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From The Aeneid Book VI, with Seamus Heaney | © Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Shapero Modern
From The Aeneid Book VI, with Seamus Heaney | © Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Shapero Modern

Dutch Artist Exhibits Somber Illustrations for Seamus Heaney's Final Book

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 26 January 2017
Jan Hendrix unveiled his final collaboration with the late Seamus Heaney this week at Shapero Modern. The works, made to adorn the poet’s translation of the Aeneid Book VI, will be on display until February 18.

Seamus Heaney and Jan Hendrix | Courtesy of Albany Arts

Seamus Heaney and Jan Hendrix | ©Omar Meneses, Courtesy of Jan Hendrix

Hendrix and Heaney had previously collaborated with Han van Eijk of Bonnefant Press on two volumes: The Light of the Leaves in 1999—a collection dedicated to the poet’s friends—as well as his earlier translation of the same work, The Golden Bough, in 1992. Their relationship, as Heaney described it, was “an old friendship of artist, printer and poet.” This remarkable association is thus revealed, a few years after the poet’s passing, to have yielded one last work: a collector’s edition of part of the Aeneid.

The sixth book of Virgil’s epic poem details Aeneas’s encounter with an oracle (the Cumaean Sibyl) upon his and his shipmates’ arrival in Italy. After having the Trojan hero search for a golden branch within a nearby forest, she leads him through the underworld to speak with his late father Anchises. It is one of the work’s most famous passages, an inspiration for Dante’s Inferno, and an eventful and varied narrative: Aeneas meets with the Sibyl, wanders through menacing woods, makes his way across the kingdom of the dead, and listens as his father foretells the glory of Rome—the city destined to be founded by Aeneas’s descendants.

To accompany the poem, Jan Hendrix completed eight artworks featuring the landscape of Yagul, in Mexico. Made using silkscreen printed on silver leaf, these decorate Heaney’s haunting descriptions with moody vistas. Barren, leafy, or otherworldly (depending on the picture), the view is always dark and menacing.

Illustrations as “dialogue”

When questioned about the works, the artist clarified that each was “a dialogue, not an illustration.” He added: “The process is not so much about illustrating the text, but reacting to it. The power of a great poet like Seamus is that he doesn’t need an artist to illustrate his words. The writing is so powerful that you can see it. When that happens, all I can do is establish a creative dialogue to respond to the images that are being written about.”  

In the collector’s edition, the images are reproduced either alongside or between the text, and so to great effect, with the Irish poet’s translation preceding the original Latin lines.

“On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king –
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
White the colours of the world pall in the gloom.”

From The Aeneid Book VI, with Seamus Heaney | ©Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Albany Arts

From The Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney | ©Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Shapero Modern

As the atmosphere shifts from mystery to prophecy, Hendrix’s accompanying work becomes simultaneously more focused and abstract. Here it is, against Anchises’ Roman bombast:

“Once he inaugurates the power of Rome,
She in her glory will push an empire’s bounds
To the ends of earth and harbour aspirations
High as heaven; seven hills she will girdle with a wall
Into a single city and be blessed with heroic sons.”

From The Aeneid Book VI, with Seamus Heaney | ©Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Albany Arts

From The Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney | © Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Shapero Modern

Choosing Yagul, Mexico

“I didn’t so much choose the place as the place chose me,” Jan Hendrix said, when asked about the choice of locale for the artworks. “It was a ceremonial place, and it has great mythological depth—it was the central command for the Zapotec right before the Spanish came. It’s a place that’s alive and important.

“When working on the first book, I immediately thought of it—I had visited it for the first time a few years before—and when we did the second book, we decided it was the perfect place to continue with the illustrations, and so with the third book also. It’s a very interesting and visual battleground.”

Jan Hendrix first encountered Seamus Heaney when he “read one his poems in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I was struck by the power, strength and force of the words, but also their quality and subtlety—here was a great poet. I did a series of prints and sent them to him, and we established a correspondence.”

The artist remarked that the latest prints were a continuation of their collaboration: “I don’t think anything has changed. There is a difference in that the images in the first book were on gold leaf. Future exhibitions will put all the images together and will show it’s a continuing story. Although the last ones are darker—more underworld, afterlife—and as such are a perfect homage to a lost friend.”

From The Aeneid Book VI, with Seamus Heaney | ©Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Albany Arts

From The Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney | © Jan Hendrix/Courtesy of Shapero Modern

A total of 78 hand-bound and hand-printed volumes of The Aeneid Book VI will be sold worldwide, with each copy priced at £2,800.

The works will be exhibited at Shapero Modern in London until February 18.