In the spring of 1958 Robert Rauschenberg embarked upon the long labour of making one illustration for each of the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s Inferno, the first canticle of the great 14th century allegory, The Divine Comedy. The project was finally completed in November 1960 and displayed in New York the following month. To make the drawings Rauschenberg employed the technique of solvent transfer, which involved soaking printed mass media images in lighter fuel and rubbing them on their backs with an old ballpoint pen, so as to transfer the ink for the magazine clipping to the drawn sheet below. Rauschenberg thus translated Dante’s poem into the visual vernacular of contemporary America and this lecture explores the interpretive possibilities raised by the discovery of the artist’s source materials. In engaging with Dante’s great allegory – itself urgently addressed to contemporary social, political, religious and philosophical concerns – how far was Rauschenberg allowing his own work to bear upon some of the most pressing questions in American social and political life in the late 1950s?
Ed Krčma is Lecturer in History of Art at the University of East Anglia. He has written extensively on American and European art after 1945, and recent articles have appeared in journals including Art History, Oxford Art Journal and Master Drawings. His monograph, Rauschenberg/ Dante: Drawing a Modern Inferno will be published by Yale in 2017. He has also contributed a catalogue essay to the Rauschenberg retrospective organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate Modern.