Dante's Divine Comedy
by Seymour Chwast (Bloomsbury, 2010)

One of the founding members of the influential Pushpin Society and a graphic designer and artist of great merit, the brilliant Seymour Chwast tries his hand at Dante's Commedia, with rather mixed results.

The pairing of this iconic graphic designer and the world of Dante would seem to make for a great match. Chwast's lighthearted, whimsical touch makes the visual half of the story very accessible. All three levels of the Underworld are featured, in simple, black-and-white illustrations heavily influenced by my favorite style, 1920s art deco. Dante meant for the Commedia to be a mirror to our world, and Chwast's choice of art deco as a reflection of a world that bears an eerie resemblance to our own is a strong connection, at least in terms of its visual aesthetics.

While it definitely succeeds stylistically, the literary half of Chwast's adaptation unfortunately suffers a bit from overreach. The Commedia is a massive work, and summarizing it for the general reader is a huge task. Dante's cantos and the episodes therein are purposefully multi-layered so each section can contain many alternative meanings, which is why adaptations of this complicated work can be so problematic. Huge liberties are taken with much of Dante's literary allegory by compressing too much information into too few panels and completely cutting out other parts, the unfortunate result being that a great deal of illuminating, valuable context is lost in translation.

Chwast almost gets there on the art and sense of humor alone. Overall, though, there's a kind of empty feeling in its wake, as if it were all topping and no filling. Chwast's playful and vivid version is certainly very fun, and for some this illustrated adaptation might serve as a decent introduction to a work that many might find intimidating; however, snark and lightheartedness are not exactly the right tone for such a serious piece of work. Visually, however, this is one lovely book.

review by
Mary Harvey

10 November 2012

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