The Payne Syndrome
When the grotesque understood as just disgusting. According to Jonathan Jones, diabolically grotesque art –from Jonathan Payne’s sprouting finger sculptures right back to Hieronymus Bosch– has staying power because our lives have not radically changed. As long as we have bodies, we will experience body horror.
Jonathan Payne, Fleshette, 2014
Jonathan Jones, Shock Horror, Guardian Blog, 17 November 2014
Warts, growths and misplaced body parts abound in the bizarre sculptures of Jonathan Payne. A tongue with teeth, a mass of flesh sprouting fingers, an eyeball in its own little flesh sac… Don’t tell me you’re not a bit shocked or repelled or amazed. […]
The grotesque has staying power because our life as beings of flesh and blood has not changed, and so long as we have bodies, we can experience body horror. This applies across art, cinema and literature. What we mean by the “grotesque” in art goes back to the medieval imagination. In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the hideous monster Grendel murders sleeping warriors in the king’s mead hall. In medieval art, such evil creatures abound. They reach a diabolical grandeur of imagination in north European art in the 15th and 16th centuries. We still stare transfixed at the grotesque art of Bosch, Bruegel and Grunewald.
Bosch, Inferno detail from The Garden od Earthly Delights Triptych
True horror definitely belongs to us northerners, huddled together in the cold winter nights imagining monsters in the dark. The Italian Renaissance saw more beauty than monstrosity in the world. Yet the word “grotesque” to describe art was coined in Renaissance Italy. When the remains of the Domus Aurea (Golden House) of the ancient emperor Nero were discovered under the Esquiline hill in Rome, artists including Raphael lowered themselves down on ropes into its subterranean painted galleries. The Renaissance frescoes this opulent palace inspired – all fantastical foliage, masks and satyrs – was called “grotesque” from grotto (cave) because the underground corridors were like caverns. Yet being Italian, it was quite beautiful.
Jonathan Payne, Fleshette, 2014
So the grotesque originally meant undeground art. It has changed its meaning, and yet, images like Payne’s come from a place “underground”, from an ugly malformed part of the imagination. The grotesque in modern art was heightened by the real-life horrors of the first world war. It is at the heart of dada and surrealism. The most grotesque images in 20th-century art include Picasso’s bullfights, Dali’s self-cannibalising creatures, Hans Bellmer’s mutilated dolls, and Francis Bacon’s tragic anatomies.
But the grotesque does not really change. It is always new, yet always old. Bellmer or the Chapman brothers may seem quintessentially modern yet the grisly fascination of their art would not have surprised Hieronymous Bosch or the collectors who coveted his bizarre paintings. The horrors that painters saw 500 years ago are just as disconcerting as anything today’s artists create. When we look into the dark, the monsters are always the same.
Payne Fleshlette Sculptures
Sort of Grotesqueness: Remixed Human Body Parts