The Grotesque Sketch

The grotesque, as an artistic and literary movement in existence since the sixteenth century, has characteristics in common with certain aspects of architectural sketches. The significance of sketches for architects is their importance for imagination and visualization, and the grotesque may provide a window to help view expression by architects in relation to their architecture.

Sketches in their brief, incomplete, notably unfinished and imprecise states may be comparable to the intermediary qualities of the grotesque. These sketches hover between the ability to convey known substances and helping to discover the unknown, and in their ambiguity they become visible in the grotesque as fragmented or jumbled.

As a thought process sketches are ambivalent; they can weave different meanings on numerous levels simultaneously and, consequently, as grotesque items they can provide multiple interpretations. As facilitators of the design process, sketches constitute a process of creativity and, thus, a medium of transition or progression. As a process they are personal in nature and can depict metamorphosis and rebirth for the architect, through humor, satire and paradox.

Like caricatures, which also ridicule, architectural sketches as grotesque employ exaggeration and deformation. Although the grotesque is similar to caricature, and at several times in history they were seen as synonymous, there are also numerous differences in meaning. Many of these distinctions will be discussed when defining the grotesque, but one issue stands out as most evident. Caricature, although psychological and dependent upon the knowledge of the beholder, is displayed uniquely in the visual. The humor, ridicule, exaggeration and deformation are understood because of the likeness to or recombination of elements from the appearance of the original. By contrast, the grotesque can be revealed through visual, literary or narrative means. One need not see the situation in order to comprehend grotesque elements because the grotesque does not need an image to convey its message.

This chapter contemplates some meanings of the grotesque in order to better understand and draw conclusions about architectural sketches. Using some architectural examples will bring the meaningful relationship between sketches and the grotesque to light. One architect whose work seems to epitomize numerous qualities of the grotesque is Giovanni Battista Piranesi; it is his Carceri etchings that will help to clarify this relationship. As Piranesi uses both the theme and the technique of the grotesque in the Carceri, these etchings greatly resemble sketches revealing the many meanings of the grotesque.

The message of the grotesque is difficult to define. Although possible to cite certain examples of the grotesque, rules for its application are somewhat elusive. Geoffrey Harpham writes ' [i]t is historically demonstrable that no single quality is constant throughout the range of generally accepted grotesques' (1982: xviii). Observers can find characteristics which are usually present and look to accepted examples, such as ambivalence, transition or paradox, but each instance uniquely combines elements producing the grotesque. A part of this difficulty in definition derives from the grotesque 's historically changing meaning.

A contemporary dictionary definition discloses some common usage of the word 'grotesque':

1. A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers. b) A work of art in this style. Chiefly figures or designs in grotesque; in popular language, figures or designs characterized by comic distortion or exaggeration.

2. A clown, buffoon, or merry andrew. In a wider sense, of designs or forms: characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre, quaint.

3. Ludicrous from incongruity; fantastically absurd.

4. To give a grotesque form or appearance to; to caricature, travesty.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

These definitions denote many accepted meanings and Webster's Dictionary adds three synonyms: atypical, eccentric and fantastic. Harpham, through study of literature and art, adds some not so common and less tangible explanations. A few were mentioned above and more will be discussed, such as the qualities of ambivalence, transition, paradox, and activities pertaining to the lower stratum.

As stated earlier, the grotesque is not necessarily dependent upon the act of seeing, and a study must be dotted with examples from literature, as well as those from the visual arts. Noted writers whose works contain elements of the grotesque include Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, Poe, Ruskin, Faulkner and, more recently, Truman Capote.

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