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Catalogue Introduction for A Divine Comedy By David Cohen

A Divine Comedy

A medieval conception of Hell, considered erroneous by the Church but not condemned as heresy, held that rather than being consigned to nether regions the damned, or perhaps a portion of them, are condemned instead to wander through the “real” world endlessly experiencing hopelessness and despair. They are in the same world as the living, but their consciousness colours it with negativity. Matthew Burrows exploits the strange lesions between the painted images and the realities on which they draw to intimate an undiscovered country tucked like a Kangaroo cub into a pocket of the mother reality of the experienced world. His unsettling familiar imaging of Dante’s Hell – so un-operatic, so un-Gustave Dore – offers a glimpse of damnation contiguous with our own environment. His river Styx and Charon’s ferry seem lifted from a travel brochure, and in fact relate to a scene observed while on holiday in Greece. “The dark forest” in which Dante finds himself lost midway on life’s journey, and the wood of suicides traversed several cantos later, is none othe than St. James’s Park (which in Lucifer’s world would surely be St. Judas’s?) where we might have lost ourselves on a harmlessly prosaic summer’s evening. The strange voyeurism and vivid tangibility of Burrows’s imaging is fully commensurate with Dante’s vision and its synthesis of the literal and metaphorical, its simultaneous allegory and anagogy. This is not a medieval theme-park Hell intended to bully us into piety, nor is it a goulish expressionist exorcism. As in Dante, there is detachment, although lacking Dante’s orthodoxy, Burrows is more inspired by poetic mood rather than moral purpose.  

Burrows takes from Dante as much as he needs for convincing, self-sustaining picture making, feeling none of the conscience of an illustrator to be bound by narrative None the less, the visual suggestiveness of this most vivid of poets is endlessly fecund. Shapes and colours are as animate in Dante as personalities and their tales. Struck by the phrase “lit by a carmine light” Burrows introduced this sickly ethereal pigment to several paintings. Rather than compete or complement specific Dantean images, though, Burrows searches for equivalents in paint to the extraordinary multilayeredness  of Dante’s language. Sometimes his solution is schematic, as in “Near Viterbo”, where the houses of prostitution are flesh tinted, but more often the paint-meanings are more complex. By exploiting to the brink the weirdness of arrested images, seizing upon the quirky half-state between the photographic and the painterly, the artists finds an equivalent for the recurring theme in the poem of the shades noticing Dante’s corporeality, and he in turn their insubstantiality.

But Hell is a real place, in Dante and in Burrows. The painter’s compelling image of “The Rational of Hell” imagines it   as a scaffold structure which at first resembles a Victorian gasometer, but which on closer inspection turns out to be a fairground roller-coaster (as it happens it is based on the one at Brighton pier). Similarly, in “Heavenly Messenger”, The Gateway to Dis is a Millennium Dome in a distant fairground. Breughel’s conception of the Tower of Babel has a clear and pointed moral dimension: all the engineering principles are inverted, and the project is doomed. Burrows’ playgrounds are much more ambiguous in what they seem to say about Hell. Like all his imagery, there is more than a whiff of nostalgia, the melancholy of displaced theatre props, the free association of historically unspecific theatrical costumes. This jumble of the stuff of childhood – he has depicted Dante and Beatrice as children of nine, the age at which Dante fell in love with – seems, on the surface, to owe more to Fanny and Alexander and Alice in Wonderland than the Divine Comedy. But the gentleness of Burrows’s Hell is ultimately more harrowing. He allows no Sadean extravaganza: that would merely lead to camp amusements to which we are now immune. Instead, by making works of painterly beauty he induces high-minded empathy and compassion, a state far closer to Dante Alighieri than to Hieronymous Bosch.

©David Cohen

Catalogue Introduction for the solo touring exhibition A Divine comedy at Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester Museum and Art Gallery and Huddersfield City Art Gallery 2000