Peter Hawkins on Birk’s Dante

Prof. Kyna Hamill writes…

On Wednesday, March 7, the Core welcomed Prof. Peter Hawkins of Yale Divinity School for a talk about Sandow Birk’s modern illustrations (2004) of Dante’s Commedia. Hawkins’ lecture was the last of a four-part series on “Insight and Inspiration,” in which speakers explored instances where themes from the Core texts can be seen influencing contemporary art, literature and theatre.

When introducing Birk’s project — which sets Hell in Los Angeles, Purgatory in San Francisco, and Heaven in a hodge-podge metropolis something like New York — Prof. Hawkins posed the question: “What Would Dante Think?”

Los Angeles is depicted with “fast food signs jumbled together with junked cars; there are oil rig dinosaurs and telephone poles heavy with crows, and just to one side, a classical death’s head to remind us of what we already know. The sense of scale is vast, the detailing gemlike, the suffused gold and orange gorgeous. This may be hell, but who can turn away? In the left foreground, two tiny figures perched above the radiant abyss — Virgil and Dante — take it all in.”

Cover of Birk's Inferno

Cover of Birk's Inferno

Hawkins explained how “the great tradition of Dante illustration has usually taken the poem out of our world and presented it in an alternative afterlife universe unto itself. Birk, however, takes his cue from Dante, who constantly made the Inferno vivid and relevant to his contemporary readers by referring them to places they knew: this crowded Roman bridge with two way traffic, that tower in Bologna, or the Arsenale in Venice, whose shipyard workers spend the winter months using hot pitch to make boats seaworthy for Spring. Birk’s Inferno comes to us via the sleazy parts of LA and presents a vision of post-industrial America that, like Dante’s Inferno, is relentlessly urban and decayed. Looking for hell? Look around you.”

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