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Exhibition Opening Night 'Rachel Owen: The Inferno Illustrations'

20th October 2017

Saturday 14th October saw a successful opening night for the Pembroke College JCR Art Gallery’s Michaelmas Term exhibition ‘Rachel Owen: The Inferno Illustrations’.

This exhibition displays 34 photographic prints of mixed-media collage works, which the artist Rachel Owen (1968-2016) created in response to the Inferno in the Divine Comedy, a 14th century poem by the Italian poet Dante. It marks the culmination of her lifelong academic and artistic engagement with the text. 

Until her death in December 2016, Rachel taught Italian Literature in Pembroke, and at other colleges within the University of Oxford. Rachel was thorough in her approach, as both an academic and artist, she wrote in her PhD introduction, ‘We cannot explore a mountain range by looking only at the peaks. It would be like writing a social history entirely by means of biographies of kings’. As a post graduate she carried out a wide-ranging survey of the illustrated manuscripts that survived between 1321 and the 1490s. In this exhibition the artist’s extensive knowledge of the poem is evident through the deeply complex images that are interwoven with multiple meanings.

She often brought students to the Bodleian Library for classes to study first-hand the manuscript illustrations of the poem. It is therefore fitting that Rachel’s prints are accompanied by selected reproductions of pages from the remarkably illustrated late 14th century Italian manuscript ‘MS. Holkham misc 48’ from the Bodleian Library’s collection. This exhibition invites viewers to share in the artist’s deep consideration of the poem and to revel in its aesthetic possibilities, past and present.

At the opening event, those who knew Rachel spoke about her life, work and inspiration. Professor Peter Hainsworth provided an introduction to Dante’s epic poem – a great insight to those less familiar with the piece. The exhibition organiser,

Fiona Whitehouse, introduced the exhibition and Rachel’s art practice. She explained, ‘Rachel originally intended to illustrate the Divine Comedy in its entirety, with a print to represent each of the one hundred cantos, but it was not to be.  However, by the end of last summer Rachel had finished illustrating the first thirty-four cantos that tell of Dante’s journey through Hell.’

And award-winning British poet, Jamie McKendrick read from his own translation of canto xxvi of the Inferno, which describes the encounter with Ulysses. This was taken from McKendrick’s publication, Ink Stone. And a second reading was from Inferno, canto xxxii and canto xxxiii, 'Ugolino' in Seamus Heaney's Field Work. McKendrick’s contribution, brought a fresh interpretation and really enriched the audience’s engagement with Rachel’s profound series.

This exhibition runs from 18th October - 1st December 2017 at the Pembroke College JCR Art Gallery. Open Wednesdays and Fridays 12pm - 2pm. Entrance on 5 Brewer Street, Oxford, OX1 1QN.

Visit the website for more information. 

Images by Daniel Kim.

Joseph Mead, Chair of the JCR Art Fund Committee 2017-18
Joseph Mead, Chair of the JCR Art Fund Committee 2017-18
Professor Peter Hainsworth
Professor Peter Hainsworth
Jamie McKendrick
Jamie McKendrick
Exhibition Curator, Fiona Whitehouse
Exhibition Curator, Fiona Whitehouse
Curator of Art, Pembroke JCR Art Gallery, Clara Chivers
Curator of Art, Pembroke JCR Art Gallery, Clara Chivers