Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dante's Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast has had a long and distinguished career in art. In 1954 he co-founded the famous and influential Push Pin Studios with the all star artist team of Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins. He has won numerous honors over his career, including the Augustus Saint Gaudens Award from The Cooper Union School of Art, a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and an Honorary Doctorate from Parsons School of Design. He was inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 1983. He has art pieces in many major museums, and in 2010, he published this book, his first graphic novel, an adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Typically seen as the pinnacle of Italian literature, The Divine Comedy is an epic poem from the 14th century consisting of three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante himself is the main character in the poem, traveling through the afterlife with the help of a number of guides along the way. As they go through Hell and rise up through Heaven they encounter a number of figures, from well known mythical characters like Odysseus to historical ones like Emperor Constantine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Also, we see a number of Dante's contemporaries, with the tensions and pettiness involved in his exile from Florence cropping up in their final fates.

This adaptation highlights this work as both an allegory and a satire that combines theology and philosophy in an artful, provocative manner. In presentation it takes a few liberties, such as depicting the poet/guide Virgil wearing a bowler and Dante Aligheri wearing a trenchcoat and fedora like some kind of hard-boiled detective, but it all works stylistically and economically.

Reviews I have read about this book have been overwhelmingly positive. G. Chiaramonte from The Literateur offered that this book is not something to replace reading Dante's works but acts more like "a visual accompaniment, something to be enjoyed and sometimes even consulted in conjunction with the poem." In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote that Chwast "makes the Divine Comedy irresistibly comic and inspirationally transcendent." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly praised the craft in this book, "With his signature mix of humor, artistry, and high-level design, he conveys a breathtaking amount of information in clear black and white line drawings."

This graphic novel was published by Bloomsbury. A preview page is available here from The New Yorker. A few more preview pages are available here from The Huffington Post.

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