A &D Gallery, London

Charles Darwent on Rauschenberg, XXXIV Drawings for Dante's 'Inferno': Bath-house tales that scrub up nicely

Illustrating a literary masterpiece, Robert Rauschenberg converts mass produced images into fragile artworks

Other literary works must have had the impact on artists of The Divine Comedy, although, Shakespeare and the Bible apart, I can not think of one offhand. A quick jog through art history throws up illustrations to Dante's three-part poem by Giovanni di Paulo, Botticelli and Gustave Doré; Rodin sculpted it, Blake was busy painting watercolours from it when he died.

Modern artists such as Salvador Dalí have traced the footsteps of Virgil and Beatrice through "Inferno" and "Purgatorio" to "Paradiso", although Robert Rauschenberg, never big on redemption, skipped the last two and stayed in the first.

If the "Inferno" hadn't existed, then Rauschenberg (1925-2008) would have been the man to invent it. For anyone born post-1900, Dante's Hell, Purgatory and Heaven bear a notable resemblance to the id, ego and super-ego of the tripartite Freudian mind. The young Rauschenberg, taught painting at Black Mountain College by the strict Bauhaus abstractionist Josef Albers, came to see Modernist art as a variant of his Texan parents' fundamental Christianity. In the late 1950s, he would set about redefining it in his own, flawed image.

As a closeted gay man in that homophobic decade – married and quickly divorced, he had affairs with Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns – Rauschenberg knew that sexual love and damnation were indissolubly intertwined: no Beatrice was going to lead him to salvation. So Hell was what he chose to depict, in a series of drawings of the 34 cantos of "Inferno" made between 1958 and 1960 – images that were as far from Albers and Baptist Texas as it was possible, then, to go.

First, there was the question of method. The works in a show at the A&D Gallery, a small space in a newly arted-up Marylebone street in central London, are lithographs of Rauschenberg's drawings rather than the drawings themselves. (The originals, now fragile and hugely valuable, are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) This extra layer of making adds to, rather than detracts from the images, their story being, at heart, one of veils looked through rather than drawn.

If Albers had preached the gospel of meticulousness in art, then Rauschenberg would go for its opposite. The "Inferno" drawings look scruffy, the kind of thing anyone could do. And, to an extent, they are: the images were made by placing scraps cut from newspapers and magazines on background paper, pouring (rather clumsily) a solvent on to them and then transferring the dried image by scoring it with the tip of an empty ballpoint pen, rather like those coin-and-pencil rubbings children do.

The end result is certainly demotic, but it is more than that. The scratchy surface of Rauschenberg's drawings and prints may combine abstract Expressionism with Dada and early Pop, but they own up to the flawed nature of the human hand, of humanity itself. They are innocent, but in a guilty way.

The portrait-format images also look like rooms, and I wonder if there isn't something of the gay bath-house to them? If Dante had peopled his inferno with the usual Christian suspects – the lying, the disloyal and self-interested, spoiled sons of the ill-gotten rich – then Rauschenberg's Hell is specifically homoerotic.

Through the mists of his hatching emerge figures from mythology and his own sexual fantasy, Dante rewritten by Tom of Finland. In Canto II, The Descent into Hell, in roughly half of the drawngs, Dante himself leans on a wall wearing white boxer shorts. He is joined by steam-room stereotypes: wrestlers, weightlifters, men in suits, the bearded Eugenius.

As in The Divine Comedy, there is something ridiculous about all of this, something bleakly amusing. In Canto XXI, corrupt politicians are boiled in a river of tar, goaded into it with pitchforks by demons called the malebranche, or "evil-claws". As Dante and Virgil pass by, these fart loudly – del cul fatto trombetta, "made trumpets of their arses", as Dante says. Rauschenberg, entering into the spirit of the game, has his malebranche wear gas masks.

In Canto XIV, The Third Ring of the Seventh Circle, Dante finds naked sinners condemned to walk for eternity on burning sand. Rauschenberg, in a quiet in-joke, traces his own foot in red crayon. The occupants of this particular sub-hell are the Violent Against Art.

For all that, what marks the "Inferno" drawings as great is not their humour or even their place in art history, but their empathy with pain and instinctive feel for obscurity. They are veiled, encoded calls to redeem the time – to turn mass-produced images into hand-drawn artworks, to de-trash trash, to de-demonise human sexuality. Rauschenberg's drawings were doomed to failure on all these counts. Their tragedy (and their strength) lies in the fact that they knew it.

To 28 Sept (aanddgallery.com)

Critic's Choice

Dame Laura Knight recorded the lives of circus folk, ballet dancers, her intellectual circle, Second World War fighters and civilian workers, the Nuremberg trials, and she became the first woman for 167 years to be admitted to the Royal Academy. See how she broke through in Laura Knight: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London (to 13 Oct). Also at the NPG, a few arresting portraits in the annual BP Award – albeit among others less notable – make the free exhibition worth a look (to 15 Sept).

 

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?