Tag Archives: Jerry Saltz

Jerry Saltz’s abandoned illuminations for “The Divine Comedy”

The following is a combination of quotes from the critic Jerry Saltz’s article “My Life as a Failed Artist.”

“Before I became a critic, I was an artist, and for about ten years, beginning in the early 1970s, I feverishly devoted myself to a single, gigantic project: illustrating the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy — starting with Inferno.

“These are the gates of hell. The famous inscription appears above the portal, the one that begins, in first person, “I Am the Way Into the City of Woe, I Am the Way to a Forsaken People.” There are no doors on the Gates of Hell because anyone who ventures too close can easily enter. Around the gate are ten diagrammatic spinning spheres, one for each of the levels of hell.”

[Why Dante?] Dante is a paradigmatic figure of the canon — therefore a perfect picture of the dream of artistic canonization — but he’s also a weirdo Boschian fantasist and so satisfied my obsession with hermetic traditions, indexes, myth, archaic cultures, and mystics and visionaries like William Blake. This late-medieval universe freed me from making choices; the story and structure told me exactly what to do, what to draw, where to draw it, what came next, what shape things should be, everything, even sometimes governing colors, as with making Virgil blue and Dante red according to past art. Without knowing it but in desperate need, I’d contrived a machine that allowed me to make things that I couldn’t predict; I still think of this as one of an artist’s first jobs.

“These are the gates of the citadel of Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, the Virtuous Pagans. Here Dante meets Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Hector, Aeneas, and many others whose only punishment is to live without hope. The gold, silver, and bronze spheres represent the souls of those who Dante meets there.”

The project was meant to take me 25 years, but I only made it to the fourth canto by the time I quit; nevertheless, in that time I had developed an unbelievably intricate language that would allow me, a technically poor draughtsman and even worse painter, to depict Dante’s complex narrative.

“A large diagrammatic drawing of the Opportunists being blown in all different directions in the tempest of hell.”

[Oscar Wilde] wrote that art that’s too obvious, that we “know too quickly,” that is “too intelligible,” fails. “The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious.” This sort of art tells you everything in an instant and can only tell you the same thing forever. My work had the opposite problem. It was vague, arcane, and therefore obsolete. Only I could decipher it.

I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work….Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.”

You can find more images from this project here.

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Filed under Art, Drawing, Illumination, Illustration, Quotes