‘Dante’s Divine Comedy’, from a Left-Handed Designer

Given the long and successful career of graphic artist and designer Seymour Chwast, it’s somewhat surprising that he waited until now to produce his first graphic novel. What is not surprising, given Chwast’s long-standing interest in social concerns, is that he chose to tackle Dante’s politically- and philosophically-charged masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. It’s also not surprising, given Chwast’s eclectic and original approach to design, that he manages to condense Dante’s 14,000+-line-poem to under 120 pages and still makes it all work.

Chwast has been termed a “left-handed designer” for his playful approach to his work and that’s a good description of his interpretation of Dante’s masterpiece. It’s about as far removed as you could get from Gustav Dore’s well-known woodcuts: you might say that Chwast takes Dante seriously, but not solemnly. Film noir, Marc Chagall and children’s picture books are among the sources which inform Chwast’s art, drawn in pure black and white, which presents Dante as a trench-coated, pipe-smoking private investigator, Virgil as a proper old-school English gentleman with a bowler hat and cane and Beatrice as a blonde, pin-curled beauty. Chwast’s approach is highly eclectic: Plutus (guardian of the fourth circle of Hell) wears S&M boots and a leather cap, the Minotaur (guardian of the first ring of the seventh circle of Hell) seems dressed for an American Gladiators competition and Justinian (resident of the sphere of Mercury in Paradise) wears pinstripes and a little crown as if he were attending a New Year’s Eve party in ’20s America.

This approach is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Divine Comedy which combines a weighty topic with a sort of inspired goofiness of detail which has long made it a favorite of college students fond of courting states of altered consciousness. I’m willing to believe that Dante was dead sober and dead serious when he wrote the Divine Comedy but from a modern point of view it looks more like something one might create under the influence of magic mushrooms. All those highly-specific rings and circles of hell (those who were violent against their neighbors are separated from those who were violent against themselves who are separated from those who were violent against God) strike the modern mind as the equivalent of arguing about whether Christ owned his own clothing while the many “appropriate to the crime” punishments doled out (transformation into trees to be pecked at by birds, immersion in a river of boiling blood, trapped in a frozen lake) really do beg for a psychedelic interpretation. Dante’s layers of fantastic detail never stop and Chwast’s illustrations bring them to life: when Dante and Virgil use Lucifer’s body as a ladder to get out of Hell Chwast draws him with three mouths, Cubist-style, simultaneously devouring Brutus (betrayer of Caesar), Cassius (betrayer of Caesar) and Judas Iscariat (sic) (betrayer of Christ).

This is a true adaptation, not a translation, and one in which the graphics do more of the storytelling than the text. Chwast’s illustrations carry the main content of the Divine Comedy while the cantos have been greatly shorted and translated into modern prose. For example, Dante’s first words are “In the middle of my life I awake to find myself alone in a dark valley. I can see the sun atop a little hill and I decide to climb it. But my path is blocked by a leopard, lion and she-wolf.” It’s a shame to lose Dante’s poetry, but Chwast has other priorities and most of the details are still there so this version can also serve as a pony of the CliffsNotes® variety for those reading the Divine Comedy in school or who just need a refresher course on this complex work. Chwast even provides helpful diagrams of the three main regions in which the Divine Comedy takes place, to help the reader keep things straight while also paying tribute to the logic of Dante’s imagined world.

Dante’s Divine Comedy provides an excellent introduction not only to Dante, but also to Seymour Chwast whose name and style are already well-known among those interested in modern design. In a career spanning more than half a century Chwast has worked on all kinds of graphic design projects including posters, books, furniture and typeface design and has also designed projected images for productions of Candide and The Magic Flute.

Even if you’ve never heard of him, however, you’ve probably seen his work as Chwast’s design clients include major corporations such as IBM, Mobil Oil, General Foods, Chrysler and CBS and publications including Time, New York, The Atlantic and the New York Times Magazine. Chwast’s work is also included in the collection of many major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art and Push Pin Studios, cofounded by Chwast, Milton Glaser, Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel, was the first American design studio honored with an exhibition at the Louvre.

RATING 7 / 10