A Response to Canto XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno

This piece was done quite a few months back, as my first ‘visualization’ in my poetry class. Throughout the semester, we had to do three visualizations i.e. artworks based on a poem. For this assignment, we had to choose one canto from Dante’s Inferno. I chose Canto XXVIII, specifically the following lines:

“… No barrel staved-in
And missing its end-piece ever gaped as wide
As the man I saw split open from his chin

Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed
Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs.
I saw his organs, and the sack that makes the bread

We swallow turn to shit. Seeing my eyes
Fastened upon him, he pulled open his chest
With both hands, saying, “Look how Mohammed claws

And mangles himself, torn open down the breast!
Look how I tear myself! …”

(Canto XXVIII, Lines 22-32, translated by Robert Pinsky)

The initial reason why I chose to do this was actually because when I listened to the audio book, I laughed out loud when I heard the narrator says “farting-place”. Not the most serious of beginnings for an artwork, particularly from a part of the poem that describes a part of hell where the Prophet Mohammed was being sawed in half for propagating Islam and causing a “schism” between Muslims and Christians.

However, these lines reminded me of a print from Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War series, which was created in response to the 1808-1814 war between the Spanish and the French. It was an image that I always remembered, but could never look at (at least not without cringing):

To me, this was the perfect translation of what I had read in that Canto.

At the time, I was also getting more and more inspired by what I was learning in my Asian Art History class. I thought about how the Buddhist concept of hell was similar to Dante’s – the idea of different levels of hell where the severity of punishment corresponded with the severity of the crime. This lead me to combining the two cultures by substituting the soldiers in Goya’s print with demons from Chinese or Japanese depictions of hell.

Part of a Hell Scroll

In keeping with my own fascination with creation as a form of masochism, I forced myself to draw this image nine times in different media (pencil, ballpoint pen, walnut ink, Chinese ink, etc), one for each circle of hell. I used graph paper to emphasise this repetitive aspect. As such, I had to trace every line of an image that I had so much difficulty looking at. However, this “backfired”; I was able to distance myself by breaking down the image into lines and forms (as one does when doing technical drawings), and furthermore, images of Asian demons are so exaggerated and cartoon-like that they diminished the horror of man committing cruel acts against man.

During the critique session for this piece, my classmates comments illuminated the fact that this project basically didn’t “work”. I’m glad I got it out of my system, or a lot of these concepts would have made their way into my future work and complicated them further. The only thing about this work that I really think that I might move forward with is the last frame, where I created a more abstract version of the image using a watercolour brush and Chinese ink. Other than that, the book is closed on this one.

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