Farhad O’Neill -
Visual Artist

Divine Comedy - Inferno

Date rendered: 1999

These collections of illustrations, all oil pastel on paper, 24’‘x 18’’, were created in Belfast in 2003, and exhibited at the Gallery Space in An Culturlann Irish Language Cultural Centre. All now belong in private collections. These images later on became part of a self published , leather bound version of the Inferno with a print of 100 copies (minus the last image which shall go into the “Purgatorio” whenever I get the time to finish illustrating that (!) The translation was by Longfellow, and the forward and thanks were written by the artist. This book was unveiled at the Linenhall Library, Belfast, Ireland, in October of 2004. Many thanks to Ms Elis Creen and Ms. Deirdre Machel for helping to make this happen.

I had first come into contact with the work of Dante Alighieri as a high school student in Canada. A senior’s English class had the “Inferno” included as part of their curriculum, and I was eager to read the masterwork, as some minor prior contact with the text had intrigued me greatly. I was not dissuaded by the inscription I saw above the vestibule: “Abandon every hope, all ye who enter”! My interest in the fine arts guided my curiosity, and in time I was thrilled to discover the wealth of artists who had, in previous centuries, endeavoured to give a visual expression to that poet’s massive descriptive and symbolic structure.

Initially, my studies involved the exploration and mapping of the geography of Dante’s Inferno. This was easy to do, as Dante was extremely detailed in his description of what his pilgrim saw and did on his journey-from his start at the base of the mountain, until he once again emerged from the abyss, and saw the stars shining in the heavens “above”. Years went by, and as my understanding of my art widened and increased, so did my appreciation of both the text and the magnitude of Alighieri’s achievement. In the realm of art I was pursuing an understanding, as well as amalgamation into my own style, of the work of the Cubists, Symbolists, as well as the work of individual artists of genius such as Bosch. My interest in Line and Geometry complimented my application as an artist. All of these influences gave me further tools with which to approach Dante. No longer was my ability to interpret the poem constrained to the descriptive or the literal. As Dante himself used words, analogy, symbols, figures from mythology, and geometry as tools to describe things both realistic and abstract, so too I began to use my “visual” tools to interpret his work. With Dante as a guide, and hard work supplemented by skill as a vessel, I began my own journey to give visual expression to his poem.

At the end of my journey through the Inferno saga, I found I had arrived at a place which contained ten images. Each image bound to my memory the places I had been to - travelling alongside the Pilgrim and his Guide. One image for that place where the Pilgrim first looked up to the Mountain, and was thereby rebuffed the three agents of sin, and one image each for that level of Hell that he journeyed in, was contained in this place I found myself.

Dante had used his epic, not in my opinion as a literal expression of an aspect of his belief in the life hereafter, but as a moral, social and political critique of the world he lived in. As well, the text was a fantastic and wonderfully opinionated way of understanding both the world of Dante’s time, and how people of his day viewed the ancient world. Along the path of my journey through the text, how many comparisons with my own time did I make? How many revelations did I make or was reminded of? Indeed, it was a sore trail not to depart from a faithful visual interpretation of his text, and to include many of the heroes and villains, saints and sinners of my own time. Such is the power of a work which can speak across seven centuries! To make a visual companion, worthy of the poet’s skill in all aspects of his craft, was an endeavour I was privileged to embark upon. Other’s can judge it’s success, as a sense of self criticism prevents me from either praising or degrading my own work. However, I will say this - I am happy to present these ten images in this edition of the text, as the fulfilment of an interest long explored. I wish the reader to read well, and slowly! Let your imagination give image and life to those horrors and inspirations as the Pilgrim himself saw them. To aid this attempt by the reader to see things described by words, I have not included the standard explanation before each chapter - present in most interpretations of the Divine Comedy.

Time and changing culture will, no doubt, make many references a bewilderment to the reader. The chance for a greater appreciation of the poem as a massive construction, vast in it’s content and circumpherence, rich in it’s detail, is the prize. In the words of T.E. Lawrence in the preface to his biography: “Who would insult his Decline and Fall, by consulting it just upon a specific point?”. I have no wish to do so.

This translation of the text was completed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow(1807-1882), and prepared for e-text by Dennis McCarthy in 1997. My thanks to the Gutenberg Project which facilitated this translation. The paintings shown forth in this text were the fulfilment of the interest of many years, and of much thought. They were created in the spring of 2002, using oil pastels on paper. The ten paintings of the “Inferno” were first exhibited in what is now the Gerard Dillion Gallery, in the Culturlann in Belfast, in the County Antrim. Almost all now belong to private collectors, and I would like to thank them all as a group, for they know who they are, and during that period of time they did greatly encourage me in my work. This particular edition was completed with the assistance of Mrs. Linda Laforge-Koebel, of LA design, who is also a great friend and supporter of many years. This illustrated text was publicly launched on the fifteenth of October, 2004, in the Linenhall Library, in Belfast. I would like to thank Mr. John Grey and his staff for hosting this event in the Library - a wonderful institution that I feel great affection towards! I would also be greatly remiss if I did not thank Ms. Eilis Creen, a very capable supporter of the arts in Belfast, who has facilitated this entire project and who acted as bean a’ tí, whilst my mind was left free to roam-from the Abyss to Paradise, and beyond the projects immediately in front of me. Final thanks go to my parents, who have always encouraged me in my pilgrimage through life as an artist, even when they found the subject matter of Dante’s Pilgrim a bit morose at times.

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