History Of The Grotesque

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

Get Instant Access

As a foundation, a general history of the grotesque reveals its changing meanings. The earliest historical mention of grotesque was in reference to the Roman Grottesche. In the Quattrocento, the search of grottos for remnants of a glorious past in Rome exposed wall paintings pertaining to these designs (Barasch, 1971). They were given the label Grottesche after 1480, when they were first found (Harpham, 1982). Harpham describes these delicate images: ' [they were] dainty, innocuous frescos decorating the wall of Nero 's Domus Aurea or Golden Palace' (1982: 23).

Frances Barasch explains how the 'dainty' images were used as ornament, '[t]hese paintings were designed to please the fancy and the eye rather than to instruct the soul...The ornaments it designated were pleasing, strange, fantastic, and bizarre; the designs were symmetrical, delicate, and harmonious' (1971: 18, 24). They were purely decorative and were fashioned after leaves and fruit, distinctly reminiscent of manuscript illumination (Figure 5.1).

The name Grottesche stems from grotto, pertaining to underground caves, and this association with antiquity and archeology provides a dark side to the meaning of the grotesque from its beginning (Harpham, 1982; Barasch 1971). Contrary to the fantastical fragile plants, Harpham suggests a second meaning in the subterranean connection, as the '...grotesque, then, gathers into itself suggestions of the underground, of burial, of secrecy' (1982, 27).

The Grottesche became popular with architectural decorators in Italy. This ' fantastic style ' moved quickly across Europe, as the word Grottesche appeared on a list of expenditures for decorating Fountainebleau between 1540 and 1566 (Harpham, 1982: 23). Giorgio Vasari uses the term grotesque in his book on High Renaissance painters, Lives of the Artists, and adds to the meaning slightly. He emphasizes that the grotesque 's imaginative qualities speak of 'bizarre fantasies ' , 'beautiful and imaginative fantasies ' , and ' strange fancies'(Vasari, 1946). Vasari extends the meaning to describe a subjective new style, rather than specifically replication of the ancient wall paintings (1946). With his view, these artistic masters were in control of ' rule, order, proportion, design and manner' (Vasari, 1946: 185). Referencing great antiquities excavated from caverns helped these artists to acquire beauty in their art and reinforced this connection to the grotesque (Barasch, 1971).

The grotesque style of painting, often described as ' strange fantasy, ' was in direct conflict with Leon Battista Alberti 's humanist rules of invention, especially since he purported a Vitruvian view of mathematical harmony, purity, and simplicity (Alberti, 1988; Barasch, 1971).1 In sixteenth-century

'Barasch writes that grotesques were irrational and subjective, and ' ..humanists, following a description in Vitruvius, discovered in it an attack on the ornate style in general and against grotesques in particular' (1971: 28).

Pierino Del Vaga Roman Mercy

FIGURE 5.1 Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi); Design for a mural decoration with grotesques for the Cagliostra of the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome, c. 1544

(pen and brown ink on paper).

FIGURE 5.1 Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi); Design for a mural decoration with grotesques for the Cagliostra of the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome, c. 1544

(pen and brown ink on paper).

Italy, grotesques were considered 'manifestations of the decline of Roman art,' in all its decadence and ornament; and, thus, in poor taste (Barasch, 1971). Although not necessarily labeled grotesque figures when first completed, these profile sketches of people by Leonardo da Vinci (Figure 5.2) became

FIGURE 5.2 Leonardo da Vinci; Seven Studies of Grotesque Faces (red chalk on paper).

known as grotesque. Being possible examples of caricature and surely a search for the abnormal, they relate a story of the changing meaning of the grotesque. The quality of the grotesque as more real than real, or real to the extreme, is certainly evident in these sketches. Dwelling on the imperfect or distorted may be distinctly different from exaggeration, which is a way to locate character in caricatures. Here it is possible Leonardo was using sketches to revel in the variations of deformity found in human faces. For him, the fascination pertained to his empirical approach. Barasch relates another change in the meaning of the grotesque:

By the eighteenth century, the grotesque genre in ornamental art had become essentially French. Its name had been changed to arabesque by then, its origins in the antiquities were almost forgotten and the word 'grotesque' was reserved for other spheres of thought. (Barasch, 1971: 33)

The initially ornamental style of the grotesque took on new meaning set aside for gargoyles on cathedrals and the distorted illumination of manuscripts in the Middle Ages (Barasch, 1971). Wolfgang Kayser writes that the terms grotesque, arabesque and moresque were often used interchangeably before this split.

The term 'moresque' is used to designate a kind of two-dimensional ornament exclusively composed of rigidly stylized leaves and tendrils painted over a uniform background which is preferably kept in black and white. The 'arabesque', on the other hand, involves the use of perspective; unlike the moresque, it is tectonic (that is, distinguishes between above and below); it is more profuse, so that the background is often completely hidden; and it avails itself of patterns composed of more realistic shoots, leaves, and blossoms, to which animal forms are occasionally added. (Kayser, 1963: 22).

These definitions of arabesque and moresque distinctly resemble grottesche wall painting. The underground, cavernous connotations of a grotto are strangely present in a new meaning of grotesque that includes terrifying ugliness, for example of gargoyles. In 1771, a German French dictionary, Dictionnaire universal de la lanque francaise, by Schmidlin, provides a definition: 'Figuratively speaking, grotesque means odd, unnatural, bizarre, strange, funny, ridiculous, caricatural, etc.' (Kayser, 1963: 28). Likewise in Germany, the grotesque was understood as having connotations of ' monstrous' (Barasch, 1971). In beginning to comprehend aspects of the grotesque as 'low comedy' , sublime, and parody, defining concepts assists in exploring a more modern understanding.

From Germany, the Traumwerk style of painting was beautifully illustrated by the work of Pieter Brueghel the younger. His fanciful goblins and demons demonstrated Teutonic myth along with social comment (Barasch, 1971: 40). Wolfgang Kayser writes that the work of Pieter Brueghel the younger may be more true to a definition of the grotesque than paintings by the seemingly grotesque artist Hieronymus Bosch. ' [Bosch] does not paint a Christian hell, whose monsters serve as God 's tools in warning, tempting, or punishing, but an absurd nocturnal world of its own which permits of no rational or emotional explanation' (1963: 36).

Grotesques, denoted as ' chimera, demons, fools and clowns, ' were called antickes in sixteenth-century England, and Barasch expresses the frivolous side of this issue:

Antickes' in art were 'idle toyes' and not of 'any great use'... In addition 'antickes' came to be associated with Popery, and the Catholic Church was charged with using licentious ornamentation to lure and deceive its believers. English Protestants reasoned that 'anticks' were fantasies which perpetuated ancient superstition instead of expressing truth. (Barasch, 1971 : 61)

About this time in England began a connection of grotesque to caricature. Nathan Bailey 's An Universal Etymological Dictionary (1700) describes the grotesque, among other things, as something that is distorted (Barasch, 1971). Although caricature cannot be defined solely by distortion, because of its distinctive characteristics some caricature art was called grotesque (Barasch, 1971).

In addition to caricature, the grotesque became associated with 'ridiculous', 'burlesque' and 'farce', which strengthened connections to comedy and ridicule.

Until the nineteenth century, the meaning of the grotesque remained somewhat constant and was given less attention. Many individual artists could be considered as proponents of the grotesque even though an actual 'movement' had passed; they include Hogarth, Goya, Beardsley, and Munch, to name a few. A resurgence of interest in, and a redefinition of, the grotesque in art occurred in the early to mid-twentieth century with Surrealism.

As Vasari had viewed the grotesque as a subjective new style, Andre Breton also attacked logic and rationalism in his writing on the Surrealist movement. He advocated a separation from the limitations of modern culture (Kayser, 1963). Several of these painters found inspiration in the writings of Freud (Dali and Dreams) and Jung's ' collective unconscious ' , and consequently many evoked questions of the grotesque, such as De Chirico, Max Ernst and Ives Tanguy (Kayser, 1963: 169).

In contemporary definitions, Harpham writes that the grotesque deals with things beyond the 'real', not the real but the super-real.2 '[The grotesque is] properly something more than the truth, something real in the extreme, not something arbitrary, false, absurd, and contrary to reality' (1982: xix, 131). Although the grotesque may have, at one time, meant the unreal, the real and grotesque have a unique commonality. John Ruskin implied this in his book The Stones of Venice:' [t]he grotesque sometimes gave "evidence of deep insight into nature" ' (Harpham, 1982: xix). In comparison to this added dimension of the term, Harpham describes the grotesque as always present, especially in conjunction with supposed reality; he writes:

A recent book, on The Grotesque in Photography, completes this progression, displaying not only artificially distorted or rearranged images, but also technically uncomplicated photographs of hangings, murder victims, Che Guevara's staring corpse, and the famous picture, almost a modern icon, of the televised pistol execution of a Viet Cong. (Harpham, 1982: xix)

The Surrealist painter, Giorgio de Chirico, suggests another reality of our modern world to express the grotesque, namely the machine. His stark streets and mechanically jointed mannequins fashion a '... fusion of realms, the mixture of organic and mechanical elements, which destroys the familiar order of our world view' (Kayser, 1963: 170). Paintings by de Chirico are substantially complex, but on a basic level his images acknowledge their historical counterparts; machines as demonically destructive (Kayser, 1963):

The mechanical object is alienated by being brought to life, the human being by being deprived of it. Among the most persistent motifs of the grotesque we find human bodies reduced to puppets, marionettes, and automata, and their faces frozen into masks. (Kayser, 1963: 183)

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment