Robert Rauschenberg’s works inspired by the Italian thirteenth century poet Dante are among the most striking and dramatic of his career. Executed in 1965, Drawing for Dante's 700th Birthday is an amalgamation of images culled from the pages of newspapers and magazines, and provides not only a radical reinterpretation of one of the greatest works of literature in the western canon, but also acts as a powerful allegory of the tumultuous political climate of the 1960s. It reflects an important period in Rauschenberg’s career as he began to move away from working abstractly and develop a new—more figurative—aesthetic that would result in some of the most celebrated works of his career. Two companion works to the present example (For Dante’s 700th Birthday, No. 1 and For Dante’s 700th Birthday, No. 2), are in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and Drawing... has been exhibited both at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an indication of the continued relevance of its powerful message more than fifty years after its creation.
In Drawing for Dante's 700th Birthday Rauschenberg lays out a series of dramatic images like an operatic aria. Taken from the pages of Life magazine, and other mass-media sources, the pictures capture the tumultuous political climate in the 1960s. Scenes including the battle for civil rights, the horrors of war, the threat of the nuclear bomb, and many more are laid out in a visual cacophony of color and form. In addition to their visual impact, the artist induces a palpable sense of energy as he expertly interweaves these troubling images across two panoramic panels punctuated with vibrant bursts of hot pink and cool blue, alongside warm passages of red and orange pigment; colors which one critic called “midway between Titian and color television” (M. Kozloff, “Art,” The Nation, December 7, 1963, p. 403).
Rauschenberg’s Drawings for Dante's 700th Birthday follow a series of Dante inspired transfer drawings which the artist worked on between 1958-60. Reading one canto of Inferno at a time, Rauschenberg wanted to respond to Dante’s work in a new and fresh way. “When I started on the Dante illustrations,” he recalled, “I had been working purely abstractly for so long it was important for me to see whether I was working abstractly because I couldn’t work any other way, or, or whether I was doing it out of choice. So I really welcomed it, insisted, on it—on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject, which mean that I would have to be involved in symbolism. Well, I spent two and a half years deciding that yes, I could do that” (R. Rauschenberg, audio interview by Leah Dickerman, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available from https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/40/646 [accessed 11/8/2020]). The resulting Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno was lauded by critics for dealing with a serious subject in a new and inventive manner. In 1963, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the complete set and sent it on a successful worldwide tour, which paved the way for Rauschenberg’s eventual Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale the following year.
On December 17, 1965, Rauschenberg’s Drawings for Dante's 700th Birthday debuted to the American public in the Life magazine article “A Modern Inferno” where it was illustrated in color over six pages. This coincided with an important moment in his early career, having just returned from Europe where he won the coveted top prize at the previous year’s Venice Biennale. Rauschenberg was one of only three American artists to ever win the prize, causing consternation among the old-guard critics who were skeptical of Pop Art’s rapid proliferation across Europe. Rauschenberg spent most of that summer touring with the Merce Cunningham Dance company, and in the year leading up to his work for Life magazine, Rauschenberg created very few painted works, having turned his attention to performance, installation and political activism.
Drawing for Dante's 700th Birthday is being offered from the Pincus Collection. David and Geraldine Pincus built one of the most important private collections of postwar American art ever established. The collection boasted important postwar and contemporary paintings, drawings and sculpture, including Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Wall and Nan Goldin, among others. David and Gerry became involved with the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania when it first opened in 1963, as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where David served on the board for more than 35 years.