The maddest journey in world literature, as seen through the eyes of a dying obsessive and a great artist, is given new exposure in this handsome tome
William Blake: The Drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy; Velázquez: The Complete Works; The Squickerwonkers.
Taschen often produces art books so huge, you need a donkey to get them home. Luckily this reproduction of the sketchbooks of English polymath William Blake won’t invoke hernias. It has just the right heft and texture to recreate the sensation of having found the materials next to Blake’s bedside, where they were when he died in 1827.
This is a celebration of the life’s obsession of two men, and Sebastian Schütze’s opening essay on The Divine Comedy is a perfectly pitched introduction to the artwork that follows. However, Dante’s epic poem isn't actually part of the deal, making this an accompaniment to your chosen translation, rather than what you could call the complete package. Nonetheless, anyone unfamiliar with Dante’s text will surely know many of its core features, so influential has the work been on visions of the afterlife.
What this publication is, however, is an inspiration to anybody with the slightest desire to pick up a pen, pencil, or any drawing utensil, and leave their artistic mark. This is due to the attainable ordinariness evident on every page, the sheer scrappiness that leaves the reading artist confident they can create something better. Not that each drawing – immaculately recreated on textured paper, often on expanded fold-out pages – is anything less than engrossing; but somehow this intimate arrangement puts you in Blake’s shoes (or rather, his bed) and leaves you feeling empowered, convinced that there’s no impossible mystery to artistic greatness – Blake shows that it’s largely effort and imagination that counts.
Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise comes from a civilisation totally alien to us: it’s a tale written as a direct extrapolation of solid belief and heartfelt morality that now seems so naïve as to be impossible to take seriously. It’s the original bad trip, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland or Yellow Submarine, except less believable and less relevant to real life than those trippy adventures. But even the most amused atheist has to thank Dante for inspiring so many great artists, and this collection – comprising not just the complete Blake sketches, but the cream of Dante illustrations – is well worth the journey. Maybe it's not to die for, though.
Dante stands before the entrance to Hell, in one of over 100 large (34x24cm) images from the book.
Blake’s depiction of The Circle of the Lustful, part of Hell’s upper tiers.