Seeing the Elephant
By Tom Wachunas
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” -Dante Alighieri
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
“This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
EXHIBIT: INFERNO: Ten Artists Recreate Dante's Masterpiece, THROUGH SEPT. 27 at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. PARTICIPATING ARTISTS: Erin Mulligan-Brayton, Bobby Rosenstock, Rich Pellegrino, Kari Halker-Saathoff, Marcy Axelband, David McDowell, Margene May, Marti Jones Dixon, Gabriel Mejia, Steve Ehret. www.translationsart.com
Whether seen as the divinely ordained final home of the hopelessly wicked, or a human construct to describe earthly cruelty and suffering, Hell has always been a hot-button topic. I suspect that for some (many, actually), the proposition of facing an eternal fiery punishment – either metaphorically or literally - for a life ill-lived is simply too complex, large or seemingly impossible to grasp. It's the ultimate elephant in the living room.
I’ve often encountered the moral relativism espoused by individuals who are either ambivalent toward the notion of Hell or outright dismissive of it. Such folks might couch their attitudes in cavalier witticisms like Mark Twain’s “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company,” or Aldous Huxley’s “Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell.” Or there’s always this nifty observation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
For the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Hell was the subject of Inferno, the first part of his iconic masterwork written between 1308 and 1321, The Divine Comedy (part two being Purgatorio, and part three, Paradiso). [The work is anything but “funny.” ‘Comedy’ here refers essentially to the classical literature term for a narrative without tragic ending.] This epic poem (14,233 lines!) is an allegorical vision of the journey toward God from the perspective of medieval-era Christian theology. Inferno tells of Dante embracing the reality of sin and its consequences for sinners as he’s guided by the Roman poet Virgil in a descent through Hell’s nine circles of suffering. The farther they descend – the more distant from God – the more egregious the sins.
Translations curator Craig Joseph invited ten artists to recreate this literary classic by making triptychs (a three- panel format of continuous narratives once commonly made for churches) to be mounted alongside his written synopses of the 33 cantos that comprise Inferno. This show is a companion to the exhibit of lithograph illustrations by Amos Nattini, organized by the Canton Museum of Art, on view at Walsh University’s Birk Center for the Arts through December 1. http://www.walsh.edu/the-illustrations-of-amos-nattini-fall-2014
There is much to recommend the wholly spectacular Translations exhibit. In terms of diversity of media, and the technical/formal levels of excellence in individual works, it’s one helluva show (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). But I think the real significance of “the art experience” here is in how the participating artists, without necessarily communicating their own views about Hell, nonetheless collectively draw us, as individual viewers, inward to a transcendent probing of the compelling subject matter.
Say what you will about roads paved with good intentions. I can tell you only that I have absolutely no desire to ever know what Hell really looks and feels like. That said, I’m deeply gratified by what the powerful visual interpretations offered here bring to my mind and heart. And for that, I leave you with these words from the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, from his 1945 work, The Great Divorce – itself an allegory in the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
PHOTOS, from top: “Crossing the River”, mixed media on paper by Rich Pellegrino; Canto XIV, mixed media by Kari Halker-Saathoff; Cantos XVI & XVII, acrylic and graphite on canvas by Marcy Axelband; “The Devil”, mixed media fiber by Margene May; “Inferno II”, oil on board by Marti Jones Dixon