An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 6, 2013

"It's more a part of living culture": an interview with Sandow Birk, Dante Illustrator

From 2001 to 2005, the well-known Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk created 100 full-page and 100 vignette engravings for his and Marcus Sanders’ three-volume translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The engravings were originally published by Trillium Press as a three-volume limited-edition livres d’artiste.  In 2005 they were republished by Chronicle Books in a softbound commercial format.  While working on the engravings Birk also completed three paintings related to the prints, and in 2007 he constructed a feature film of the Inferno voiced by such celebrities as Dermot Mulroney and featuring hand-drawn paper puppets on a toy theater stage.  The interview below was conducted by e-mail in mid-May of this year.

KF:  In earlier interviews and acknowledgments, you’ve described your Commedia knowledge as coming mainly from your own reading of it, conversations with Dante specialists, especially Michael Meister, and Gustave Doré’s engravings.  Were there any other, perhaps less influential sources you can recall, such as other illustration cycles?

SBYes, I came to the Commedia by accident, actually. Trained as a painter and an artist, I stumbled on an old copy of the Divine Comedy with the Gustave Doré illustrations in a used bookstore in Los Angeles and I was really drawn in and attracted to the illustrations. I bought the book and had it laying around my studio for a year or so, casually glancing through it and then eventually reading the text. My initial idea was to do a series of paintings based on the Inferno, but over several years the project grew into a series of some 200 prints, drawings, paintings, books, and eventually a feature film. 

"Inferno." Image used with permission from Sandow Birk.
Yes, Michael Meister was influential and a great help, but perhaps even more so was Peter Hawkins, who helped mentor the projects along and became a friend over the years. 

As for other influences, I think I looked at all of them that I could find over the years I spent involved in the projects, from Rauschenberg’s series to Italian Disney comic books, to all the great painters who painted scenes from the Commedia over the centuries. So, yes, I looked at everything I could find and some of it was influential and some of it was less so, but it all was sort of sucked into my own thinking and my own work.

KF:  Do you think of the Commedia as a “medieval” text?  Why or why not?

SBI’m not a medieval scholar, so I’ll answer as best I can. I’m aware that the Commedia came out of the medieval era, but I think you’re asking a different question. I’m guessing you’re implying that the Commedia might be outside the standard definition of “medieval” in a time sense, since it is so complex and multilayered and expansive, that it might be the result of more Renaissance thinking? I guess it depends on how you label things, and I think that the Commedia has always been outside of the boxes of labels and beyond the limits of standard definitions. Is it a poem? It’s a poem, but it’s an amazing one and it’s much more than a poem. It’s not really a religious text and it is at the same time. It’s not a scientific treatise but it sort of is that too. It’s not a history, but it has elements of that throughout it. It’s also philosophical and entertaining and beautiful. So I would say the Commedia is more than what we might generally think of about things from the medieval period, but it’s also so remarkable a work in so many ways, it’s also beyond what we think of using terms from any way you look at it. 

KF:  What (else) do you associate with the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages”?

SBLike I’ve said, I never studied medieval history beyond what I got through art history classes, but I guess from my mainstream knowledge I would think of the medieval period as being a time when science and intellectual thinking sort of took a step back from previous progress and religion became more predominant in Europe. A time when myths and superstitions and religion put technological advancements on the back burner.

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?

"Canto XVI"
Image used with permission form Sandow Birk.
SBI actually don’t think of my images as illustrations of the text, but rather as contemporary works of art based on the Commedia and about life in contemporary urban America. They were inspired by Doré’s illustrations, but I’m more interested in thinking about how the Commedia might be relevant and remain interesting in our everyday lives, and I see my images as both critiquing Dante’s poem and its moral and religious points of view and of putting them into perspective, not just illustrating the text. So I guess the simple answer is “no,” I have never thought of my works as “medievalism” because I actually didn’t know that term existed until this interview.

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, especially 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?

SBAgain, since I don’t really know the term “medievalism,” I'm going to guess that it’s similar to “orientalism”--the romantic nostalgia and over-simplification and kitschy longing for an era that might not have ever existed as it was imagined. Is this correct? I guess it never really occurred to me that the ongoing, centuries-long engagement with the Commedia might be romantic and nostalgic in that way. I don’t think it is. I believe that the Commedia is one of the greatest works of art of the Western world, not just pieces of literature, but art in a bigger sense, and so I think it continues to be interesting and fascinating today and ever since it was written. It seems like it’s more a living part of Western culture, so I wouldn’t think of those involved in it as being romantic about, in much the same way that studying and being involved in the Torah or the Bible isn’t seen as being romantic for biblical times.

KF:  What, if anything, do you think your illustrations tell us about the world you inhabited when you were making them?

SBWell, there are a lot of them, and, so, I hope they talk about many different things, but in general I wanted my works to put the philosophical and theological ideas of Dante’s poem, and of Catholicism and Christianity, in relation to our lives in American today. I wanted to ponder those ideas and consider their relevance in the world, and I hoped to make works that are interesting and thought-provoking and that might make one reconsider both the Commedia and our daily existence. And on a more simple level, I hope that in some way my works might bring more people to be interested in Dante and to read the Commedia.

KF:  What part, if any, do you think that world played in what the Commedia revealed to you?

SBEverything. I’m obviously a product of my times and of the world I live in, and it’s only through that lens that I can read the Commedia. And as an artist, I’m most interested in my times and my city and my life in the world today. So it was from that angle that I sought to use the Commedia as a starting point to make my works.

KF:  Beyond the published reviews and circulation numbers for your trilogy, what sort of response have you received to your illustrations, particularly their relationship to Dante’s text and Doré’s engravings?

SBWell, anyone that knows the Doré images certainly sees the connections right off, and that’s intentional. I was drawn to Dante because of Doré’s fantastic works, and I appreciate them and find them fascinating and amazing. So I wanted to create my own works because of Doré and what he had done with Dante. I wanted to start with Doré and Dante and go from there, so I hope that people see the connection--it’s intentional. As far as response, I guess it’s been positive. I can’t think of anything negative off-hand. When I speak to people in person about it, it often leads to discussions about the role of illustration and what illustration is and what it can be, and those are discussions I always hoped would happen. My works are meant to question the relationship between text and image, in the sense that I don’t see my works as “illustrative” of the text, but rather more than that.

KF:  With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently in your approach to the Commedia?

SBNo, I don’t think so. It was very much a long, long project of learning for me. I came on Dante sort of by accident, and I got very interested in the poem and everything about it for years and years and years, and I spent a lot of my time involved in Dante’s view of life and the afterlife and Dante’s world. My work throughout evolved and grew and changed and culminated with the film project, I think, and I’m very proud of it all as a body of work. It was a new direction for me, and it’s led to other projects after that, so I think it was a great period for me. I’ve moved on from it, but I'm very pleased with it.

Karl Fugelso
Towson University

Editor's note: More of Sandow Birk's Dante-inspired work can be seen at his webpage here