Michael Mazur and the power of interpretation
Ambitious portfolio gives Dante’s Inferno a contemporary appeal
In 2016, the Saisset Museum was fortunate to accept into our collection several bodies of work by artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) through a generous gift of the Estate of Paula Kirkeby. The donation included Mazur’s ambitious portfolio L’Inferno di Dante, which is currently on view at the museum. In this series, Mazur creates a harrowing vision of hell through a series of etchings that layer rich texture, technical detail, and nuanced meaning.
Mazur and The Inferno
Michael Mazur maintained an almost life-long interest in and study of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1320), specifically being drawn to The Inferno, – the first of the three sections to this epic poem.
During a gap year in the midst of his undergraduate studies at Amherst College, Mazur lived in Italy and studied Italian – in part so he could read the poem in its original language. Upon returning to the States, he created a set of illustrations based on The Inferno during his senior year of college. But this was only the beginning of his study and interpretation of the classic text.
“Illustration, like translation, is risky business…
At worst, illustrations can sidetrack the reader by introducing ideas or images that change the meaning of the text, skew its tone, diminish its impact. At its best, though, illustration is a reinvention.’’ - Michael Mazur
In 1992, Ecco Press (a New York-based publishing imprint of HarperCollins) launched a project inviting twenty poets to contribute translations of Dante’s Inferno – each poet translating a different canto. Mazur attended several public readings of these new translations, including a presentation by his friend, and later U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky. After the reading, Mazur inquired if Pinsky intended to continue to translate the entirety of the Inferno, expressing his interest in illustrating Pinsky’s translation. Collaboration soon ensued.
In the coming months and years, Pinsky would fax his translations to Mazur who in turn read the translations, cut out individual passages, and created illustrations for each canto. Approximately a third of the way through this collaboration, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (an American book publishing company that is today a division of Macmillan) contacted Pinsky and Mazur and expressed interest in publishing the series together as a book.
Mazur created monotypes as the studies for the books illustrations so that if a study ended up seeming more “powerful” than a later illustration, Mazur could use the study instead.
"Michael Mazur's approach to the Inferno gave me inspiration and guidance in understanding Dante. The monotypes, nourished by the artist's intense engagement with the poetry, are themselves acts of translation, embodying vital principles."
—Robert Pinsky (quote from the preface to I'll Tell what I Saw: Images from Dante's Divine Comedy)
In total, Mazur amassed over 200 unused studies. The resulting book was widely distributed and Mazur began to exhibit and sell the monotypes.
He soon decided, however, that he wanted a more permanent set of prints to represent his interpretation of the cantos and settled on creating a new series of etchings based on the original monotypes. In the resulting series of etchings, which were created over a span of six years (1994-2000), Mazur pairs his etchings with sheets of vellum on which is printed the excerpts from the cantos to which he is responding – in both the original Italian and Pinsky’s 1994 translation. These etchings and accompanying vellums were distributed in two structures: a bound book and as loose-leaf pages.
The de Saisset Museum was gifted the loose leaf version by the Estate of Paula Kirkeby. The entirety of the series -- all forty-one etchings and thirty-nine vellums -- are currently on view in the exhibition Michael Mazur’s L’Inferno di Dante.
Mazur, who passed away in 2009, considered the Inferno his most ambitious work. While other notable artists have created illustrations of, or at least related to, the Inferno, others had not produced a chronological series depicting each canto as Mazur accomplishes here. And unlike other artistic renditions of the Inferno that choose to show Dante and Virgil in third-person perspective, Mazur places viewers directly in the place of the travelers. We see Dante’s world as if we are seeing through his eyes.
Mazur and California
Mazur, though a predominantly East Coast artist (with ties to New York and Massachusetts), had a California connection that later directly linked him to the de Saisset Museum and Santa Clara University. Paula Kirkeby, founder and owner of the fine art press Smith Andersen Editions in Palo Alto, CA, worked with Mazur, both exhibiting his work and inviting him to residencies at the press.
Over time, he created a series of monotypes at Smith Andersen Editions, two of which are part of the de Saisset Museum’s permanent collection. Since 1984, the de Saisset Museum has housed Smith Andersen Editions Archive, and these monotypes by Mazur came to us as part of the then-growing archive. Today, the archive holds close to 270 works on paper by the diverse artist who worked with Kirkeby and her master printers.
Smith Andersen’s former Master Printer, Kathryn Kain, visited the de Saisset Museum in the fall of 2017 with her students from SCU’s Department of Art and Art History Introduction to Printmaking class. She wanted students to see the current exhibition of L’Inferno di Dante and study Mazur’s incredibly detailed and compelling etchings. Kain who recalls working with Mazur at Smith Andersen Editions, guided her class in studying the etchings and discussing the nuanced printmaking process, and accompanying techniques, Mazur employed to create these compelling works.
Final weeks to see these incredible etchings
May 8, 2018
Michael Mazur, Canto IV: Limbo and Canto VIII: La Torre - Flegias (The Tower - Phlegyas), from the portfolio L’Inferno di Dante, 1994-2000, etchings, edition 16/50, de Saisset Museum permanent collection, Santa Clara University, Gift of Smith Andersen Editions, Estate of Paula Kirkeby, 2016.14.14. © Michael Mazur; Courtesy of the estate of the artist; RYAN LEE Gallery, New York; and Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston.