For Dante

The Turning Point – Celebrating Mercy in The Divine Comedy and Dante’s 700th Anniversary

Earlier this year I created a work to enter into an exhibition specifically to celebrate Dante Alighieri’s 700th Anniversary which may fall on 13th or 14th September (today or yesterday). The exhibition opened at The Dante Society in London with many of the artists in Italy, America and China participating in the event online. There is also an online version of the exhibition which you may visit virtually. I am writing this to offer some background information to the thinking behind the painting and to commemorate the great Dante Alighieri 700 years after he met with the eternal.

The frontispiece to Lorenzo de Medici’s folio of the poetic works of Dante and Petrarch features a painting of a shipwrecked man being offered a branch of a laurel bush, the laurel being emblematic of poets. When life throws us adrift with no anchor, when our worlds are lost and torn, poetry and song can be a lifesaver: a branch that can pull us to shore, where the words of the long departed can reach out to us and console, reassure us that we are not alone in being alone.

Visiting Florence in 2019 was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. Among my earliest memories of television is a documentary on St. Francis and Florentine artists featured heavily. Readers of my biography of Frances Darlington will know that a certain statue of St. Francis also figured strongly in my early life as did the name of ‘Uncle Dante’. To family and familiars Frances was ‘Dickie’, her sister, (my great grandmother) was ‘Dot’ and her brother was ‘Dante’, a nickname coined after his childhood affection for his elder cousin Beatrice! I never met any of them, but my grandmother was full of stories. I was so little that when my mother called me to the television to see something about St. Francis (who was the main attraction) when she spoke of Florence I fully expected to see a character from The Magic Roundabout! The memory is particularly vivid as the television broke down in the middle of the programme – so the moment was bookmarked in my memory by a loud bang.  

On my return from Florence, determined to stay there in spirit for as long as I could I decided to read The Divine Comedy. Although I had read sections of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation, I confess that I found the text rather wearisome so I invested in a new copy of The Divine Comedy translated by Robin Kirkpatrick and set about reading one or two cantos a night. The contemporary language opened up the text in a way impossible with the Longfellow. The notes were rich and deep and I decided to read the thing properly, cross-referencing with the notes throughout and with other books about Florence that I had to hand.

As Covid-19 began to strangle family life and cut me off even further from those that I loved, I once again looked to the poetic rock that is Dante. Towards the end of March 2020 my father collapsed, was taken away in an ambulance never to be seen again (he was diagnosed with Covid-19 after his admission into hospital and died two weeks later – we were unable to visit). Then Dante (and his translator Robin Kirkpatrick) became those crucial poets on the shore proffering a laurel branch as I was whipped about in the treacherous waters of loss. As next of kin (my parents are divorced) I was the main point of contact with the Intensive Care Unit and lived an horrific two weeks as a remote witness to my father’s gradual decline – passing on news to all other family members and friends. Although the nurses kept me afloat with news of his improvement, increasingly better oxygen levels etc – in the early days of the pandemic, beds were needed for younger people and doctors decided it was time to end his life by removing life support. The nurses seemed as upset as I was – my father was a young 79. In the daytime I drew from Botticelli and in the night I read Dante clinging onto Florence and the Divine light that inspired its deepest beauty with all my might.

Pencil copy of Flora from La Primavera by Botticelli

In 2005 I had bought the Longfellow translation of The Divine Comedy, primarily for the breath-taking illustrations by Gustave Doré which are surely the only works to have come close to depicting the magnitude of the imagery.

Although rich in detail and the compassion that is the life blood of the text, the only thing they lack is the colour – jewel like colours and vivid light, vision is so crucial to Dante’s descriptive verse. Dante’s patron saint was St. Lucy (cf Inferno 2) who is the patron saint of eye sight, and this link with sight and blindness is an integral theme to the book. Therefore I used geometry to evoke an approximation of a cross-section of an eye, to convey lenses and the reflective mechanisms of vision and sight and it pivoting on a fixed point.

And those happy souls

became like spheres revolving around fixed points,

flaming in spinning turns as comets do.’

(Paradiso 24)

The Turning Point 2021

Eyes reveal the soul, it is with a look of the eye that Beatrice can speak to Dante, through her eyes that Dante regains his sight and recognises the truth of the Divine, cf Paradiso 26.

‘The lady who now leads you through this god-

like realm has, in the glance she gives to you, 

The power that lay in Ananias’ hand.’

(By laying his hands upon St. Paul’s eyes, Ananias cures him of blindness – Acts of the Apostles 9:17-18)

So, too, the eyes of Beatrice shone-

Their ray would reach a thousand miles or more –

Routing the maculae that tainted mine.

I saw now better than I had before. 

(Paradiso 26)

Earlier in The Purgatorio Beatrice’s eyes resonate the divine light from those of the Gryphon,

…they brought me to the Gryphon’s breast, 

where, turned towards us, Beatrice stood.

‘Make sure,’ they said, ‘you do not spare your eyes.

We’ve placed you here before these emeralds,

from which Love aimed his arrows at you at once.’

A thousand longings, fiercer than flame, 

wrestled my eyes to her eyes, shining back, 

fixed upon the Gryphon, never wavering.

No differently from sun in mirror glass, 

the twyform beast shone rays into her eyes, 

displaying one and then the other kind.

(Purgatorio 31:113-123)

Apart from the vivid visual descriptions, the way we see things, the way we interpret what we see, seems incredibly important, particularly in The Inferno. There is a lack of condemnation in the presence of a non-judgemental Dante who looks on as a quiet wondering and sometimes horrified observer. Although the actual author Dante has decided who is in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, placing judgement outside the text, compassion is quite literally the life-blood of The Divine Comedy and it is the pity and concern of Dante, who is the reader’s eyes, that is dominant. This perhaps suggests that the compassionate vision in Dante, his own love of his fellow man, allows him to progress to see the love that is in heaven.

Having studied English literature of the period and that which followed it, I found Dante’s imagery huge – for it is out of this world and approaches the cinematic visions of science fiction. While in contemporary medieval English texts knights and mysterious women, dragons and green men lurked in strange and fantastic forests, Italian readers had these vast cinematic celestial vistas – closer to space-scapes than landscapes. 

The vast sums of this universe, of all existence, complex geometry, time and historical experience are summed up in a single moment in the encounter of God, to a single simple point or truth.

Within its depths, this light I saw, contained

bound up and gathered in a single book,

the leaves that scatter through the universe-

beings and accidents and modes of life, 

as blown all together in a way

that what I say is just a simple light.

This knotting up of universal form

I saw, I’m sure of that. For now I feel 

in saying this, a gift of greater joy.

One single point in trauma is far more, 

for me, than those millennia since sail

made Neptune marvel under Argos shade.

(Paradiso 33)

The passage that primarily inspired my painting this year is from Purgatorio 32 – a scene famously illustrated by William Blake. I omitted the chariot for poetic reasons, to simplify the image to the cruciform arm of the chariot mentioned in the text and concentrate on the crucial aspect of redemption that this scene signifies.

And then they circled round a leafless tree.

Its every branch was stripped of greenery.

The crested peak which broadens out the more

The more it rises, would, for height, inspire 

Wonder in the Hindus in their own great woods.

‘Blessed are you Gryphon. With your beak

You did not spoil this wood, so sweet to taste.

For after tasting, bellies writhe, all sick.’

Around this might tree they made this cry.

And then the creature, two formed in its birth:

‘In this way, all that’s true and just is saved.’

Then, turned towards the pole he’d drawn. Before, 

Towards the foot of that long-widowed sprig,

he tugged it and then left it bound to that.

Compare: in spring the great light of the sun

Cascades on earthly trees conjoined with that 

which shines out following the astral Carp.

These trees then swell. The colour is renewed,

In each and all, before the sun moves on

To yoke its horse to some other star.

So did this tree, whose boughs had hung bereft, 

Take on new strength, in colour opening

To more than violet and to less than rose.

(Purgatorio 32: 37-60)

The Turning Point 2021

Colour also strongly signifies Mercy – in the Bible and in the Divine Comedy so the inclusion of the rainbow as the vast limitless mercy of God was inevitable. Envisioning astrolabes and the circling three spheres representing The Trinity and the mercy therein I saw the pivotal point at their centre as the moment the cross touches the barren tree, but it is also a pearl, referencing the pearl of women and the Kingdom of Heaven – see Matthew as cited below.

Within the being – lucid, bright and deep-

of that high brilliance there appeared to me

three circling spheres, three-coloured, one in span.

and one, it seemed was mirrored by the next

twin rainbows, arc to arc. The third seemed fire, 

and breathed to first and second equally.

(Paradiso 33)

cf Matthew 13:45-6

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls,46 who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Verdi Te Deum from Florence, 1996:

https://ok.ru/video/1967210236629

Conference Poster & Abstract

IMG_0058

Yesterday I took part in the University of Leeds, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures Postgraduate Researchers poster competition conference. this was a very useful exercise in examining my research questions, determining my research strategy and communicating all of this to the uninitiated! The aim was to focus on one aspect or angle of my research, rather than the main research area of the PhD.

POSTER

poster image

 

ABSTRACT

The 2016 exhibition “Records & Rebels 1966-1970” at the V&A celebrated the fiftieth anniversaries of various socio-political and cultural landmarks of the 1960s and their expression through music, fashion and art.

While this rebellious culture was certainly revolutionary, aspects of it, namely the retrieval of older 19th-century styles and imagery may be seen as reactionary, e.g. to an enforced modernisation of London in the functional and austere rebuilding of the city following the war, or to an increasingly liberated female workforce. As the streamlined designs of the early 1960s celebrated this concept of modern life, the later 1960s pushed new boundaries in social norms and behaviours whilst simultaneously adopting older forms of representation and self-definition, evoking both female subordinate and intellectual/creative (e.g. Janey Morris, Christina Rossetti).

Within the context of my wider study of these revivals, I will focus upon the shift in the representation of and clothing of women of the late 1960s /early 1970s where designers were reviving imagery of an older world with older values and where the fashions and designs dated to a time before female suffrage. I will present these paradoxical identities within the 19th-century revivals in graphics, fashion and literature of the era.

 

Reactionary or Revolutionary? Recent research & responses

Funding from my university department recently allowed me to make a research trip to London. This is part of my study of revivals of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century imagery in the design and lyric of the late 1960s. Although prompted by research for a work made in 2012, I first began discussion with Abigail Harrison-Moore about my current PhD research in early February 2016, so it was with a mixture of fascination, enthusiasm and fear (of the worth of my work and research being debased) that I read of the Records & Rebels exhibition at the V&A later that year. There was much relevant content but not much analysis of my specific field of research. This Guardian article reviews the show, concentrating on just one area, the posters of Hapshash and Beardsley’s influence.

My forays into the V&A museum Print and Study Room took me on a tour of San Francisco’s psychedelic posters (it seems much of the London Hapshash stuff I had wanted to view was out on loan). I took a particular interest in this poster by Wes Wilson. The face has definite resonances with Beardsley and with Rossetti, although the latter is likely to a be by-product of the former since Beardsley was heavily influenced and reacted to the Pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones.

New Year Bash. 1966 Wes Wilson

Wes Wilson, New Year Bash 1966

 

The influence of Rossetti may be fairly obvious, the lines of Janey Burden’s (Morris’s) hair offering themselves as curvilinear lines for psychedelic text to thoughtfully ramble along. Less obvious is the new and emergent female identity which was being navigated during these years. Several conflicting narratives were gaining currency in the 1960s. Pharmaceuticals had unleashed all types of social freedoms – the birth control pill introduced to the UK in 1961 brought about a freedom (of sorts) to sexual expression, relationships were in the balance with sexual promiscuity and so-called “free love”, although as Germaine Greer has pointed out, the side effects of these early contraceptives meant that this “freedom” came a physical cost to the female. In the years that followed women navigated this new path of physical freedom in their very dress, with swinging A-line dresses, mini skirts and trousers, literally liberating their bodies from tight waists and leg restricting pencil skirts.

The latter half of the decade seemed to concentrate more on freeing the mind from establishment constraints, through transcendental experiences with LSD and other psychedelics with many seeking the truth in Eastern religions and mysticism and sometimes as in the case of Timothy Leary, both were involved. As the focus shifted from bodily freedom to mental freedom, so did the clothes seem to shift focus to the face – the skirts were increasingly longer. Perhaps men were finding that women needed to free their minds before they were receptive to these new ideas of non-attachment. The cynic in me has wondered whether the appeal of Buddhism’s disdain of attachment had a similar draw for those seeking non-committal sex.

I am currently examining the representation of women in the design at the time and the self-identification of women in their dress for a poster I am presenting, but this has led to some crucial questions in my research.

While women were dressing in longer skirts the imagery surrounding this simultaneously referenced the pre-Raphaelite angel, the fin-de-siecle aesthete, the eastern mystic and the native American. It evoked both the powerful female mystic, creative or intellectual AND the 19th-century subordinate as narrated in many a neomedieval Victorian painting.  Who propelled these designs? Was it a grassroots reaction among women against the miniskirt or was it a male designer fostering an older ideal?

Thea Porter’s designs are probably largely responsible for the bohemian vibe that overtook many (she designed the jackets that Pink Floyd are wearing on the Piper at the Gates of Dawn album cover. A female businesswoman and highly influential designer, this rather suggests a cause for equality and respect rather than subordination. It is almost a conscious romanticising of the human state, a continuity throughout history and geography.

 

Were these reversals just a natural reaction to the extreme fashion of the miniskirt, part of a much wider reaction across design, rejecting the modern lines of the new architecture blitzed London was being rebuilt with? It is clearly part of something much bigger, a design reaction that caught Britain in a wave of nostalgia, but was something of it a reaction to women’s’ liberation, to dress once again in clothes whose style was pre women’s suffrage? Or was it to focus on intellect, to temper what had become oversexualised, to align ourselves more with early Victorian female creatives such as Janey Morris? Or to align the new feminists with the first wave suffragettes? (The real Edwardian revival didn’t arrive until the 1980s along with shoulder pads and the “power suit”).

I believe these questions have great significance to the gender inequalities women are still facing today. I am just re-reading The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970) and we are still navigating the freedom she aspires to in the Foreword to the 21st Anniversary edition of 1991! Below, the Monterey Pop Festival poster of 1967 transports us to the past, but the liberation of the female is arguably paradoxical!

Muro do Classic Rock

 

 

 

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