For Allen Mandelbaum’s three-volume translation of the Divine Comedy, acclaimed artist Barry Moser executed 81 ink-and-wash illustrations. The 35 for Inferno were largely executed in July 1979 and first published in 1980; the 33 for Purgatorio were begun in June 1981, completed August 4 of that year, and first published in 1982; and the 18 (13 of which are double-folio) for Paradiso were begun in December 1983, completed the month after that, and first published in 1984. The interview below was conducted by e-mail with Karl Fugelso in mid-May 2013.
KF: In your article “Through Thought on Thought: On Illustrating Dante,” you describe your Commedia knowledge as coming mainly from your own reading of it, from conversations with Allen Mandelbaum, who wrote the translation you illustrated, and from earlier depictions of Dante’s text, especially those by Sandro Botticelli, Jan Van der Straet (Stradanus), John Flaxman, Eugène Delacroix, William Blake, Gustave Doré, Leonard Baskin, and Rico Lebrun. Were there any other, perhaps less influential sources you can recall, such as movies, pre-Botticelli illustrations, or other conversations?
BM: I have seen a couple of things of a more recent vintage - Sandow Birk, Heinrich Drescher’s anachronistic images, for instance - that are interesting, but the major sources of influence are indeed limited to the ones I state.
KF: Do you think of the Commedia as a “medieval” text? Why or why not?
BM: I am not a medievalist, so any opinion I have is automatically suspect. But as with all great literature it belongs to the ages, no matter when it was written. Mandelbaum’s translation put it in very modern terms as far as I was concerned, but I suspect that might have been because of his use of contemporary language and usage. I am not a linguist either, so any opinion I have in these matters is also highly suspect.
KF: What (else) do you associate with the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages”?
BM: Music, altar piececs and architecture. Inquisitions and hypocrisy.
KF: Do you perceive your Commedia illustrations as medievalism, which is often defined as post-medieval responses to the Middle Ages? If so, in what ways, and if not, why?
BM: No. Definitely not. As I said, I am NOT a medievalist, so I could not possibly have an opinion about such an issue. I think of it as a twentieth-century response…or a twentieth-century artist’s response to the text as evidenced by the overall plan, which has Paradise as dark and Hell as light, a result of my meditation on the Holocaust…when the Zyklon B pellets dropped into the Sachsenhausen showers, got wet, and released hydrogen cyanide into the crowded air, the lights were on and the walls were (in my mind at least) white. And to take that thought a step further: if Paradise is indeed the polar opposite of Hell, then it only stands to reason that Paradise would be dark. The sweet dark of sleep. That is absolutely a twentieth-century response, is it not?
KF: If you do see your Commedia illustrations as medievalist, how do you perceive your medievalism relating, if at all, to your interaction with earlier intermediaries, such as Mandelbaum and Doré? If their responses to the Commedia could be considered medievalism, how does their influence on you compare to your direct responses to the Commedia?
BM: I hope that I understand your question. As I say, I do not see, any more than I did 28 or so years ago, any medievalist influence in my response to the Commedia. Mandelbaum walked me through Inferno like I was a child. I listened to him. Took notes on our conversations that were sometimes - often - over my head and I had to ask him to explain it to me again. He was always gentle, understanding, and would come at my questions from another point of view using language that I could comprehend—you have to understand that Allen spoke something like seventeen languages and if something were better said in Italian or French, then, by God, he said it in Italian or French. I became less awed, and more and more independent of him as we progressed through the Commedia.
As far as Doré is concerned, there is precious little, if any, influence that came from him…unless there was some unconscious relationship. I have never been a great admirer of Doré’s illustrations with their tableau formats and homogenous faces. He was a fine draftsman and an even finer sculptor and that part of his work I do admire. It may have something to do with the distance between Doré’s own hand (drawing on the blocks) and the engraved blocks themselves, which were engraved by several other hands, notably the brothers Dalziel.
KF: What, if anything, do you think your illustrations tell us about the world you inhabited when you were making them?
BM: I am a child of the American south. My family numbered among them Ku Klux Klansmen and other arrant bigots and hypocrites. I was an eyewitness to the god-awful plight of African-Americans under Jim Crow. Though I was too young to remember the Holocaust as it was happening, I became interested almost to the point of obsession with that heinous part of human history because it did happen during my lifetime.
For a while I was a licensed Methodist preacher and was eyewitness to certain ecclesiastical malfeasances: not only hypocrisy and bigotry, but also schismaticism, pride, envy, and so forth - which is not to say that there were no good folks around. They just kept their mouths shut, as did I. It all seemed to dovetail with several of the rings and malebolgia of Hell.
KF: What part, if any, do you think that world played in what your article refers to as the Commedia’s “continual revelation” to you?
BM: I think the answer to this question is at least partially answered in the responses above. I’m afraid that far too much time has passed since I wrote that phrase to recall exactly what I meant when I wrote it. Beyond that I think that all good art, be it literature, poetry, music, architecture, painting, or sculpture, continues to reveal itself as we, not the art, age and mature. What I see today in the work, say of Rembrandt or hear in the music of Bach, are not the same things I saw and heard when I was a younger man. Art itself is a continual revelation - as is humankind’s (and my) - search for “God” (whatever that means).
KF: What sort of response have you received to your illustrations, particularly their relationship to Dante’s and Mandelbaum’s texts?
BM: I am sure that someone, somewhere made disparaging comments about my illustrations, but for the life of me I can’t recall any. Perhaps that’s a function of time. Perhaps it’s selective memory. I really don’t know. The fact is that I cannot remember any critic truly bad-mouthing the images. I mean, hey, Mandelbaum was my personal shepherd. He tamped down my innate stupidity.
KF: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently in your approach to either one of those texts?
BM: Both texts? Do you mean the three texts? I will assume the latter.
I have never done a book that, given a chance, I would not do again, and quite differently from the way I did it the first time. I never know where I am going with the imaging of a text until I set about the process of making the illustrations. Like Flannery O’Connor famously said, “I write in order to find out what I think.” (Or words to that effect.) I do know for sure that if I were to choose to do wash-and-ink drawings again, I would use a different approach because neither the ink nor the paper I used is any longer manufactured and no other inks and papers work together as those two did back then. Alas.
There was a period of time in the late 80s when I was quite serious about issuing Inferno as a Pennyroyal Press title. Pennyroyal Press is my private press which, as with all private presses (not to be confused with a “vanity press”) publishes books at the pleasure of its proprietor. In such a book the illustrations should not be, and rarely are reproductions, so I interpreted a few of the drawings as wood engravings. But it was, if you will allow a Dantesque simile, like a dog returning to its vomit. The project never went anywhere. The printed sheets of the entire Inferno , lacking its illustrations, are in storage and have been for thirty years or so.
But every now and again I do get an itch to do it again. Maybe in another lifetime.