Exhibition Review: Inferno by Jean Clair at Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome until January 23rd, 2022 (extended).
The more I reflect on this exhibition, the more I marvel at its intelligence, its artistry, its power. Little details continuously return to my memory and deepen the impression I first received, that of walking, from room to room, along a very well-crafted journey. The visitors’ experience tries to reproduce, while representing and studying it, Dante’s voyage in hell, recounted in the first cantica of his Divine Comedy. This reproduction is not literal, it is not a copy of the poem, episode after episode. Rather, it is somehow an emotional reproduction, from the entrance into a different space, to the increasing terrors shown, to the final return to our everyday world.
In the first room tower Rodin’s Gates of Hell, the original white plaster normally exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay. The gates, within the space of the exhibition, have many different meanings. As the title suggests, they are a door to hell: Rodin imagines the door through which Dante stepped. But this, too, is not a simple reproduction of that door, nor of Dante’s journey. Having first thought of dividing the door into square panels like the door to the Baptistery of Saint John in Florence and depicting in each square an episode of the Inferno, he later changes his mind and uses the gates as a single canvas. The figures of the damned cover the entire space, crowd in the corners, emerge from the plaster and interact with the frame of the door; they are so many and so confused that critics have not yet managed to identify all of them, nor understand many of their positions – and hopefully they never will. Rodin manages to emotionally reproduce the terrors, the magnificence and power of Dante’s Inferno without mimicking its episodes. Jean Clair does something similar with this exhibition.
"Near the end of the route [...] paintings and drawings remind us that the worst of hell is on earth, and it is the worst because it is not fruit of the imagination, but consequence of our actions."
This second level of the exhibition, with its themes of forced labour and industrialisation, madness, war and extermination, seems to move towards a paroxysm of horror which leaves the visitor – like the last few circles of hell in Dante’s poem – without hope. Near the end of the route, spread around a large, long room and occupying lines and lines of tables in the centre of it, paintings and drawings remind us that the worst of hell is on earth, and it is the worst because it is not fruit of the imagination, but consequence of our actions. Artistic masterpieces by Piranesi, Goya, Dix and others fascinate and horrify visitors with their honest portrayal of human hate, self-destruction and suffering. If the exhibition had ended with that room, and the small adjacent one dedicated to the holocaust, as their architecture suggests, hopelessness would have been complete. But, again, Jean Clair is inspired by Dante’s poetry and, as the last line of the Inferno recites 'E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle’ / ‘Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars’, the exhibition also ends with a message of hope: paintings, sculptures and literary quotations (unfortunately not translated into English) remind us about the stars, the universe, and how small we are against it. One of these quotations, the last sentence from Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili, with which I also want to end this review, says this, more or less:
The hell of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is the one which is here already, the hell we live in every day, that we create by staying together. There are two ways not to suffer from it. The first comes easy to many: to accept hell and become part of it to the point of not seeing it anymore. The second is perilous, and it requires attention and continuous learning: to search for and be able to recognise who and what, amongst hell, is not hell, and make it last, and give it space.
Author: Leda Maiello
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