Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Drawings for Dante's 700th birthday

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
Drawings for Dante's 700th birthday
crayon, graphite, acrylic, gouache and silkscreen inks on Strathmore board, in two parts
each: 15 x 31 1/2 in. (38.1 x 81 cm.)
Executed in 1965.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Victor and Sally Ganz, New York, 1966
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 10 November 1997, lot 4
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2002, lot 17
Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York
Private collection, Switzerland
By descent from the above to the present owner
F. Kappler, "Dante," Life, vol. 59, no. 25, 17 December 1965, pp. 45-49 (illustrated in color).
D. G. Seckler, "The Artist Speaks: Robert Rauschenberg," Art in America, vol. 54, no. 3, May-June 1966, pp. 72-73, 75, 77 and 82-84 (studio view illustrated).
U. Mulas and A. Solomon, New York: The New Art Scene, Milan, 1967, pp. 242-247 (studio view illustrated).
T. W. Hardy, Allusion and Self-Portraiture in Robert Rauschenberg’s Dante Illustrations, Washington, D.C., 1985, p. 165, fig. 50 (illustrated).
M. L. Kotz, Rauschenberg: Art & Life, New York, 1990, p. 169.
M. FitzGerald, ed., A Life of Collecting: Victor and Sally Ganz, New York, 1997, pp. 154 and 156-157 (illustrated in color).
D. Apel, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob, New Brunswick, 2004, pp. 193-194, pl. 8 (illustrated in color).
H. Ikegami, The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 204 and 208-211 (illustrated in color).
G. Smith, "Rauschenberg, Dante, Kennedy, and Space Exploration," Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 35, no. 3, Spring 2016, pp. 258-267.
G. Smith, "Rauschenberg's Modern Infernos for Life Magazine," Visual Resources, vol. 32, no. 1-2, March-June 2016, pp. 145-168, fig. 1A, 1B and 2 (illustrated in color and studio view illustrated).
Robert Rauschenberg, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2016, p. 179, pl. 143 (illustrated in color).
New York, Bianchini Gallery and Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center, Master Drawings: Pissarro to Lichtenstein, January-February 1966, n.p., pl. 19 (detail illustrated).
Philadelphia, Peale House Galleries, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Robert Rauschenberg, March-April 1968, no. 1.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Twentieth-Century American Drawing: Three Avant-Garde Generations, January-March 1976, p. 93, no. 158.
New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Master Drawings of the Twentieth Century, May-June 1998, pp. 70-71, no. 30 (illustrated in color).
New York, Barbara Mathes Gallery, Heaven & Hell, April-June 2003.

Brought to you by

Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

“If the “Inferno” hadn’t existed, then Rauschenberg would have been the man to invent it.” Charles Derwent

Executed in 1965, Robert Rauschenberg’s illustrated portrayal of Dante’s Inferno is an epic visual feat, encompassing some of the most powerful imagery of his career. A modern counterpart to the canonical illustrations of Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Gustave Doré, Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dalí, Rauschenberg creates a modern Inferno, with references to some the most profound atrocities of the 20th century. Rauschenberg exposes the glaring injustice and moral hypocrisy of 1960s America in this stunning portrait. Like Warhol’s Race Riot, Rauschenberg selects photographs from the front pages of the country’s newspapers to present a country divided. He brilliantly interweaves these troubling images across two panoramic panels punctuated with warm touches of red and orange paint, the colors of which one critic called “midway between Titian and color television” (M. Kozloff, “Art,” The Nation, December 7, 1963, p. 403). On December 17, 1965, Rauschenberg’s portrayal debuted to the American public in Life magazine article “A Modern Inferno” where it was illustrated in color over six pages. One of only two works that Rauschenberg created in 1965 on the subject of Dante’s Inferno, the work was originally owned by esteemed collectors Victor and Sally Ganz, in whose collection it remained for over thirty years. The companion work, For Dante’s 700 Birthday, No.2, hangs in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Rauschenberg created the present work during an important turning point in his early career, having just won the coveted Grand Prix at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Rauschenberg was one of only three American artists to ever win the prize, causing consternation among the old-guard critics who were skeptical of Pop Art’s rapid proliferation across Europe. To create this work, Rauschenberg used photographs derived from Life, Newsweek and similar magazines; imagery every bit as chilling as Dante’s epic 14th century poem. The central image of the upper panel presents the mushroom-cloud horror of the atomic blast that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Gruesome photographs of the emaciated victims of the Holocaust and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of Buchenwald—perhaps the most unsettling imagery of the 20th century—demonstrating the hellish nightmare of Dante’s Inferno on earth. Elsewhere, a car viewed through the cross-hairs of an assault rifle recalls the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Other images illustrate the specifically American brand of brutality that plagued the civil rights era, from the noose in the upper left to the photographs of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. A car carrying two members of the Ku Klux Klan hangs a noose outside the passenger window, and along the far right edge of the lower panel, a baboon’s menacing teeth are rendered in a lurid orange-yellow hue and the three-headed Cerberus, guardian of the gates of hell. In the lower panel, protesters in favor of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, carry signs with derogatory racial epithets.

The operatic scope of Rauschenberg’s portrayal drives home the hysteria of a tumultuous decade that gripped the nation in the mid-sixties. From the Kennedy assassination of November 1963, and the subsequent shootings of Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the anti-Vietnam war protests, student sit-ins and other violent political clashes, the U.S. was caught in the midst of a turbulent era. The glaring injustice and moral hypocrisy of a nation that billed itself as “the land of the free,” but denied basic human rights to people of different color, gender and sexual orientation, was exposed daily in the front pages of the country’s newspapers and on the news each night. Rauschenberg, in particular, was profoundly affected by JFK’s death. Rauschenberg had seen the president as a personal hero, manifesting him in many paintings and drawings of the era. Kennedy’s death inaugurated a new phase in the Rauschenberg’s life and acted as a catalyst for his involvement in social and political activism. After Kennedy’s death, the artist became more involved in the civil rights movement and made fundraising projects for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1965.

Rauschenberg was thirty-five—the same age as Dante was when he composed the Inferno—when he embarked upon the Dante Drawings, an earlier series of drawings dating to 1958-1960 that illustrated each canto of Dante’s Inferno. The drawings toured Europe during the mid-sixties, where they helped solidify Rauschenberg’s reputation as a profound artist who was able to translate the gravitas of Dante’s epic 14th century masterpiece. European critics praised Rauschenberg, calling him “an American Virgil” (G. Ponti, an untitled poem, in H. Ikegami, The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art, Cambridge, 2014, p. 207). One reviewer wrote: “Rauschenberg’s interpretation of Dante was a real surprise...Here one encounters a more analytic Rauschenberg, one who achieves a convincing degree of intensity and a remarkable mastery of content. These...demonstrate that Rauschenberg is a first-class artist!” (W. Fedler, “Lettera dalla Germania,” in H. Ikegami, ibid., p. 206).

Coincidentally, Rauschenberg’s Dante Drawings returned home to the U.S. in late 1965, where they opened at the Museum of Modern Art in December, shortly after Life published A Modern Inferno. Though separated by several years, both the drawings and the present work showcase Rauschenberg’s inventive reinterpretation of the 14th century epic using contemporary photographs loaded with symbolic content and association. In Drawings for Dante’s 700th birthday, Rauschenberg symbolically represents Dante in the lone portrayal of a single astronaut amidst the carnage of the surrounding imagery, placed near the center of the lower panel and again in the upper right corner. Rauschenberg’s symbolic portrayal indicates a hope for mankind that remains, despite the vicious atrocities committed elsewhere. It speaks to the hopeful optimism that surrounded the early missions of NASA and man’s lofty aspirations to reach the heavens, despite earthly world’s turmoil. Directly to his right, Rauschenberg has tenderly rendered his outline in a pale wash of warm pigment while a speech-bubble above his head contains the colors of the rainbow, providing hope for a troubled nation.

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