Perhaps the most famous etchings he produced were illustrations for the Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This long poem describes a tour of hell and was written late in the 13th century. People have continued to read Dante’s Inferno to this day, there are many modern translations to choose from. Far more people read the Inferno than the Paradiso, a tour of heaven that Dante also wrote. This is because badness is more interesting than goodness.
Gustave Doré’s Geryon, 1857.
In part 17 of Dante’s Inferno the visitors to hell meet a monster called Geryon. This creature is a symbol of lies and deceit. It has the face of an honest man but (beware!) the tail of a scorpion. However Geryon helps the visitors on their way, carrying them down to the next level of hell. It flies with them on its back, drops them off and quickly flaps away. A 1843 translation describes the scene like so:
Thus, grounding in the bottom of that pit,A 2004 translation of Dante’s Inferno modernises it, setting the story in a collapsed and tortured American city. The same part of the story is told like so:
To foot o’ the ragged cliff did Geryon bring
Our human freight, and, of his burden quit,
Sped off, like notch of arrow from the string.
… Greyon finally set us down at the bottom of that rocky cliff. As soon as we climbed down from his back, he was off again like a bullet.
Very 21st century but perhaps not as rich. It is odd that the translator changed the name of the monster, Geryon to Greyon. Why do that? But I love Sandow Birk’s illustrations to this 2004 version. He has modernised Gustave Doré’s work, showing that not only words are open to translation. He has reset the illustrations in the dangerous city, where arrows have become bullets, and portrayed it as a sprawl of parking lots and fast-food joints. One of the most striking illustrations is his retelling of the monster of deceit. It has been transformed into a military helicopter.
The new flying montser.
The Minotaur: “Who when he saw us, as with cankerous rage. Inly consuming, his own flesh ‘gan tear.” John Dayman, 1843.
The Minotaur: “When he saw us, he freaked out by biting himself, growling at us and going psycho.” Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders, 2004.
In other illustrations Birk has kept much of Doré’s original composition. Elements are arranged in the same way although with a twist or two. In part 12 the visitors meet the half-man-half-bull that is the Minotaur. It has been sent to the seventh circle of hell because of its violent life. Doré drew the Minotaur in a way befitting an artist embedded in the classical tradition. Birk lives in California and his Minotaur is a brash logo. It is spot lit and standing on top of a food stall next door to a petrol station. In the background skyscrapers loom where Doré had drawn mountains.
In all these pictures Sandow Birk captures what people mean by the term ‘urban hell'.