Grotesque: Ancient and Modern

“In the famous Kerch terracotta collection we find figurines of senile pregnant hags. Moreover, the old hags are laughing. This is a typical and very strongly expressed grotesque.  It is ambivalent.  It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth.  There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of these old hags. They combine a senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed. Life is shown in its two-fold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness. And such is the grotesque concept of the body.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Mikhail Bakhtin: Rabelais and His World)

The word “Grotesque” was originally employed to describe a late Roman style of decoration first uncovered in the excavations of Roman baths around 1500, and we can see it in the upper panels of Nero’s Golden House.

Golden House

Since then the term has evolved in numberless directions – a tendency similar to its own complex ramification.  A sense of the grotesque can also be detected in the excessively rounded figurines used in the fertility cults of the cave-dwellers, and in the erotic overstatement of those Sheila-na-Gigs that occupy the corbels of medieval churches; figures which hold their own vaginas wide open.   It is the confluence of these two rivers of influence, decoration and exaggeration, which has so enriched the idiom. Decoration certainly played a key role in the early development of the grotesque. Monks would doodle chimeras on the margins of illuminated manuscripts.

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Chimeras are inventions composed of animal, human, vegetable and mineral elements – such as the “Tree-Man”of Hieronymus Bosch; a figure also to be found in Bruegel.  They can be found on the pottery of ancient Greece.  The fictive is as old as the real of course.  Mannerist artists in the sixteenth century employed the grotesque in their gardens to create “grottoes”- false caverns fronted perhaps by Satanic mouths, decorated with mother-of-pearl and provided with deliberately contrived areas of decomposition and decay.

ogre mouth

In Latin literature, Ovid’s Metamorphoses take us through all the transitions from one shape into another that abounded in Greek mythology: nymph into reed or tree, god into eagle or shower of coin; woman into bird, man into stag.  Grotesque progeny are the result of unnatural acts of procreation:  in order to be penetrated by the bull of Minos, Pasiphae installs herself in a wooden cow, and as a result gives birth to the Minotaur – a bull-headed man, or perhaps a man-headed bull.  Ovid’s poem reveals the age of myth as a teeming, unstable world where little retained its original shape, and where death led to immediate re-growth as some other form of life – often involving a transition from animal to vegetable.  We are all familiar with the majority of these the stories now, but when first heard each metamorphosis comes as a surprise, and that is an element essential to the grotesque – suddenness and surprise – according to an early theorist, Wolfgang Kayser.  He took the grotesque for the estranged world – the world of a ghastly Gothic darkness.  In a further attempt at definition he saw it as a play with the absurd.

But Mikhail Bakhtin would have objected to Kayser’s definition.  Bakhtin was a Soviet Russian scholar.  He specialised in the middle ages and, perhaps most notably, in the work of Rabelais, the sixteenth-century author of Gargantua and Pantagruel.  Bakhtin would have argued that the grotesque art of the middle ages was never afflicted by that aversion to laughter which served later to characterise the Gothic horror story of the Victorian era.  The Gothic style is basically a romantic view – of sublimely awful ancient ruins shrouded in vaporous mists, these to be viewed with appropriate shudders!  In Rabelais and his World, Bakhtin demonstrates how the middle ages still honoured laughter.  Medieval humanity perceived the grotesque nature of life without the shudder – laughter was provoked instead.  While the church of Rome was the only church, it incorporated its own abusive outlets.  At the Feast of the Ass, celebrating Mary’s flight into Egypt, each part of the mass was accompanied by the comic braying of “hinham”(or heehaw) instead of “Amen”.  During the Feast of Fools, the censer might be filled with offal, and the holy water sprinkled over the populace might turn out to be urine.  After the fasting days of Lent, the time of Easter laughter began, and priests would crack jokes from the pulpit. It was considered wise to give people the opportunity to give vent to their repressions, to let their hair down, one might say.

According to Bakhtin, it was only after the church had grown impoverished by the Crusades that laughter came to be frowned upon.  For the church started selling pardons for sins instead of providing their outlet or demanding genuine contrition.  Then the church split into factions and a far more dour period began; a period in which the grotesque was not allowed a role, though it was to re-emerge ultimately as satire and protest in the work of such artists as Hogarth and Goya.

But back in mediaeval times, the autumn feasts of Saint Martin and Saint Michael were Bacchanalian in tone, and on the feast of Saint Lazarus in Marseilles there were processions with every sort of animal, and with people masquerading and dancing in the streets, performing the great dance known as the Magnum Tripudium.  Hell and its devils, with their obscene quips, their rude pranks and arses letting out stinks, was always an indispensable feature of such carnivals.

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Nor were the chimeras and fantastic inventions of the middle ages necessarily absurd to mediaeval eyes.  What Kayser may have read as incongruity for its own sake may well have meant more to those who participated actively in the middle ages. Bosch’s Tree-man, for instance, whose trunk-like legs grow up from boats frozen into icy waters at the fringes of Limbo, may well be a symbol of alchemy and man’s insolent quest for knowledge – indeed the epitome of the tree of knowledge.   An owl sits in his branches:  Athena’s bird, associated with intelligence.  Philosophers, mathematicians and artists come to admire the Tree-man.  Perhaps he is Jupiter, the banished deity to whom the oak is sacred because it is so often struck by lightning.  Jupiter’s wife is the moon-goddess Juno, known as Hera to the Greeks.  Her sacred tree is the willow, which is important to the “wicker”religion of the witches, since wicker comes from willow, and wicker thongs are used to bind their brooms.  On the road to Hell there is supposed to be an inn where travellers can sup and enjoy carnal and conversational pleasures for one last time before the devil comes to herd them on towards the blazing cauldrons.   It is perhaps this inn which is to be seen in the broken-open belly of the Tree-man (blasted open like a tree struck by lightning).

It’s small wonder that we find him in this state of rupture, for nothing is complete in the grotesque.  The essential feature of grotesque realism (a term Bakhtin uses) is degradation: the abasement of all that is high, spiritual, ideal or abstract.  It is a lowering of the tone, a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity.  Bakhtin compares the mediaeval body with the body that’s preferred by the Renaissance.  The mediaeval body is unfinished and open (dying, bringing forth and being born).  It is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals and with objects:

“It is cosmic, it represents the entire material bodily world in all its elements. It is an incarnation of this world at the absolute lower stratum, as the swallowing up and generating principle, as the bodily grave and bosom, as a field which has been sown and in which new shoots are beginning to sprout.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Rabelais and his World: Introduction)

The Renaissance on the other hand saw the body in relation to the Platonic principals of classical Greece, the literary and artistic canons of antiquity that would inspire the Venus of Botticelli:

“As conceived by these cannons, the body was first of all a strictly completed, finished product.  Furthermore, it was isolated, alone, fenced off from all other bodies.  All signs of its unfinished character, of its growth and proliferation were eliminated; its protuberances and offshoots were removed, its convexities (signs of new sprouts and buds) smoothed out, its apertures closed.  The ever unfinished nature of the body was hidden, kept secret; conception, pregnancy, childbirth, death throes, were almost never shown.”

 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Rabelais and his World: Introduction)

However, I find this a rather generalised account of the Renaissance since there were decollations aplenty (Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes for example), and the torturers of Christ often provide an excuse for grotesque physiognomies.

The fact is that pluralism is by no means a phenomenon particular to contemporary culture.  There were already several audiences in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  For instance, there was a courtly audience who appreciated and patronised the artists we associate with the “High Renaissance” while espousing idealised forms; and then there was a more general audience of monks and students who required something less ethereal.  Rabelais and Quevedo offered the latter more robust fare than was countenanced in the highest echelons.  However it is generally true that as far as the prevailing culture of the upper classes was concerned it was only the body of the masses that resembled a sort of earth-worm, eating at the same time as it defecated the matter of this world.  For those living in more stately circumstances, the body was immaculately presented – a neatly-bound package – too aloof from the business of living to examine its own contents.

Tentative steps towards a scientific approach that would come to typify the Enlightenment were taken by Leonardo da Vinci when he embarked on his series of anatomical drawings, but many of these are imaginative hypotheses rather than sketches derived from clinically observed phenomena.  In the society of merchant princes and condottieri, there was no place for the wide-open body of the Shiela-na-Gig.  The gangster autocrats of Florence and Milan were well aware that what they needed to project was respectability.  And thus the medieval body, the body connected to the soil, was supplanted by a sort of unbroken egg; the immaculate virgin Venus.

All notions of the grotesque in visual art are concerned with that earlier, more primitive body, with breaking the egg, as it were.   But by the time the Renaissance was on the wane, that earlier body had been almost completely suppressed, and the feasts of asses and fools had been condemned as the ceremonies of Black Magic.  Nevertheless laughter persisted.  Rabelais published his iconoclastic (and grotesque) novel Gargantua and Pantagruel in the middle of the sixteenth century – at the same time as the rise of Mannerism.  That just goes to show that pluralism is nothing new!  A brief look at the chronology of the sixteenth century may be appropriate here.  This was, after all, the century of Luther and schism, and there were clearly schisms in the art world as well as in religious circles.

Bosch had completed The Garden of Earthly Delights by 1485.  By 1501 Michelangelo was unveiling his pristine David, and one might suppose the “High Renaissance” to have reached its culmination; ushering in the age of mannerism.  However, Cranach the Elder, Altdorfer and Breugel are all working in the first part of the sixteenth century as well, promoting a far more medieval view, in Bakhtin’s terms.  A key moment is when Erasmus publishes In Praise of Folly in 1506, a thoroughly readable book cruelly satirising the vanities of ordinary people and princes and of their religious mentors. The book’s down-to-earth nature exerted a strong influence over Rabelais, but note that in the same year the Hellenic statue of the Laocoön was excavated in Rome, providing an example of sculptural contortion for its own sake that provided burgeoning mannerists with antique precedent.  This of course was hotly contested by High Renaissance traditionalists who still adhered to the unities of Aristotle and classicism.  Nevertheless, by then, mannerist architecture was in full swing, while sculptors were asserting the right of the artist to rely solely on their own virtú and create works of imaginative virtuosity.  In 1582, for instance, Giovanni Bologna completed a statue which exhibited a triple serpentine structure and showed that he could ably sculpt beautiful women, muscular men and aged persons, combining these forms in one work.  At the last minute, a title was appended to the piece – The Rape of the Sabine – and Bologna accepted the title with a shrug as he’d intended the piece simply to show off how he could handle the “difficulty” of the problem he had set himself.  But this points to only one aspect of the Zeitgeist of that age, for, on the other hand, Gargantua came out in 1532, and was much admired for more than a hundred years, at least by those who did not frown on humour, while Marston’s play, The Dutch Courtesan, appeared in 1605.  Both works present a far from ideal world.  Between these dates, sometime before 1590, Sir Philip Sidney was completing his mannerist masterpiece, The Duchess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, peopling this with effeminate knights and sanitised nymphs and shepherds described in deliciously complex sentences.

The first part of Don Quixote appeared in 1605, Quevedo’s Swindler in 1609 – and Shakespeare, whose work combines both mannerist (As You Like It) and grotesque (Henry IV) qualities, died in 1616.  Rosalind is the ideal heroine for a mannerist pastoral, whereas Falstaff, addicted to jests, good sack, the low life and exaggeration, is very much an emblem of the grotesque.  So these conflicting tendencies were at work throughout the age.

What they have in common is elaboration.  Both make a virtue of variety.  Both are contorted – twisted – though for different reasons; the former to show off the artist’s artistry, the latter to ridicule piety and present the world in all its messy complexity.  There is, as Bakhtin noted, an “is-ness”or a realism about the grotesque: after all, Falstaff is grossly real; and this realism was later to be utilised by Dickens. Falstaff has redeeming qualities but inhabits the low-life world of the ruffian and boasts a fair number of unsavoury acquaintances.

Several decades after Gargantua was published, Francisco de Quevedo described Hell with grotesque verve in his Visions.  As we have seen, he published The Swindler in 1608, a novel which featured a picaro, that is, a ruffian with no redeeming qualities. This is the origin of the term “picaresque”, though the picaro usually gets involved in a string of adventures, which is why the term is now applied to a book with episodic chapters.   Quevedo’s introduction to this novel is a tonic:

“Here you will find all the tricks of the low life or those which I think most people enjoy reading about: craftiness, deceit, subterfuge and swindles, born of laziness to enable you to live on lies; and if you attend to the lesson you will get quite a lot of benefit from it.  And even if you don’t, study its sermons, for I doubt if anyone buys a book as coarse as this in order to avoid the inclinations of his own depraved nature.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(from Two Spanish Picaresque Novels)

This strikes a chord with much that is to be found in the Exemplary Novels of Cervantes which were published in 1613.  Cervantes pokes fun at all and sundry, and Rabelais and Quevedo are never less than irreverent:  they up-end all respectable values.  Ascetic pedagogues, gaunt crones and desiccated magistrates are their especial targets because, as Bakhtin points out, these types represent the worst aspect of the post-medieval concept of the body:  dried-up old sticks, husks and rinds of the flesh, squeezed of all natural juices.  Rabelaisian humour is that of some gigantic belly laugh; drowning armies in lakes of urine, farting and shitting and mixing up nonsense with wisdom.  Construction depends on momentum, since there is no particular aim, and any sort of digression serves the author for a theme – indeed, the last part of his erratic saga is considered to be by another hand precisely because it ties up so many loose ends.  In English we are particularly well served by the translation of Sir Thomas Urquhart, a Jacobean author who actually expanded upon the original and (some say) improved it.

In Quevedo, hunger is a theme constantly alluded to, and Pablos, the ruffianly main-character of The Swindler, is forever attempting to evade its grotesque clutches.  The author uses excessive descriptions to convey his implacable hatred of tight lips and narrow minds, of hair shirts and hypocrisy (in his Visions, he identifies hypocrisy as cause of all sin).  His work prefigures the horrific grotesqueries of Edgar Allan Poe’s King Pest and the descriptive caricatures of Charles Dickens.

Irreverence, blasphemy and exaggeration are the hall-marks of this brand of grotesque, as they are in the twentieth century for William Burroughs and for Kathy Acker.

Victor Hugo reckoned the grotesque nature of creative work to be a sign of genius, and that a genius such as Rabelais differed from a writer who was merely great by the exaggeration, excessiveness, obscurity and monstrosity of his images.  Incidentally, Hugo also maintained that beauty lay in the contrast of grotesque and sublime qualities rather than in the sublime alone: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris) provides a fine example of this contrast.

The self-deprecating Montaigne described the “discours”, of his own essays as grotesque, identifying thus a certain willfulness of invention.  But really it’s an exaggeration to use the term for so mild a purpose.  In English literature, the more violent works of Smollet, Swift and Sterne all make use of the grotesque idiom, but a lesser known, and earlier, exponent of the style is the playwright and poet John Marston, some of whose books were burned by an “order of conflagration”directed at immoral books in 1599.  As we have already seen, Marston was Quevedo’s near contemporary.  His play, The Dutch Courtesan, contains scurrilous and scatological passages which demonstrate his way with the grotesque:

Cocledemoy: The fox grows fat when he is cursed.  I’ll shave ye smoother yet!  Turd on a tile-stone!  My lips have a kind of rheum at this bowl – I’ll hav’t!    I’ll gargalise my throat with this vintner; and when I have done with him, spit him out.   I’ll shark!  Conscience does not repine.  Were I to bite an honest gentleman, a poor grogaran poet, or a penurious parson that had but ten pigs’ tails in a twelvemonth, and for want of learning but one good stool in a fortnight, I were damn’d beyond the works of supererogation.  But to wring the withers of my gouty, barm’d, spigot-frigging jumbler of elements, Mulligrub, I hold it as lawful as sheep-shearing, taking eggs from hens, caudles from asses, or butter’d shrimps from horses – they make no use of them, were not provided for them.  And therefore worshipful Cocledemoy, hang toasts!

As a result of insults offered the King in one of his plays, Marston fled London in order to escape the imprisonment which had already befallen his collaborators.  His work raised the hackles of the establishment.  Cocledemoy, the presiding ruffian in The Dutch Courtesan, is the English version of Quevedo’s picaro, a rascal we often see strolling along in asymmetrical leg-gear beside the executioners of Christ in the work of Lucas Van Leyden.  This fellow would get on better with the devil than with Saint Peter.  In Shakespeare he keeps company with Falstaff.  In Bosch he is that armed vagabond who makes his way to the Tree-man through the outer limits of limbo in the night which is the maw of the grotesque, stumbling over an icy fen where winds blow so freezing cold the orange fires of Beelzebub might be leapt into with joy.

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Some critics have suggested that the impulse towards the grotesque comes from a regressive tendency in the artist, in the Jungian sense; progression being the movement of the libido to fulfil the demands of the conscious mind, regression being that movement which satisfies the demands of the unconscious.  In The Grotesque in English Literature, Arthur Clayborough outlines four types of art which depend on this relation to conscious or unconscious zones.  James Iffland sums them up in his introduction to Quevedo and the Grotesque: 

“… Regressive-positive is the variety of art which is mythical and synthetic, the art which embodies archetypal imagery and somehow suggests the existence of a ‘greater reality’ or explains a mystery.  The classic type of regressive-positive art would be the mythical tale in which the ‘numinous’ world of the dream-state is re-created. Though sometimes exceedingly strange, it is never purposely grotesque.”

Ovid’s Metamorphoses might be the example here, or Spring by Poussin.  Iffland continues:

“Regressive-negative art, to the contrary, is often intentionally grotesque, and in very much of a negative way.  The incongruity it embodies is a conscious attack on the reality of the everyday world, one with which the artist is fundamentally dissatisfied because of its shallowness, banality and so on.  This variety of art is very characteristic of the Romantics, who, in Clayborough’s opinion, resort to the grotesque for reasons of rebellion.”

Edgar Allan Poe’s King Pest might typify the above.

“Progressive-negative art is the sort which uses distortion for pragmatic ends, such as satire or political caricature.  Here the unconscious may produce distorted images and a world upside down, but does so fully under the aegis of the conscious, which is employing it for ‘justifiable’ reasons – moral or political reform for example.  The grotesque is meant to be taken as repulsive or ridiculous, and whatever the artist is attacking in the name of the cause he espouses is rendered grotesque so we, the public, will reject it…”

Hogarth’s prints, or Gilray’s savage cartoons and caricatures, might be used as examples here.

“Finally, progressive-positive art is wholly at the disposal of directed thinking; it is usually to be found in either non-fictional, expository form (such as historical, scientific or biographical works) in which everything presented is based on fact and in which aesthetic value is of secondary importance (if any whatsoever), or in artistic works in which familiar objects are depicted in the most true-to-life manner possible.  Here the artist indulges in an exercise of technique, trying to outdo the camera in presenting the ‘real world’ as it ‘actually is.’”

The work of several nineteenth-century “realists” falls into this final category.

In The Ludicrous Demon: Aspects of the Grotesque in German Post-Romantic Prose, Lee Byron Jennings considers the nature of that distortion of the ‘real world’ which we find in what Clayborough would term regressive-negative art, and touches on that degradation identified by Bakhtin:

“It is implied that there is a standard or original form which is changed and a force which does the changing. The manner in which the force exerts itself may be varied; there may be, for example, a change in size, a change in contour, an addition or subtraction of parts, or blurring of sharp outlines. Natural changes may be mimicked or inorganic ones imposed on organisms, and inert things may be animated and vice versa. It is understood, further, that the original form is not changed so completely that it is no longer recognizable; the new form reflects or suggests the old one. Finally, distortion is a negative term; it implies that the new form is in some way less desirable than the old one.  There is a change for the worse, a process of decay or disintegration – a progression from the beautiful to the ugly, the harmonious to the disharmonious, the useful to the useless, the meaningful to the meaningless, or the healthy to the diseased.”

Jennings goes on to say that “the grotesque object always displays a combination of fearsome and ludicrous qualities.” Even the figure of death in the typical Totentanz is one which combines mirthful and terrible characteristics, as seen in Holbein’s woodcuts, in which death is perceived as a mischievous picaro, or in the work of the nineteenth century Mexican engraver José Posada, who depicts skeletons going about the day-to-day business of life in flowery bonnets and business suits.

Nowadays the term “grotesque”may be applied not so much to the outright horrific or the utterly bizarre, but to what is in some way repulsive or distasteful and in some ways laughable at the same time.  This definition is upheld and elaborated by Philip Thomson in his excellent essay on The Grotesque, which also offers definitions for related terms such as the absurd, the bizarre, the macabre and so on.  Thomson maintains that the grotesque must be firmly planted in everyday life and in outward signs of reality.  For it to be truly effective the unreal must impinge on the real.  Thomson points out that even such a story as Kafka’s Metamorphosis is presented as part of the realm of the real.  He also emphasises (with Bakhtin) the physical nature of grotesque art, and then suggests the following:

“Certain problems are raised by this, the most important being the possibility that our laughter at some kinds of the grotesque and the opposite response – disgust, horror, etc – mixed with it, are both reactions to the physically cruel, abnormal or obscene; the possibility, in other words, that alongside our civilized response something deep within us, some area of our unconscious, some hidden but very much alive sadistic impulse makes us react to such things with unholy glee and barbaric delight.”

Here is another passage from the same essay:

“The unresolved nature of the grotesque conflict is important, and helps to mark off the grotesque from other modes or categories of literary discourse.  For the conflict of incompatibles, fundamental though it be, is not exclusively a criterion of the grotesque.  Irony and paradox depend on this sort of conflict or confrontation, and all theories of the comic are based on some notion of incongruity, conflict, juxtaposition of opposites, etc.  We shall later investigate more closely the distinctions between the grotesque and these other modes, but we may confidently take it that the lack of resolution of the conflict is a distinguishing feature of the grotesque.”

It is interesting how Thomson manages to distinguish between the grotesque and the ironic:

“Irony is primarily intellectual in its function and appeal, and the grotesque primarily emotional. This is somewhat baldly stated, but essentially true nevertheless.  The impact of the grotesque is characteristically one of sudden shock, which is likely to stun, bewilder or nonplus – the mind takes a few seconds to function dispassionately again.  Irony, on the other hand, depends very much for its effect on the reader’s being given the chance intellectually to make distinctions and connections.  In the extreme case, the grotesque writer will deliberately prevent a rational and intellectual approach to his work, demonstrating that the intolerable and inextricable mixture of incompatibles is a fact of life, perhaps the most crucial one.”

Elsewhere, Thomson puts it like this:

 “The most consistently distinguished characteristic of the grotesque has been the fundamental element of disharmony, whether this is referred to as conflict, clash, mixture of the heterogeneous, or conflation of disparates.  It is important that this disharmony has been seen, not merely in the work of art as such, but as in the reaction it produces and (speculatively) in the creative temperament and psychological make-up of the artist.”

Returning to that confusion of the real and the unreal which we find at the heart of the grotesque, it is worth noting that there are different types of this confusion, and that each type produces a different effect.  Bruegel’s plates of “the Thin and the Fat Kitchens”demonstrate the grotesque pushed in opposing directions.  Alternatively, compare Bosch to Kafka.  In Bosch, fantastic creatures cluster around natural objects such as knives, ears and birds (there is a confusion of scale), while in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a very ordinary person inhabiting a strictly normal world is suddenly transformed into a cockroach.

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Juxtaposition of scale (the minute inflated, the large diminished) is often a source of fascination. Richard Dadd, the unhinged painter of the nineteenth century, has affinities with Bosch, and his world is often a miniature one – executed with a wealth of detail – a world of fairies inhabiting a tall jungle of grass-blades.  It may not have been Bosch’s intention to diminish humanity, rather to enlarge the world of mice and robins; nevertheless the effect is one of shrinkage.

On the other hand, Kafka’s cockroach seems to remain on the scale of the person it once was.  Joseph K is a fully grown man trapped in the body of a cockroach. In Bosch, this diminution increases the fantastic aspect, and it may have been his intention to present the myriad forms of teeming humanity’s convolutions – in the cause of vice and folly – through the illustration of proverbs; but shrinkage diminishes the terror. Bosch appears to be taken up with trompe l’oeil, to some extent, and therefore he seems closer to a visual conjurer such as Arcimboldo (1527-93), who painted fantastic heads composed entirely of fruit, comestibles, fish etc, than he does to Bruegel, who can evoke ludicrous terror in paintings such as The Blind Leading the Blind, or plates such as The Magician’s Downfall.  Nor has Bosch the vertiginous quality of a reeling world that Bruegel conveys so strongly in The Land of Cockayne.

the-land-of-cockayne

This giddy aspect of the grotesque is referred to by James Iffland when he considers the theories of Lee Byron Jennings:

“… Anti-norms supplant the norms of our daily existence, which now seems inoperative.  The ‘demonic’ manifests itself in what seems to be the imminent collapse of an orderly world, while the ludicrous is present in the farcical atmosphere which often appears to be inherent in a situation gone out of control.  We become detached as we watch in wonder and amazement.  Because of this, Jennings claims that the disarming device is also at work here:  ‘the threat of chaos brings with it a terrifying vertigo and loss of footing, but the footing is regained as we attain the superior vantage point of the observer.’ ”

This last sentence could be used to describe a sublime experience such as a view from a precipice, but in the grotesque we contemplate the sublimely abject rather than the sublimely stupendous – which goes to show that the word sublime has more application as an adjective than as a noun.

The relation of grotesque art to realism is addressed by Bruegel with devastating effect in his Triumph of Death, where the landscape looks as if it has been drawn from observed scenes of massacre during the religious conflicts of his time.  Holbien and Callot contend with the same issue.  Callot’s engraving of a tree hung with corpses is thoroughly grotesque:  the corpses hang there like so many stoats strung up by a gamekeeper; thin, dry and divested of life; while the tree is tall and strong.

The_Hanging_by_Jacques_Callot

Callot’s eye is that of a reporter:  the mass-execution is something which he appears to have witnessed.  But his work suggests that the tree has derived its strength from the dead hanging from it; a fecund, generous, vegetable life, burgeoning upwards, undeterred by the tyrannical nature of its appetite.  One is reminded of the Tree-man, and the tree worship associated with Jupiter.  Miniaturisation, rather than aggrandisement, is employed by Callot, whose works are so small that at a recent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum magnifying glasses were provided to peruse them.  Miniaturisation tends to abase humanity by belittling it, and, as we have seen, according to Bakhtin, abasement is a grotesque prerogative.

A similar “hard-headed”use of the grotesque is employed by Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal – progressive-negative art in Clayborough’s terms – for in this satirical essay Swift presents a perfectly cogent solution to the problem of famine in Ireland.  It is that parents should eat their babies!  The realistic way his proposal is argued, coupled with the ‘modesty’ of the essay’s tone, brings about a strong feeling of the grotesque – since we do not know whether to laugh or be horrified.

The influence of the real on the grotesque should be considered alongside the influence of the grotesque on the real.  Take the appearance of insanity:  this has always provided subject matter for artists such as Bruegel – as testified by his prints depicting ergot-induced spasms for which the bagpipes were supposed a cure, in order that the delirium might be literally danced out of the sufferers. Then there is the heraldry of madness, as delineated in learned treatises on insanity – a playing-card or Tarot aspect – sectioning the subject, as he is sectioned more ominously today.  Savants had lots of fun quartering the madman into his various aspects:  half man, half woman, half sage, half fool.  Then the subject might be sliced diagonally (in satirical grotesqueries) by a sash upon which his enthusiasms are pinned – in the form of tracts and pamphlets.  But when one observes the plethora of its depictions, one realises that the grotesque genre has brought its exaggerations to bear upon these supposed “believe it or not”realities. Grotesque also are the obscene cures for madness, such as burning the sufferer’s head away entirely.  There is an emphasis in many of these “cures”on the back-passage (as if the rectum were the mouth in the topsy-turvy country of insanity) – which emphasis bears unconscious testimony to the anal and genital fixations later discerned by Freud.

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The various physiognomies of insane patients have often excited artistic interest. Hogarth and his contemporaries often went sketching in Bedlam. And a century later, having been committed to an asylum for murdering his father, Richard Dadd painted a wonderfully deranged (and moving) water-colour portrait of himself as “Crazy Jane”.

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Gothic romance gave a luminescent gloss to madness in the nineteenth century, and to violent crime as well, replacing the grotesque’s belly-laugh with a languorous shudder but retaining its baroque embellishment of detail where accounts of hideous murders and public executions were concerned.  This cult of the morbid gave rise to Gothic literature such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:  it’s a cult well documented in The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz.  The romantics were suitably impressed by grotesque elements in the novels of the Marquis de Sade – the “divine Marquis”- as Praz likes to call him.  In poetry, as Praz has noted, the grotesque flowered in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a manifestation of symbolism and decadence.  Charles Baudelaire published his Fleurs du Mal in 1857, which included A Carrion.  This is a remarkable example of grotesque verse, describing as it does the decomposition of a woman’s body lolling on the earth in seemingly erotic abandon.  Later, the Georgian poet, Richard Le Gallienne, wrote Beauty Accurst – which conveys a strong sense of there being something “unhinged”about the imperious beauty who addresses us in its verses.  Beauty Accurst would constitute a fine example of the grotesque poem in English – were it not for the fact that a very large dose of possibly unintentional humour overbalances the piece and renders it more ludicrous than disturbing.  Here is how the poem concludes:

 “Lo! when I walk along the woodland way

Strange creatures leer at me with uncouth love,

And from the grass reach upward to my breast,

And to my mouth lean from the boughs above,

 

The sleepy kine move round me in desire

And press their oozy lips upon my hair,

Toads kiss my feet and creatures of the mire,

The snails will leave their shells to watch me there.

 

But all this worship, what is it to me?

I smite the ox and crush the toad in death:

I only know I am so very fair,

And that the world was made to give me breath.

 

I only wait the hour when God shall rise

Up from the star where he so long hath sat,

And bow before the wonder of my eyes

And set me there – I am so fair as that.”

 

(Richard Le Gallienne, English Poems, 1892)

A morbid fascination with madness and with the expressions and postures of mental torture continue to inspire plays such as The Marat/Sade, as well as today’s performance artists, just as they inspired the romantics.  In the first half of the twentieth century, images of mental unrest even touched an artist as seemingly cool as Magritte;  for his vulva-visaged woman bears a marked resemblance (in angle and hair-style) to the subject of a print showing the expression on the face of an hysteric (The Rape).

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But now we sense the direct influence of Freud, as we can in the drawings of Hans Bellmer, where vulvas turn into bruised eyes.

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Bellmer’s series of hand-tinted photographs that recorded his manipulations of a doll he constructed (which could be altered so that it could have more legs than arms or become headless) perhaps push the grotesque further into the abject than is entirely appropriate to the term.  There is an strong element of victimisation and abuse in his work that results in pathos more often than humour, and it is perhaps worth reiterating here that the grotesque is a mediation between horror and laughter.  The mediation between horror and pathos may be more the concern of the uncanny.

Before Freud, the relationship of the real to the grotesque is worth observing in Goya.  The Third of May – a painting depicting the death by firing-squad of groups of revolutionaries – is not grotesque in the least.  This panoramic canvas is intended to affect us, and it moves its subjects through time, showing their apprehension, their heroism and their grisly martyrdom.  His work is more genuinely grotesque when it deals with nightmares and visions, or when it depicts punishments which, though horrific, also show some wit – as in his sketch of two men sewn into a sack who have been thrown into a pool, both desperately struggling to pull out the plug at the bottom of the pool, or in that picture of the witches presenting dead babies to the devil where one woman’s head is placed directly in front of the devil’s loins, suggesting that she is sucking off her master.  Other works, such as the one where a poor man is garotted for the sake of a knife, reside in a more documentary area.  Similar ambivalence to documentary and to laughter can be found in the work of Otto Dix in the first world war, with his prints of hideously gassed victims; while in Georg Grosz we find a brand of satirical grotesque which has its roots in the work of Bruegel.  Georges Battaille’s Story of the Eye is a masterpiece of grotesque writing which sets an appalling sequence of events in a resolutely contemporary setting.  In contrast to the above, the surrealist, Salvador Dalí locates his brand of fantasy in a landscape so far divorced from reality as to scarcely merit consideration, so far as the grotesque is concerned.  There are, however, fine grotesques among the etchings of the surreal expressionist painter and etcher Alfred Kubin (who also wrote an uncanny novel called On the Marble Cliffs) – in particular, one of a well-fleshed walrus sitting on a mound of bones (Power).  Others incorporate a dream-like outlandishness that takes us back to the Goya’s chimeras, the term he used to describe his nightmares.

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*        *        *        *

What of the grotesque in the twentieth century and in contemporary art?  Frida Kahlo’s often violent imagery only occasionally offers us the humour that needs to accompany the horror for a work to qualify.  In A Few Small Nips (1955) a murderer has just finished off stabbing his female victim at least thirty-four times.  The picture is painted in oil on metal, and the blood has gone everywhere.  It even spatters the wooden frame of the work!

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In a possibly autobiographical image of a woman convulsed with pain, lying on a bed in The Henry Ford Hospital, six umbilical chords connect her to a curved torso rather like a tailor’s dummy, to a foetus, a snail, a machine, a flower and a bone.  Which has she just aborted?

Both these works generate amusement as well as an upsetting revulsion, and Kahlo’s understanding of laceration and the sensation of being cut open, where emotional lacerations are confused with Caesarian births, and these elided with unspeakably painful operations for other causes, can generate a truly grotesque sense of “playing with atrocity”which often gets delivered with a richly sardonic wit.  But other work proves less grotesque, since it does away with the humour, though not the unease, as with the Self Portrait with Shaven Head, where the artist sits shorn of hair and the shorn locks are everywhere, on the chair and all over the ground.  The piece is too solemn to be grotesque; though here the sense of the hair as a discarded fetish produces a distinctly uncanny atmosphere.

There are certainly photographs by Diane Arbus which reside in the grotesque category, though others prove to be documents of despair.  All too often, photography fails to capture the ambivalence required by the term. It is because they lack humour that photographs of atrocities or of foetuses in pickle-jars are not in themselves of necessity grotesque – many are simply what they are.  Nor are images from the further-flung shores of pornography (bestiality and scoprophelia, for instance) anything more than bizarre.  There is nothing very grotesque about a man with one leg.  However there is something grotesque about a man with one leg attempting to trample on grapes.  In the work of Arbus, there appears to be an unresolved tension between the comic and the poignant.  Her fine sense of the grotesque is most apparent in the images resulting from her last sessions, when she was working with the mentally handicapped.  As an image in this vein, I particularly admire that of a person hidden by a savage and comical mask, a mask which, when considered in the sequence of which it is a part, must certainly be covering the face of an idiot.

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It may be incorrect to say so, but one senses that there is something ludicrous in the idea of such a person endeavouring to appear “more horrible that they really are”, when the horrifying fact of their lunacy is more dreadful than any costume.

Other images appear more documentary, in Arbus’s work, but they are less disturbing because what is deeply disturbing about truly grotesque art is that we do laugh.  This is why I would hesitate to place the work of the outsider genius Henry Darger in the category of the grotesque.  Many of his images are horrific – his naked, ambiguous Vivian girls being slaughtered in a variety of ways – but there is no contradictory force making humour out of their miseries.  I prefer to deal with his work when discussing the uncanny.

Arnulf Rainer’s work shows a fine sense of the grotesque as a contemporary idiom. It is evident that he has been influenced by insanity’s contortions – but the conscious action of his artistic choice locates these in an existential context.  From photographs of his own face in spasm, he moved on to the work of F.X. Messerschmidt, an eccentric who believed that only by making plaster-casts of his own contorted features could he ward off the attentions of the devil. These are grotesque in their own right, but Rainer has drawn over them, adding expressionist vehemence to enhance their latent tension. He has done similar overdrawing on the self-portraits of Van Gogh.

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Among contemporary British artists and film-makers, Judith Goddard is worth noting.  Her images on video take us back to the well-springs of the grotesque, since she uses the idea of grotesque margins to an established orthodoxy which recalls the doodles of the monks.  These images are often drawn from mediaeval catalogues of freaks and mythical beasts: eyes blinking at us out of navels and behinds.

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Jayne Parker’s 16 mm film of a woman vomiting intestine and then knitting it into a frock certainly makes a contribution to our understanding of the term, for in this work she explores the notion of externalizing the internal serpent residing inside us, the serpent Victor Hugo sees as “our bowels”.  In Hugo’s terms, this serpent, in its internal writhing, may tempt, betray or punish us.  Jayne Parker appears to be pulling it forth, and then gathering up the mess it becomes at her feet, in order to wear it on her surface as her art.  Such a notion is certainly ironic and leans towards the grotesque.  However, in popular cinema, the grotesque is the staple fare of a thousand and one cliches.  Of note, nevertheless, is Cronenburg’s The Brood (1979).

The Brood

Cronenburg delights in taking certain cliches and treating them quite literally.  In this horror film, his characters “externalise their anger”by “sprouting”monstrous children that are the direct result of the turbulence of their inner feelings.  Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) treats vampirism in the style of a gritty black-and-white documentary that gives it both the realism and the humour that are the grotesque’s prerequisites.   Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho pursues horror in the genre of the novel and manages to render it grotesque very successfully by juxtaposing it with descriptions of fashionable restaurants and his serial killer’s obsession with designer clothing and the look of his business cards.  The immaculately pristine surfaces of luxury condominiums are desecrated by blood splattered by slashes caused by a chain-saw, and yet the general “ambience”of the novel resides in the trite exchanges of fashionable people who are so interchangeable that no one can ever remember anyone’s name.  Were it not for the schlock-ketchup spilt in practically every chapter, American Psycho would read like A Nest of Ninnies – an innocuous classic of banal literature co-authored by John Ashbery and Jimmy Schuyler.

No discussion of contemporary grotesque would be complete without some reference to the work of Geoff Koons, whose recent pieces are inspired by an obsession with banality – though whether he feels loathing or love for the sentimental artifacts he works with gives the results an unsettling ambiguity.  Are his pieces regressive-negative satires on the kitsch aspects of his environment, or do they display a perverse attraction for cuddlesome values?  Koons’ art revels in exaggeration, creates surprise and engages with obscenity and humour – all of which are attributes of the grotesque, but in a sense his grotesque is “soft”.

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Discussing the films of Douglas Sirk, in an interview with Peter Scheldahl (see my essay Grandeur versus the Sublime), David Salle spoke of that director’s visual control which could call attention to how he felt about the subject matter without there being any apparent intrusion of objective morality into the context.  In a similar way, by inflating the sentiment he discerns, Koons may be making a statement about the degradation of contemporary experience; achieving this by creating banal objects which are even more banal than the products they ridicule.  The vulgarity of his creations is so blatant that >a wholesale rearrangement of the criteria governing contemporary sculpture has ensued.’  As the catalogue to the 1989 Whitney Biennial Exhibition puts it:

“Slavishly crafted by skilled European artisans, Koons’s pieces are overheated, sentimental, vigorously repulsive. Fashioned either in porcelain or in wood, they are polychromed to reinforce their status as pariahs … By substituting gloss for tactility, schmaltz for emotion, and ersatz titillation for lust, Koons, objects suffocate kitsch in their needy embrace of it.”

The mingling of animal with human in these works – blonde with pink panther, Buster Keaton and burro – calls to mind the work of Bosch, of damned souls carried away on the backs of mice and pigs, while the fusion of these elements into a single object recalls the chimeras of the middle ages. Koons clashes together the banal and the obscene with the pious, gilding the nipples of a piglet with the same brush that touched up the curls of John the Baptist.

The two nude and nubile children in his sculpture Naked differ from a thousand objects available in expensive bric-a-brac departments only in that their detail is far too meticulous, especially in the area of the genitals.  Also their triteness is vastly enlarged, indeed they seem larger than life, as if banality was a bigger, stronger world than any other. Such exaggeration of a malaise evident in our society takes an increasingly hideous and disturbing aspect of our time and derives from it a grim humour which belies the sugary encrustation of its surface.

Jeff-Koons-Naked-1985-11

In these works, Koons has managed to extend our notion of the term under discussion.  But perhaps the work ends up being too cosy in its suffocated kitsch to fully realise its grotesque potential.  Some of his best work, created with the porn star Cicciolina – lavishly finished paintings of penetrative intercourse and beautifully realised glass statuettes dealing with the same “obscene”subject matter –  seem better considered as immoralist than as grotesque, since we are drawn into an endorsement of the pornography through an appreciation of the craftsmanship.

If Koons’s grotesque borders either on kitsch or on immoralism, then Marc Quinn’s Self – a self-portrait rendered in his own congealed blood – may raise an amused eyebrow, but here the grotesque of this very powerful piece also borders on the uncanny.  Damian Hirst’s sense of the grotesque can certainly be associated with a grim humour, exemplified by a piece where flies enter one compartment to dine on poisoned meat, only to die in the next compartment; and it is also apparent in his automated pig that keeps moving after it has been sliced in half – echoes of the pig in Bruegel’s Land of Cocayne – walking contentedly along with a slice carved out of it and the knife still sticking into it.

For Jake and Dinos Chapman, the grotesque is the primary source of their inspiration.  It informs their excessively fertile imaginations, enabling them to mix the puerile with the obscene: school-girls with anus mouths and vagina ears about to be penetrated by their own Pinocchio-like noses; each nose a penis; each nosy nymphet tricked out in fashionable trainers.  There are also scaled-up effigies of atrocities first depicted by Goya; but most arresting are their dioramas – such as Great Deeds Against the Dead – detailing horrifically cruel events carried out by hordes of toy-soldiers interspersed with bizarre miniature oddities that prompt us to recall some detail in Breugel or Bosch.

These dioramas are created with the aid of war-game kits and the spongy green “oasis”used to make scenic trees by miniature railway enthusiasts.  They feature Nazis being herded into concentration camps by androgynous naked figures that are usually more than one body erotically fused with another – a species resembling a centaur, but with a human rear-end, is much in evidence, often wielding a whip.  Here the oppression is meted out on the oppressor in a sort of dream-like compensation for the events of history.   It reminds us also that “All demons are in pain,”as Christopher Walken’s experienced vampire puts it in The Addiction.  This in turn strikes a chord with Mephistophilis’ exclamation in The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (1604) by Christopher Marlowe:

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Think’st thou that I that saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

O, Faustus,leave these frivolous demands,

Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.”

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With the grotesque, nothing is elevated, and we are always dealing with abasement, with a fall from grace.  The notion that hell is on earth was popular with the Cathar heretics – who the esoteric Faustus might well have studied.  It’s a notion exploited neatly by the Chapmans in their glass cabinets half filled with mountainsides, where atrocities committed on earth seem repeated in some sphere of punishment reserved for war-criminals.  Still, it is inadvisable to extend to these dioramas too clear a reading – for, in some necks-of-the-woods, Nazis torture Nazis, in others, androgynes tear androgynes apart.  The works are fine examples of that confusion particular to the grotesque that goes way beyond any clearly ironic reading.  This confusion is compounded by the sheer number of tiny figures: hundreds of tortures and mutilations, thousands of heads on stakes and bodies in death-pits.

I’ve already drawn attention to the fact that at a recent exhibition of the etchings of Callot magnifying glasses were supplied, so that the myriad events depicted, all on a minuscule scale, could be more closely available to inspection.  The Chapman dioramas work with a similar understanding of the impact of making events seem smaller than they might be for the victims.  As we have noted, when discussing Bosch, scale has a bearing on the grotesque; and, to my mind, these teeming dioramas are more successful than their scaled-up Goya atrocities.  Why?  Because, to a degree, the grotesque is the clear opponent of grandeur.  Where grandeur concerns a heroic view, and indicates the sublime, the grotesque takes the part of the bystanders – of those killed by “friendly fire”- and emphasises the horror of “collateral damage”:  so it indicates the abject, rather than the sublime.  It’s concerned with the belittling of humanity, and its laugh is a mocking laugh.  Miniaturisation in a work such as Sum of All Evil compounds the abasement, since it detaches us from what we witness.   When we study terrible evils through a magnifying glass, as with Callot, it is as if we were studying a virus, or the behaviour of aberrant cells.

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Thus the dioramas are created with an understanding of the abasement brought about by diminution, and the events shown all emerge from the Chapman’s grotesque repertoire.  Their work is quite studiously post-modern and replete with art-historical references: to Goya, to Belmer and to Darger.  The significance of the Chapmans resides in a certain allusion to childhood play that takes their work into a dream-like, infantile realm, particularly in their toy-soldier killing fields.  This reminds us that a large part of childhood is taken up with a grotesque sense of the world, that children may tear the wings off flies, and often have as much cruelty in them as sweetness, and that exaggeration appeals to children and is very much the stuff of the best fairy-tales.

Another viable extension of the grotesque and its creatively decomposing spirit has been pioneered by those who explore the possibilities of body-art – in particular the art of tattooing.  The performance artist Marisa Carnesky exhibits a marvellous dragon tattooed onto her voluptuous back and backside during her show called Jewess Tattooess – which deals with the taboo on tattoos imposed by Jewish orthodoxy and ironically transgressed by the Nazis.

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Film-maker and performer Tanya Ury has also explored this area.  She visited Cologne in the 1990s and insisted that a local tattooist inscribe a number on her, as if she were an inmate of a concentration camp.  He objected to doing this – and finally agreed to undertake her commission only if he could tattoo a bar code under the number.  The result now graces her behind!  And, because it’s laughable, it’s the bar code which renders this grotesque.

In most conventional artwork of this nature a kitsch aspect again surfaces.  And it seems inconceivable that anyone should undertake the skin-deep torture of this form of decoration for the sake of Mickey Mouse, though a tiger embedded in one’s back may certainly have as much impact as Koons’s pink panther.  In the biker-frequented collage of a tattoo-fest, cybernetic rods for legs (above appropriate socks) mingle with homespun sentiment.   Here cartoon high-jinx rub shoulders with lyrical beauty.  At the same time, decomposition is a popular motif in these needle-parlours, and the popular tattoos often delve back to the very roots of the grotesque in that they bear reference to the notion of the unfinished body, or to Bakhtin’s description of decaying and deformed flesh combining with the flesh of new life.

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Some tattoos use trompe l’oeil to give the impression that energetic yet repulsive new forms are tearing their way out of the innards, ripping open the flesh and eating through the skin to give themselves an airing.  Meanwhile other tattoos waft us down on the curvaceous backs of winged ponies to discover an entrance into a lady via her sexual portals – doubtless we’ll find her full of angelic ponies once we get inside her.

Here again we’re encountering one of the favourite recipes of the grotesque:  animal mixed with human, outside bent on becoming inside – all flavoured with a liberal dose of kitsch and rococo embellishment – the humorous aspect made poignant by images permanently stitched into some gorgeous hide.

Who needs a needle?  Muscles themselves have a grotesque aspect to them, as much as they may fill one with pride.  Dynamic tension has shown us the way to use strength alone to embellish our bodies with exaggerated physique.  The humour and the horror this may evoke finds its best expression, or perhaps inclines its grotesque towards irony most strongly, when women body-builders demonstrate their prowess. Here, the male signature of physical strength inscribed on the female form incorporates a typical grotesque contradiction.  Lenda Murray and Kathy Unger may seem living grotesques to some – but look at it another way.  The grotesque so incorporated is the result of an engrossing pastime which is enabling young women to make a liberating reappraisal of their own physical capacities.  Primarily, it’s our appreciation of the grotesque which has permitted us to consider cross-dressing, female weight-lifting, mixing our sexes and experimenting with unlikely life-forms.

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All the same, excessive exposure to the grotesque can induce a sense of having had a surfeit of the stuff.   This is true of surrealism – which has many grotesque elements to it.  Both the Reina Sophia Gallery in Madrid, and the Charles Saatchi Gallery in the City Hall, London, ultimately pall, because it is easy to tire of fantasy running riot.  The Saatchi Gallery, with its gloomy oak panelling, rapidly ceased to feel like a gallery at all.  Instead, it came over as a somewhat eccentric museum of cooky constructions, akin to Madame Tussauds.   The detachment that the grotesque may be dealing in evolves into a feeling that the work just leaves one cold.  The items on display are all too graphic, too figurative.  There’s little here to stretch visual perception, for only one’s moral perception is being tested.  Very soon, one ceases to be interested in seeing yet another grisly exhibit, having become inured to the bizarre.

But, as we have seen with Marisa Carnesky, the genuinely visceral experience of “live art”and performance can revitalise the shock-value of the grotesque and restore its sense of confusion.  New ways with the grotesque are indicated by the cyber-human performances of Stelarc, the surgical innovations of Orlan, the blood-letting of Franko B and the living crucifixions of Ron Athey.  All of these artists call into question the pristine completeness of the undesecrated body.  Even so, the body in most of these cases is something that has something done to it.  It abdicates from control over its own actions, and becomes a passive site.  Thus the body gets used as the canvas for the playing out of grotesque strategies.  This objectifies the artist, to some extent, and turns the artist’s body into an art “commodity”.

On the other hand, the grotesque still flowers luxuriously in the spirit of carnival, prompting the weird get-ups of the camp body sculptor Leigh Bowery and the over-the-top man-woman costumes of Andrew Logan.  Carnivalesque fuses with camp in the extravagant constructions displayed in Logan’s “alternative” Miss World contest, just as it does in the contemporary interest in fetishism, designer bodies and artificial realities.  An emancipatory aspect of this tendency is that it encourages the freakish and endorses the transvestite, whether that metamorphosis be from man into woman, from woman into creature, or from creature into tree.  The grotesque both enhances our dreams and sustains our most outlandish pursuits.

Anthony Howell, December, 2003

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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6 Responses to Grotesque: Ancient and Modern

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