vidi genti fangose in quel pantano,
ignude tutte, con sembiante offeso.

Queste si percotean non pur con mano,
ma con la testa e col petto e coi piedi,
troncandosi co’ denti a brano a brano.

_____________________________

It becomes a swamp by the name of Styx,
this sorry brook, when it descends
at the foot of the malignant, grey shore.

And I, who stood intent,
saw muddy people in the quagmire,
all of them naked and inflamed.

They struck each other not only with their
hands, but with their heads, breasts and feet,
and tore each other piece by piece with their teeth.


For me, head butts are entirely reminiscent of the theatrical absurdity of pro wrestling, and Dante's refined and shocked countenance adds a bit more to the spectacle. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Inferno VI: Cerberus




























Inferno VI: Cerberus
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In the sixth canto, Dante and Virgil encounter Cerberus—the three-headed hound of hell—who guards their passage with his fercious barking as he lords over miserable sinners, writhing in the mire below.


*    *    *

This is a classic case of a good idea gone wrong. Its compositional lethargy is the result a my well-intended yet ill-conceived notion that, by placing Cerberus in the center of the image and surrounding him with a heaving mass of pathetic souls writhing on the ground beneath him, I could metaphorically represent the scene without showing the literal geography. I was trying to introduce some variety to my repertoire of visual presentation tropes. 

I think that most conceptions of this moment in L'Inferno picture Cerberus perched on a rock, enabling him to survey the bodies below while rain and huge hailstones pummel the crowd. But what I've created is not sufficiently depicting that dynamic and, instead, Cerberus is simply plopped in the center of the image, hovering sans gravity and sitting at the same time. The hail disappears when it's superimposed over the figures. So many bad decisions—this is definitely a "do-over" when I have time.

The saving grace for me is the figures themselves, which were a joy to draw in all their puling agony. Nothing like a little misery to brighten one's spirits.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Inferno V: King Minos, The Adjudicator


Inferno V: King Minos, The Adjudicator
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

The dead line up to confess their sins to King Minos, who encircles himself with his serpentine tail, the number of times it girds his body corresponding directly to the circle of hell to which each soul is destined. The Prince of the Lilies, from Knossos on Crete, served as inspiration for the costuming.

*    *    *

In one of the most unnerving moments of L'Inferno, Dante and Virgil observe King Minos holding court over countless souls who must report to him their transgressions before he can damn them to the appropriate circle of Hell. Dante often indulges in generous poetic license to re-imagine characters from myth and history, and his chimeric mutation of Minos from ancient Greek King to serpentine monster is one of his most colorful and sinister characterizations.

The Prince of the Lilies, a fresco unearthed at Minos' infamous Knossos palace (where beneath the floors lurked another hybrid beast, the Minotaur) gave me a great head start in imagining the adjudicator's flair for elaborate, peacock-and-lilies headdress and long, wavy locks.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Inferno IV: The Great Poets

















Inferno IV: The Great Poets
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In esteemed and honorable company, Dante is invited to walk alongside the shades of four ancient poets, thereby placing himself among giants of verse, but slyly doing so in the guise of fictional narrative. Here he meets Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, all wandering expressionless in Limbo.

*    *    *

After the "Gates of Hell" drawing (27 January), I realized that I was setting a stylistic and technical precedent that would be tough to live up to in the time I had allowed to finish the project. Creating so much density and complexity with a 00 Rapidograph pen would be tough. So, I took a gamble and developed an image of the four poets which was much lighter in tone. My hope was that the delicate lines would adequately express the spectral nature of these four shades. I pick up the lighter treatment again later, and I'm pretty pleased with the unity of the series. In fact, I'm glad I did this, because the shifting qualities of each—while related to the others—provides a little variety in the sequence.

The encounter described in Canto IV displays Dante's considerable ego and false humility in full flower. Staging a fraternal invitation by four of the greatest poets to have ever walked the earth was a pretty convenient way to exalt his own status as a living poet, all the while humbling himself by proclaiming his unworthiness. 






Friday, January 27, 2017

Inferno III: The Gates of Hell


















Inferno III: The Gates of Hell
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”


Dante and Virgil soon arrive at the Gates of Hell, whose forboding inscription reads “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here.”


*    *    *

Dante struggled with deeply conflicted feelings about his native city, Florence. Exiled in 1301 because of his affiliation with a political faction known as the White Guelphs, he spent the next several years traveling and writing, his chief accomplishment being La Commedia.

The symbol of Florence for many centuries has been the fleur-di -lis, and in depicting his arrival with Virgil at the entrance to l'Inferno, I wanted primarily to do two things: emphasize the scale of Hell's formidable architecture and—perhaps more importantly—investigate whether some analogous relationship could be forged with Florence. I have incorporated the fleur-di-lis in many places in the series, and this is its first appearance (in the ornamentation on the pyramidal part of the structure on top).

Incidentally, the stepped pyramid above the inscription is a deliberate foreshadowing to the Purgatorial mountain, whose seven levels Dante must ascend in Purgatorio, before reaching Paradise and his beloved Beatrice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Inferno II: Aeneas Enters the Underworld


















Inferno II: Aeneas Enters the Underworld
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”


In the second canto, Dante asks his guide—the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid—why he has been chosen to embark on such a formidable journey. He resists a comparison to Aeneas, who also ventured into the underworld.


*    *    *


The in the first canto of L'Inferno, Dante encounters Virgil, who explains to him the reputation of the beasts and the interaction between the two poets is one of the first instances of intertemporality, in which elements (in this case the two poets) from different times interact to convey a broader message. In La Commedia, Dante is both himself and Everyman, and he masterfully interweaves his true identity with that of mankind in a gripping tale of morality.

In the second canto, Dante balks at the comparison of himself and Aeneas, who entered the underworld at the bidding of his father in order to foresee the fate of Rome. Virgil is in many ways a paternal figure in the poem, and the analogy isn't hard to see. 

The drawing depicts a view from the entrance to the underworld, presumably from the perspective of Aeneas after his flight from the burning city of Troy. His ship (a bireme or trireme) is docked in the foreground and the city burns on the distant shore. This is one of the few drawings I have done that doesn't include a figure in service to the pictorial narrative. Perhaps this is for the sake of variety, but more likely it is done to avoid my cartoonish tendencies. If there's anything I wish to learn from this exercise it's the transcendence of levity in favor of darkness when it's appropriate. It's always been a struggle, this avoidance of humor in inappropriate circumstances. The lack of figuration may also be a natural way to detach from the immediate narrative a little. By showing a scene from a different time and space, and eliminating explicit reference to the narrators, I may see this as a sort of illustrated "cutaway," similar to the cinematic device used in film editing to denote parallel action.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Inferno I: The Three Beasts


















Inferno I: The Three Beasts
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”


As he begins his journey, Dante is three times turned back for fear of attack by three wild beasts: a leopard (representing lust), a lion (pride) and a she-wolf (avarice).

*   *   *

What began as my favorite Inferno image in my sketchbook—indeed, the one that kicked off the project in an exciting way for me—has lately haunted me in its lack of sophistication and gravitas since I committed it to larger scale. I drew this spread no less than five times before arriving at this version and I'm intent on developing an improved iteration, once the whole series is finished and I have time to backtrack and fix things. It's driving me nuts. It's too playful and disarming.

Providing narrative context is important if one is to understand the relevance of Dante's encounter with the leopard, lion and she-wolf, set early in the poem, shortly after Dante awakens in the forest, filled with regret and fear. As he makes his way through the landscape, he encounters three savage beasts. In almost all scholars' minds, these animals represent three grave sins of man, but there's sometimes disagreement about which transgressions they are. 

I'm most familiar with the edition of La Commedia that was translated and glossed by Robert and Jean Hollander in 2000. They eloquently discuss the animal metaphors in their notes:

“The early commentators are strikingly in accord; for them the beasts signify (1) three of the seven mortal sins: lust, pride, and avarice. Modern interpreters mainly—but not entirely, as we shall see—reject this formulation. One of these interpretations is based on Inferno VI. 75, the three “sparks” that have lit evil fires in the hearts of contemporary Florentines, according to Ciacco, who is seconded by Brunetto Latini [Inf. XV. 68]): (2) envy, pride, and avarice. Others suggest that the key is found at Inferno XI. 81–82, where, describing the organization of the punishment of sin, Virgil speaks of (3) “the three dispositions Heaven opposes, incontinence, malice, and mad brutishness.” Even within this approach there are strong disagreements as to which beast represents which Aristote-lian/Ciceronian category of sin: is the leopard fraud or incontinence? is the she-wolf incontinence or fraud? (the lion is seen by all those of this “school” as violence). For instance, some have asked, if the leopard is fraud, the worst of the three dispositions to sin, why is it the beast that troubles Dante the least? A possible answer is that fraud is the disposition least present in Dante.”

Excerpt From: Dante, Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander. “The Inferno.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/sBENE.l

I would be perfectly content if scholars could reach some consensus on these interpretations, if only for my stumbling on the convenient formal metaphor that associates the leopard's camouflage with the concept of "fraud." Nothing's easy in hell.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Introduction to Inferno: Una Selva Oscura

















Introduction to Inferno: Una Selva Oscura
Ink on paper. 2016
22 x 15”

In the opening canto of L’ Inferno, Dante finds himself in a dark wood (una selva oscura) having lost his way in life, both morally and intellectually. Thus begins the journey to Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, before returning to life a saved man.

*   *   *

For a couple of years, I taught a class with a brilliant RISD colleague—Mark Sherman, a medievalist in the Literary Arts and Studies Department. I learned a great deal from our experience, and particularly from Mark, who was not only a knowledgeable scholar but also a perfectly competent critic of visual communication. The class, "Illustrating Dante's Comedy," encouraged deeper reflection on the poem in its entirety, with the challenging premise of total immersion in both scholarly and studio investigation. We met for eight hours each week and talked constantly about the poem, its metaphorical and historical richness and how best to visualize it. I do think it was important for most of the students, as their apprehension of the content—written 700 years ago—was made more meaningful by their attempts at illustrating it, while their literary interpretation deepened their relationship to the content as artists. This was the goal, realized with exactitude through a huge investment of sweat and brain work.

It affected me too, and I remain grateful to Mark for resurrecting the poem for me. I don't think that any other teaching experience—at RISD or elsewhere—has more strongly influenced my own creative trajectory. I began by sketching in class as we discussed the poem and these little drawings eventually took shape as a project that's been consuming my attention for the past several months. Most of us read L'Inferno in high school or freshman lit classes in college, and its pulpy, phantasmal imagery appeals universally to youthful sensibilities. I last encountered L'Inferno (sans the rest of the poem) at age 19, my mind mired in newfound pleasures of freely available sex and beer and (finally, after 12 years of public school in which art class was shoved to the periphery) full-time dedication to art making. But in middle age I suspect the poem resonates more profoundly as it mirrors the preoccupations of people (like myself) whose paths in life are pondered with affection, regret, lost love, resentment and a desire to clarify, once and for all, the rest of the journey. Pick up Dante at age 50 and it will be a different literary experience. Spend many hours translating and drawing its tercets of terza rima and you'll realize how much you have in common with a 14th century poet, despite the hundreds of years and linguistic traditions that separate you.

I'm on sabbatical from teaching Illustration at RISD. My proposal, which was submitted in earnest many months ago, boldly (and with naive, puppy-dog enthusiasm, I will admit it) involved completion of 100 drawings based on La Commedia, an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. I've knocked a dent in it but I have a long way to go, of course. I still have time, and—as I near the ninth circle of hell in my efforts to illustrate this huge masterpiece—I'm probably about as intimidated as our hero was just before he encountered Lucifer, embedded in ice and chomping away on three sinners.

Recently (and I'm surprised that I never bothered to research this before) I took a look at relevant dates for the poem's creation. It took Dante, politically and socially exiled from Florence and couch surfing in other Italian cities, twelve years to complete the poem—from 1308-1320. He was, during its creation, between the ages of 43-and 55 years old. Coincidentally  (or perhaps not) at age 43 I came out to my kids, friends and colleagues after almost 20 years of marriage to a beautiful, wise and forgiving woman and found myself in a dark wood: una selva oscura. Desperate for jarring change and a fresh start, I moved to Rome to teach for RISD and enjoyed the departure from routine for two transformative years. This was certainly a momentous turning point in life and the beginning of a period of introspection and self-awareness that has culminated in innumerable life changes. During the past eleven years I have experienced a protracted awakening. I stopped drinking. I enjoyed a seven-year relationship with a man I met in Rome. I became vegetarian. I tried to steer my kids from harm as they teetered on the cusp of adulthood. I lost my mother, a beautiful force of nature, who passed away a month ago at age 96. I looked back on the countless mistakes and losses I experienced along the way. I became a more courageous man.

I'm not presumptuous enough to liken my own artistic pursuits to those of Dante, but I've been awed by the richness of experience this project has afforded me. I have undertaken it analogously, approaching each canto, from beginning to end, in the proper sequence. Like Dante, I begin in the dark wood, wondering how the hell I got here, grateful for so much but cursing myself for squandering some unusual gifts. The project has been deliberately structured as time-consuming (and occasionally maddening, especially when my own lack of resourcefulness or other obstacles slow me down). And, more than any other aspect of learning it has afforded me, I have been allowed to study my own processes—intellectual, formal and technical—and this is precisely what the gift of sabbatical is about. 

I'm including below the opening lines to L'Inferno, no doubt mirroring the experience of many of my brothers and sisters in mid-life, along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1867 translation:


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.


Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.