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behold your heart: Dante Biennale is a picturesque rendezvous of artworks celebrating Dante Alighieri at Rebecca Hossack Gallery bringing together the best of contemporary art's contemplations on the fourteen century writer. writes Avantika Pathania.

behold your heart: Dante Biennale is the latest group exhibition at Rebecca Hossack showcasing contemporary artworks that draw inspiration from the life and writings of Dante Alighieri. The show includes previously-existing works like Tobias Till’s silkscreen prints (based on the first and final canticles of the Divine Comedy, Inferno and Paradiso). Others were commissioned by the gallery for the exhibition, such as Alice Macdonald’s watercolour series depicting scenes from Francesco Bertolini's 1911 silent film L’Inferno.

Image courtesy of Avantika Pathania.

Dante Alighieri, the fourteen-century Italian writer, poet and philosopher, has had a profound influence on Western visual culture best known for his magnum opus, the Divine Comedy (c. 1308 and completed around 1321). The narrative poem presents a vivid portrayal of the afterlife and explores themes of sin, redemption, and divine justice. Dante’s imaginative language and imagery, combined with an impressive array of knowledge and incisive analysis of contemporary issues, make it an awe-inspiring work that continues to captivate, inspire and terrify audiences to this day.

Alice Macdonald, watercolours (2024) Courtesy of Rebecca Hossack.

Dante’s life was defined by his love for his ideal Beatrice Portinari (the daughter of the banker Folco Portinari and wife of Simone dei Bardi, a woman whom Dante only met twice) as well as the injustices and exile he faced, themes that have proved to be a rich source of inspiration for artists across the ages. Beatrice is a recurring central character in several of the exhibitions artworks. Hepzibah Swinford’s Beatrice Entering the Heavenly Realms (2023) is a cross-cultural coalescence of Dante’s Beatrice and Buddhist spiritual art, which is reminiscent of Thangka paintings. Thangkas are renowned for their ability to provide profound spiritual inspiration, fostering a sense of connection with the divine and inspiring contemplation about divine love. Typically featuring a central Buddhist deity or teacher alongside associated gods and lineage figures, these paintings may depict important religious events or myths, or offer a detailed representation of a particular deity’s realm in the form of a mandala.

Meanwhile, Beatrice is a character in Dante’s Inferno, who serves as a symbol of divine love and is believed to have the power to transcend the limitations of time and space. She also plays a critical role as the patroness of Dante’s pilgrimage through the underworld. As his real-life muse, Beatrice’s character represents a significant aspect of the work’s theological and philosophical underpinnings. Tatyana Serraino, Gallery Associate at Rebecca Hossack emphasises Swinford’s inspiration from Buddhist spirituality that forms the visual crux of the painting, with Beatrice entering through the different realms of heaven. The combination of Western and Eastern cultures to create a work of art is transforms the work into a truly universal masterpiece, no longer belonging to just one realm.

From left to right: Hepzibah Swinford, Beatrice Entering the Heavenly Realms (2023), John Holcomb, Beatrice & Dante, 2024 (after Henry Holiday's Dante and Beatrice 1884-84 From

Serraino further elucidates, “Even if you have not read the Divine Comedy, you will, in some way, be impacted by it. You might be using phrases or concepts that he introduced, from the narrative poem without knowing it. He is a household name, especially in Italy.” John Holcomb’s Pink Dante (2024) re-imagines Botticelli’s Portrait of Dante (c. 1495) infused with a Warholian pop-art crosscurrent. “Though inspired by Fauvism, he is also simultaneously looking back and forth.”

On the curatorial process Serraino explains, “We had a lot of fun figuring out how best to place the artworks to create the strongest narrative possible. All works are so unique in the way they interpret the themes and ideas of Dante. They highlight a beautiful interplay of multiple influences.” She talks about the gallery’s first exhibition on Dante that took place two years ago, entitled Inferno, which was to celebrate Dante’s 700th death anniversary. The positive response and impact of this exhibition led to Rebecca Hossack deciding to institute a Dante Biennale in which, every two years, the gallery will present an exhibition inspired by Dante. “Compared to the previous Dante exhibition, this one is more expansive as it not only derives inspiration from Inferno but from all parts of the Divine Comedy: Paradiso, and Purgatorio as well.” Indeed, the essence of Dante’s life and works is intricately captured in every artwork that pays homage to him. The works demonstrate a great deal of thought and devotion, all coming together to celebrate the genius of Dante.

Dante Biennale will run from 9 March - 4 April 2024 at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2a Conway Street, Fitzroy Square, London.

Avantika Pathania is a London-based writer and arts journalist.

Cover image: Phil Shaw, The DIvine Comedy, 2022, (detail) Image courtesy of Rebecca Hossack.


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