The Grotesque

When commonly used in conversation, grotesque means strange, fantastic, ugly or bizarre, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as gargoyles on churches or Halloween masks.[1] The term originated in the visual realm as a style of ornamentation characterized by fanciful combinations of intertwined forms. The first to use it in a literary context was Walter Scott in his extended analysis of the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann: On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition (1827).

Polysemy. Because of its inherent characteristics, grotesque may refer to 1. ornamentation, 2. appearance, attitude or behavior, 3. aesthetics.
1. Ornamentation (grottesche). In architecture and decorative art, the grotesque is an ornamental style of painting or sculpture involving mixed animal, human, and plant forms.
2. Look or behavior. Something or somebody whose appearance or movements are unexpected, extraordinary, ridiculous, bizarre, exaggerated, uncanny. Grotesque appearance can involve hybridity, deformation, or both. Grotesque behavior may have to do with excess or affectation.
3. Aesthetics. Like te the sublime and the picturesque, also the Grotesque pertains to the domain of aesthetics.

Etymology. The word "grotesque" comes from the Latin grotto, meaning a cave, either natural or artificial. The expression comes from the unearthing and rediscovery of ancient Roman decorations in caves and other buried sites in the 15th century. Such "caves" were in fact the rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea, an unfinished palace complex started by Nero after the great fire from 64 AD.

History of Art. In art, the grotesque is a type of decoration characterized by its heterogeneity and strageness. Grotesques were fashionable in ancient Rome and were used chiefly in frescoed wall and ceiling decoration. They were described by Vitruvius (around 30 BCE), who in dismissing them as meaningless and illogical, offered quite a good description of them: "reeds are substituted for columns fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes take the place of pediments, candelabra support representations of shrines, and on top of their roofs grow slender stalks and volutes with human figures senselessly seated upon them."

A fashionable form of ornamentation in ancient Rome, grotesques consisted of loosely connected motifs, often incorporating human figures, birds, animals, and monsters, and arranged around medallions filled with painted scenes. As Nero's Domus Aurea was inadvertently rediscovered in c. 1480 (buried in fifteen hundred years of fill, so that the rooms had the aspect of underground grottoes), the ancient decorations in fresco and stucco were had the effect of a revelation.[2] Fifteenth-century artists such as Perugino, Signorelli, Filippino Lippi, and Mantegna copied the ancient Roman examples. They were also studied by artists such as Pinturicchio, Domenico del Ghirlandaio and Raphael Sanzio. Together with his assistant, Giovanni da Udine, Raphael developed the grottesche into a complete system of ornament (Loggias in the Vatican Palace, Rome), which became immensely famous and influential all over Europe.[3]

"Les grotesques sont une catégorie de peinture libre et cocasse inventée dans l'Antiquité pour orner des surfaces murales où seules des formes en suspension dans l'air pouvaient trouver place. Les artistes y représentaient des difformités monstrueuses créées du caprice de la nature ou de la fantaisie extravagante d'artiste : ils inventaient ces formes en dehors de toute règle, suspendaient à un fil très fin un poids qu'il ne pouvait supporter, transformaient les pattes d'un cheval en feuillage, les jambes d'un homme en pattes de grue et peignaient ainsi une foule d'espiègleries et d'extravagances. Celui qui avait l'imagination la plus folle passait pour le plus doué."[4]

Typography. Grotesque (generally with an upper-case G) is the style of the sans serif types of the 19th century. Capital-only faces of this style were available from 1816. The name "Grotesque" was coined by William Thorowgood, who was the first to produce a sans-serif type with lower case in 1832.

Grotesque sensibility in Literature. In fiction, a character is usually considered a grotesque if he induces both empathy and disgust.[5] Obvious examples would include the physically deformed and the mentally deficient, but people with cringe-worthy social traits may also be included. Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most celebrated grotesques in literature.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster and the Phantom of the Opera can be considered grotesques. Other instances of the romantic grotesque are also to be found in E.A. Poe, Hoffmann, and the Sturm and Drang movement. Significantly, romantic grotesque is usually far more terrible and somber than medieval grotesque, which used to relate to laughter and fertility. In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll managed to make the grotesque characters not too frightful and suited them for children's literature, although they remain still utterly strange al along the story.

Southern Gothic is the genre most frequently identified with grotesques and William Faulkner is often cited as the ringmaster. Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."[6]

By connotation: aberrant - abnormal - absurd - ambivalence - amusement - bizarre - black comedy - burlesque - carnivalesque - demon - deviant - disgust - eccentricity - exaggeration - excess - extraordinary - extravagance - fantastic - fantastique - fear - freaks - gargoyle - horror - humor - incongruous - laughter - ludicrous - macabre - monstrous - outlandish - ridicule - strange - supernatural - surreal - terror - travesty - uncanny - unconventional - unusual - weird.

Practitioners. Francis Bacon, Carlos Nine, Julia DeVille, Sergio Menasché, Heinrich Hoffmann, Cachi Verona, Marko Maetam, Quino, Javier Inga, Yuka Yamaguchi, Alfredo Genovese, Till Nowak, Elvio Gervasi.

Connoisseurs. François Rabelais, John Ruskin, Wolfgang Kayser, Mikhail Bakhtin, Philip Thomson, Joyce Carol Oates, David Lavery, Ian McCormick, Robert Storr, Pamela Kort.

Paul Rumsey (b. 1956) is a British graphic artist who works in the tradition of the Imaginary. Most of his work is made in charcoal. His imagery is powerful, sinister and acid, ambiguous and disturbing. Many of his ideas come from the History of Art, but also from dreams and nightmares. His influences are summed up in his autobiography: "The tradition of the grotesque is particularly alive in prints. The fantastic is especially suited to the graphic medium, and it is possible to track almost its entire history in etchings, engravings and woodcuts. A fine book The Waking Dream: Fantasy and the Surreal in graphic Art 1450-1900 charts this progress through Holbein’s Dance of Death, the macabre prints of Urs Graf, the engravings of Callot, seventeenth-century alchemical prints, scientific, medical and anatomical illustration (I adapted the embryonic development diagrams of Ernst Haeckel for my drawing Species/Gender), emblems, the topsy-turvy world popular prints, Piranesi’s Prisons (which influence my architectural fantasies), Rowlandson, Gillray (whom I studied for guidance on how to draw caricature for drawings like my Seven Sins) , Goya, Fuseli and Blake, and into the nineteenth century with Grandville, Daumier, Meryon, Dore, Victor Hugo’s drawings and Redon. The tradition continues with the Symbolists and Richard Dadd, Ensor and Kubin, through to Surrealism, which recognised many of the artists of the grotesque and fantastic tradition as precursors. It is via Surrealism that much of this work has come to be appreciated. In the twentieth century this type of imagery has permeated culture, and is found everywhere, in diverse art forms including: the satiric installations of Keinholz, the drawings of A. Paul Weber, the cartoons of Robert Crumb, the animated films of Jan Svankmajer, photographs by Witkin, plays by Beckett, science fiction by Ballard, fantastic literature like Meyrink’s The Golem, Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, the art and writings of Bruno Schulz and Leonora Carrington, films by Lynch, Cronenberg and Gilliam; all are part of a spreading network of connections, the branching tentacles of the grotesque. This is the tradition to which my work belongs."[7]
Rumsey's imagery is filled with incredible landscape-characters and all sorts of bizarre creatures. His monochrome technique is remarkable. Some of the blurred out, smeared faces he depicts certainly add to the suggestive quality of his art.[8]

1. However, when not used as drainspouts, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras.
2. "The decorations astonished and charmed a generation of artists that was familiar with the grammar of the classical orders but had not guessed till then that in their private houses the Romans had often disregarded those rules and had adopted instead a more fanciful and informal style that was all lightness, elegance and grace" (Peter Ward-Jackson, "The Grotesque" in "Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750," The Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin, June 1967, pp. 58-70, p. 75; Esti Sheinberg, Irony, Satire, Parody and the Grotesque in the Music of Shostakovich: A Theory of Musical Incongruities [1998], Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000, p. 378).
3. "First revived in the Renaissance by the school of Raphael in Rome, the grotesque quickly came into fashion in 16th-century Italy and became popular throughout Europe. It remained so until the 19th century, being used most frequently in fresco decoration. Although the animal heads and other motifs sometimes have heraldic or symbolic significance, grotesque ornaments were, in general, purely decorative" (Grotesque, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2011).
4. Giorgio Vasari, On Painting (c. 1550), Technical Introduction, chapter XIV.
5. A character who inspires disgust alone is simply a villain or a monster.
6. "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," 1960. In her short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," the Misfit, a serial killer, is clearly a maimed soul, utterly callous to human life, but driven to seek the truth.
7. Paul Rumsey, Introduction to Essex, Chappel Galleries, Drawings from the Imagination, October-November 2005
8. Cf. Aeron Alfrey, Paul Rumsey, Monster Brains, 12.3.06

Online Resources
Auguste, Catherine. Des grottesques aux grotesques, Meuble peint, France (11.1.2011).
Beautiful Grotesque; Facebook
Jahsonic 2006-9
Coulthart, John. Feuilleton
Fenris, Franz. Grotesques, Meuble peint (11.1.2011).
Geerinck, Jan. Fantastic and Grotesque, Jahsonic, 1996-2006; Grotesque, Art and Popular Culture, 22.2.2011
McCormick, Ian. Encyclopedia of the Marvelous, the Monstrous, and the Grotesque, 7.10.2000
Rumsey, Paul. Gallery at Angelfire, 1988-2005. And his charcoals and etchings exhibited at Galerie Béatrice Soulié and the Chappel Galleries in 2005. See also Morbid Anatomy
Wikipedia; Wikimedia Commons
Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Collections: Grotesques


Lucia Nayyar said...

Querido Mariano, creo que tienes materia para un libro. Un abrazo, LN

Deborah Cohen said...

Dear Mariano,
This article is very good presented and written. I’ve read it with much interest. A source I know that relates to it is Madelaine Schechter, “Approaching Liminality in the Visual Arts: What is “Grotesque” in Callot’s Etchings”, Assaph: Studies in Art History, vol 8 (2003).
Kisses, DC

Mónica Ottino said...

Fascinante, a su manera... El [personaje]que se está tragando una calavera ¿es de Bacon? Abrazo, Mónica.

akermariano said...

No, no es obra de Francis Bacon. Pero a él indudablemente le hubiera encantado. De hecho se trata de una máscara para Hallowing MADE IN UK. Látex puro y acaso alguna rara especie de ketchup muy convincente y ¡QUÉ JABÓN... JABÓN RANCHERA!
Según la descripción del producto, online, se trata de un zombi parasitado por esqueleto que emerge desde su interior, destrozándo todo lo que encuentra a su paso: mandíbula y laringe, entre otros.
Gracias a estas mas-caritas inglaterrianas más de un insular terminó con un triple infarto.

Ref. Parasite. Latex Halloween mask from Ghoulish Productions, United Kigdom. Partykiosk: "You will have indigestion if you try eating someones head, but Blurp Charlie the Zombie manages quite nicely. A pretty grotesque horror mask ideal for Halloween, Carnivals, Stage or any fancy dress event. Excellent quality full face latex mask made by Ghoulish Productions. These masks are not intended to be thrown away once they have been worn, but to be lovingly nurtured and worn time and time again. Not sure there is much love going on with this horrid zombie chappie, but you will be adored by everyone if you turn up with this on. Adult male size."

Anonymous said...

I could not resist commenting. Very well written!

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