Rauschenberg's Road to Hell Paved with Symbolisitc Intention

by Cass Art

Dante's Inferno threw up a Hellish artistic conundrum for Robert Rauschenberg to ponder.

So much so that the Texas-born artist agonised over it for 30 months. How should he depict 34 works each illustrating a canto of Dante Alighieri's first part of the epic 14th-century poem Divine Comedy?

Rauschenberg had been fashioning purely abstract work for so long. So it was important for him to see whether he was working abstractly simply because he couldn't work any way else, or whether he was doing it from choice.

He said: "I really welcomed, insisted, on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject."

This meant that he would have to become involved in symbolism. Rauschenberg said: "I mean, the illustration has to be read. It has to relate to something that is already in existence. Well, I spent two-and-a-half years deciding 'yes, I could do that'."

Rauschenberg developed his transfer technique during this period.

He achieved this by dissolving printed images with a solvent and then rubbing them on to paper with a stylus.

This process, he said, created the impression of something "fugitive, exquisite and secret".

The American self-deprecatingly said the switch forced him to display uncharacteristic discipline creating the 34 pieces, which occupied him from 1958-60. They helped to render him, in the words of contemporary painter Jasper Johns, "the most inventive artist of the 20th century since Picasso".

These works go on display in Marylebone's longest-established contemporary art gallery this week.

Visitors might be interested to know that the creative process enabled Rauschenberg to introduce autobiographical elements into his work. In Dante's allegorical poem, which tells of Dante's journey through Hell, Dis is the capital of the underworld. Rauschenberg depicted this using his home town's oil derricks.

He outlined his foot in red for the canto where Dante explains that sodomites are sentenced to run eternally barefoot over hot sand.

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote: "These drawings may actually be the artist's best work. They distill Rauschenberg to his essence and yet show him at his most profound."

Rauschenberg, whose early pieces anticipated the pop art movement, died in 2008, aged 82. The artist's works live on, however, including Robert Rauschenberg's Illustrations For Dante's Inferno, a new exhibition at London's A&D Gallery, 51 Chiltern Street London W1U 6LY, starting on Tuesday, August 20. It runs until September 28.

Rauschenberg, still as self-deprecating as ever, said in his later life: "I'm just a garbage man, but one with class." In 2010, Studio Painting (1960/61), one of Rauschenberg's so-called 'Combines', fetched 11 million dollars (£7 million) at Christie's in New York.

Not bad for a supposed 'garbage man' …

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