The Dante Quartet
Museo San Pietro, Colle di Val d’Elsa
Fifteen years since his passing, the legendary American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933, Kansas City - 2003, Victoria) remains one of the most influential experimental artists in history. In conjunction with the exhibition Savia non fui. Dante & Sapìa Between Literature and Art, the Museum of San Pietro in Colle di Val d’Elsa, Siena, celebrated the wildly prolific filmmaker by presenting his visionary filmic attempt to distill Dante’s poetry into pure visual abstraction: The Dante Quartet (1987).
End result of the artist’s almost lifelong fascination with the Commedia, The Dante Quartet can be regarded as a cinematic approximation of abstract expressionism, illuminated and brought into motion as if shot through an endlessly shifting stained-glass window. Painstakingly crafted over six years, the film is a palimpsest composed of fragments of footage originally shot on 35mm, 70mm and IMAX stock that have been layered with drips and washes of colour, scratches and graphic patterns. Each part of the film’s titular quartet—Hell Itself, Hell Spit Flexion, Purgation, and Existence is song—evokes the emotional states inspired by Dante’s literal journey.
Within the space of the Museum, Brakhage’s ‘hypnagogic’ visions of the Divine Comedy engaged in a dialogue with the depictions of Purgatory by the great French engraver Gustave Doré, the Modenese painter Adeodato Malatesta, the Sienese sculptor Fulvio Corsini and the creator of an extraordinary fresco cycle in Siena’s Palazzo Chigi Saracini Emilio Ambron.
Left: Dante and Virgil meet Sapìa amongst the envious, engraving by Gustave Doré (1832-1883).
Right: A hand-painted still from Stan Brakhage’s The Dante Quartet (1967).