Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno
In the spring of 1958, Robert Rauschenberg set out to illustrate each of the 34 cantos of the Inferno, from poet Dante Alighieri’s medieval epic Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy, c. 1307–21). This project would occupy Rauschenberg for over two years in a conversation with Dante across the centuries. To make these, Rauschenberg culled images from popular contemporary sources, soaked them with lighter fluid (which acted as a solvent), and rubbed them face down with an empty ball point pen onto paper, later adding touches of pencil, crayon, watercolor wash, and gouache. Dante and the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who serves as Dante’s guide and companion in the underworld, take a range of contemporary forms—athletes, astronauts, the politicians Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy—as they descend into the depths of a modern-day hell. "The role of the artist is to see what is in the world today," Rauschenberg later reflected. In 1963 this series was among the first works by Rauschenberg to be acquired by The Museum of Modern Art and remains a treasured icon in the collection.