Inferno XXIX: The Alchemists
Ink on paper, 2021
22 x 15”
Finishing up a tour of the 10th bolgia in the 8th circle of hell, Dante and Virgil spend time with more falsifiers—in Canto XXIX it is alchemists who, in life, bilked both their fellow citizens and God himself by orchestrating the transmutation of metals. These souls are plagued with the world's diseases, from leprosy to dropsy, and thousands of them writhe in agony in the ditch.
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Sometimes my process follows a typical path of inquiry: I'll absorb the reading, reflect freely and intuitively on it, then do some supplementary research to gain a better sense of how others have interpreted the text through both scholarship and artistic output. Sketching follows and then I lay out the text. Lettering always comes first, because I reasoned long ago that it would be best to have the text completed as well as I can before embarking on the drawing. The latter is easier to manage if mistakes are made, but if I execute a drawing that takes three full days, the last thing I need is to screw up the text, in which mistakes are often irreparable.
At other times, my research takes place after the drawing is finished, and this is usually driven by a need for a refresher before I can write about it. Such was the case for Canto XXIX, and reading was particularly helpful as I tried to understand why alchemists were among the rock bottom of the barrel in Hell. I'm sure historical context provides some clarity, but I'm still troubled by the severity of punishment for messing around with molten metals.
This section of the poem, with its scabby sinners and trek into the miserable bowels of hell, prompted an immediate decision to dive head first into picture-making. The content of this canto is explicitly gross—lots of writhing figures with oozing, pus-filled scabs; body upon body scraping along the floor of the ditch. I followed my post-adolescent instinct to reflect the misery these souls are enduring, and this satisfied an impulse that seemed very natural to me. The content was too juicy to pass up (ahem) and I felt that it was a portion of the poem that deserved some ugliness.
But in my post-studio research I happened once again on a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau that is based on the same scene (if not the same moment) in Inferno, and I was shocked by the difference in our interpretations. Where my efforts were invested in repulsion, he was wholly invested in unnaturally stilted beauty. His lush and sensuous use of oil paint transforms a gruesome scene into a moment of homoerotic violence, and this is in contrast to the deliberate awkwardness of my figures, their swollen heads, greasy hair and scabby bodies crudely articulated in ink.
What motivates these different stylistic impulses? An illustrator I knew in Rome, Vladimir Radunsky, believed that most artistic decisions are an effort to camouflage deficiencies. In my case this is very true, but what was Bouguereau hiding behind all that staged beauty in the depths of hell?