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Beautiful Hell

When facing a famous--and thus question-weary--subject, a good interviewer will do everything they can to come up with new questions. The calisthenics an interviewer goes through on behalf of that quest are so painful to me that I can barely read interviews with rock stars, let alone stand the thought of conducting my own. All of which makes me really glad that I didn't know exactly how rock-star-like artist Michael Mazur's stature is in the art world before I spoke with him.

Michael Mazur: The Inferno of Dante opens Saturday, July 24, at the UA Museum of Art, and runs through Oct. 3. On display are 41 etchings; panels approximately 22 by 24 inches that illustrate Dante's poem The Inferno. Earlier versions of the images appeared alongside 1997 U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's translation of The Inferno, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1993. The etchings themselves were first exhibited in Verona--on the 700th anniversary of the date that Dante gives as the beginning of the Divine Comedy--then traveled to the American Academy in Rome, and are just back from Germany.

Mazur's interest in Dante's work began in 1958, when he read the poem (in Italian) while studying art in Florence, Italy--not far from Dante's birthplace. He soon began illustrating the poem as part of an honors thesis, but abandoned the project when it became too "complicated." He made several other attempts over the years; in 1992, after hearing his friend Seamus Heaney (Nobel Prize for Literature winner, 1995) read one canto, Mazur asked Heaney, and then Pinsky, to collaborate on an English translation with illustrations. Eight years later, using his original monotypes as studies, Mazur "did the whole thing over again from scratch, and that's the show you're getting now."

Mazur's relationship with The Inferno is described as "a 40-year fascination" in the UA's press materials, and while Mazur points out that it's not as if he wasn't doing lots of other work in those 40 years, he adds, "The fact is that I always wanted to do it (create a series of illustrations) and never thought I would get a chance to do it under the right circumstances, and when I did, carpe diem, no matter what else I was doing at the time."

Dante's poem--which contains the infamous "Abandon all hope you who enter here"--travels though the circles of Hell, examining the punishments for sins of violence, fraud, betrayal and more. It also introduces readers--formally--to Charon, the boatman of the Underworld, a cast of other characters and finally, Satan himself. It is, in Mazur's words, "Probably the greatest Italian poem.

"I say Italian, because to truly understand it, you have to read it in Italian. Nothing can be translated. You don't ever really translate poetry; you actually make another version. The English version by Robert is wonderful, but you need the Italian to understand it more deeply. I had read it in Italian and was so taken by it, so moved by it, because it's a misunderstood poem. I don't want to do a number on other people, but when most people think (about) illustrations of this poem, they think sin, evils, gory, when actually it's about loss and sadness and human frailty. As such it's a universal poem and it deals with essentially these issues in such an original and visual way that it gives you an enormous amount of material to work with as an artist."

Mazur's etchings resonate so powerfully that they're a little frightening--appropriately so. Their power, I think, comes from the feeling that the images somehow understand you. Stark and sometimes brutal, they're also beautiful, and often gentle.

"The issue of beauty in a situation like this is really interesting," says Mazur. "You would think the descent into Hell should be understood as something ugly. It's especially complicated, because you have to create an atmosphere that's dreamlike--this is not a place that Dante actually visited. It's metaphorical, so all of your images are visual metaphors and they differ from canto to canto. They have a slightly different tone--some comical, some mythical, some literary, some that are really frightening--so there are all kinds of formulas that you have to use to get those particular qualities."

Mazur points out that the show works well in an academic setting like the UA, because "it's meant to be seen not just by art majors. It's cross departmental--comparative literature, poetry, Italian, art and so forth."

And above all else, it's human.

Michael Mazur: The Inferno of Dante will run through Oct. 3. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. For more information about the UAMA exhibit, call 621-7567. For more information about Mazur, visit www.dante-inferno.net.

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