From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- This page deals with the grotesque sensibility in art and literature, for more on grotesque in the visual arts, see the page grotesque art.
The word grotesque comes from the Latin root "grotto" which originated from Greek krypte "hidden place" , meaning a small cave or hollow. The original meaning was restricted to an extravagant style of Ancient Roman decorative art rediscovered and then copied in Rome at the end of the 15th century. The "caves" were in fact rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea, the unfinished palace complex started by Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which had become overgrown and buried, until they were broken into again, mostly from above. Spreading from Italian to the other European languages, the term was long used largely interchangeably with arabesque and moresque for types of decorative patterns using curving foliage elements.
Since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English) grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks. In art, performance, and literature, grotesque, however, may also refer to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity. More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras.
According to Philip Thomson in The Grotesque (1972, p. 27), a basic definition of the grotesque is "the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response. It is significant this clash is paralleled by the ambivalent nature of the abnormal as present in the grotesque."
Early examples in Roman ornaments
In art, grotesques are ornamental arrangements of arabesques with interlaced garlands and small and fantastic human and animal figures, usually set out in a symmetrical pattern around some form of architectural framework, though this may be very flimsy. Such designs were fashionable in ancient Rome, as fresco wall decoration, floor mosaics, etc., and were decried by Vitruvius (ca. 30 BCE), who in dismissing them as meaningless and illogical, offered the description: "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." (see Vitruvius on the grotesque)
When Nero's Domus Aurea was inadvertently rediscovered in the late fifteenth century, buried in fifteen hundred years of fill, so that the rooms had the aspect of underground grottoes, the Roman wall decorations in fresco and delicate stucco were a revelation.
- More examples
- The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger and A demon firing an arrow into the buttocks of a merman
Etymology in Renaissance
The first appearance of the word grottesche appears in a contract of 1502 for the Piccolomini Library attached to the duomo of Siena. They were introduced by Raphael Sanzio and his team of decorative painters, who developed grottesche into a complete system of ornament in the Loggias that are part of the series of Raphael's Rooms in the Vatican Palace, Rome. "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) In these grotesque decorations a tablet or candelabrum might provide a focus; frames were extended into scrolls that formed part of the surrounding designs as a kind of scaffold, as Peter Ward-Jackson noted. Light scrolling grotesques could be ordered by confining them within the framing of a pilaster to give them more structure. Giovanni da Udine took up the theme of grotesques in decorating the Villa Madama, the most influential of the new Roman villas.
n the 16th century, such artistic license and irrationality was controversial matter. Francisco de Holanda puts a defense in the mouth of Michelangelo in his third dialogue of Da Pintura Antiga, 1548:
"this insatiable desire of man sometimes prefers to an ordinary building, with its pillars and doors, one falsely constructed in grotesque style, with pillars formed of children growing out of stalks of flowers, with architraves and cornices of branches of myrtle and doorways of reeds and other things, all seeming impossible and contrary to reason, yet it may be really great work if it is performed by a skillful artist."
The delight of Mannerist artists and their patrons in arcane iconographic programs available only to the erudite could be embodied in schemes of grottesche, Andrea Alciato's Emblemata (1522) offered ready-made iconographic shorthand for vignettes. More familiar material for grotesques could be drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses.
In Michelangelo's Medici Chapel Giovanni da Udine composed during 1532-33 "most beautiful sprays of foliage, rosettes and other ornaments in stucco and gold" in the coffers and "sprays of foliage, birds, masks and figures" (Lives), with a result that did not please Pope Clement VII Medici, however, nor Giorgio Vasari, who whitewashed the grottesche decor in 1556. Counter Reformation writers on the arts, notably Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, bishop of Bologna, turned upon grottesche with a righteous vengeance.
Giorgio Vasari recorded that Francesco Ubertini, called "Bacchiacca", delighted in inventing grotteschi, and (about 1545) painted for Duke Cosimo de' Medici a studiolo in a mezzanine at the Palazzo Vecchio "full of animals and rare plants". Other 16th-century writers on grottesche included Daniele Barbaro, Pirro Ligorio and Gian Paolo Lomazzo.
Engravings, woodwork, book illustration, decorations
In the meantime, through the medium of engravings the grotesque mode of surface ornament passed into the European artistic repertory of the sixteenth century, from Spain to Poland. A classic suite was that attributed to Enea Vico, published in 1540-41 under an evocative explanatory title, Leviores et extemporaneae picturae quas grotteschas vulgo vocant, "Light and extemporaneous pictures that are vulgarly called grotesques". Later Mannerist versions, especially in engraving, tended to lose that initial lightness and be much more densely filled than the airy well-spaced style used by the Romans and Raphael.
Soon grottesche appeared in marquetry (fine woodwork), in maiolica produced above all at Urbino from the late 1520s, then in book illustration and in other decorative uses. At Fontainebleau Rosso Fiorentino and his team enriched the vocabulary of grotesques by combining them with the decorative form of strapwork, the portrayal of leather straps in plaster or wood moldings, which forms an element in grotesques.
From Baroque to Victorian era
In the 17th and 18th century the grotesque encompasses a wide field of teratology (science of monsters) and artistic experimentation. The monstrous, for instance, often occurs as the notion of play. The sportiveness of the grotesque category can be seen in the notion of the preternatural category of the lusus naturae, in natural history writings and in cabinets of curiosities. The last vestiges of romance, such as the marvellous also provide opportunities for the presentation of the grotesque in, for instance, operatic spectacle. The mixed form of the novel was commonly described as grotesque - see for instance Fielding's "comic epic poem in prose." (Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones)
Grotesque ornament received a further impetus from new discoveries of original Roman frescoes and stucchi at Pompeii and the other buried sites round Mount Vesuvius from the middle of the century. It continued in use, becoming increasingly heavy, in the Empire Style and then in the Victorian period, when designs often became as densely packed as in 16th-century engravings, and the elegance and fancy of the style tended to be lost.
Extensions of the term in art
Artists began to give the tiny faces of the figures in grotesque decorations strange caricatured expressions, in a direct continuation of the medieval traditions of the drolleries in the border decorations or initials in illuminated manuscripts. From this the term began to be applied to larger caricatures, such as those of Leonardo da Vinci, and the modern sense began to develop. It is first recorded in English in 1646 from Sir Thomas Browne:"In nature there are no grotesques". By extension backwards in time, the term became also used for the medieval originals, and in modern terminology medieval drolleries, half-human thumbnail vignettes drawn in the margins, and carved figures on buildings (that are not also waterspouts, and so gargoyles) are also called "grotesques".
A boom in the production of works of art in the grotesque genre, characterized the period 1920-1933 of German art. In contemporary illustration art, the "grotesque" figures, in the ordinary conversational sense, commonly appear in the genre grotesque art, also known as fantastic art.
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, the first to produce a sans-serif type with lower case, in 1832.
While the term grotesque originated in the visual realm; one of the first uses of the term grotesque to describe literature, was by Montaigne's Essays. Montaigne referred to his writing as if he were a painter and compared his essays to grotesques:
- what are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?
Style and nature
Literary works of mixed genre are occasionally termed grotesque, as are "low" or non-literary genres such as pantomime and farce. Gothic writings often have grotesque components in terms of character, style and location. In other cases, the environment described may be grotesque - whether urban (Charles Dickens), or the literature of the American south which has sometimes been termed "Southern Gothic." Sometimes the grotesque in literature has been explored in terms of social and cultural formations such as the carnival(-esque) in François Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin.
In fiction, characters are usually considered grotesque if they induce both empathy and disgust. (A character who inspires disgust alone is simply a villain or a monster.) Obvious examples would include the physically deformed and the mentally deficient, but people with cringe-worthy social traits are also included. The reader becomes piqued by the grotesque's positive side, and continues reading to see if the character can conquer their darker side. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the figure of Caliban has inspired more nuanced reactions than simple scorn and disgust. Also, in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the character of Gollum may be considered to have both disgusting and empathetic qualities, which fit him into the grotesque template.
The grotesque is often linked with satire and tragicomedy. It is an effective artistic means to convey grief and pain to the audience, and for this has been labeled by Thomas Mann as the "genuine antibourgeois style".
The earliest written texts describe grotesque happenings and monstrous creatures. The literature of Myth has been a rich source of monsters; from the one-eyed Cyclops (to cite one example) from Hesiod's Theogony to Homer's Polyphemus in the Odyssey. Ovid's Metamorphoses is another rich source for grotesque transformations and hybrid creatures of myth. Horace's Art of Poetry also provides a formal introduction classical values and to the dangers of grotesque or mixed form. Indeed the departure from classical models of order, reason, harmony, balance and form opens up the risk of entry into grotesque worlds. Accordingly British literature abounds with native grotesquerie, from the strange worlds of Spenser's allegory in The Faerie Queene, to the tragi-comic modes of sixteenth-century drama. (Grotesque comic elements can be found in major works such as King Lear.)
Another major source of the grotesque is in satirical writings of the eighteenth century. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels provides a variety of approaches to grotesque representation. In poetry, the works of Alexander Pope provide many examples of the grotesque.
Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most celebrated grotesques in literature. Dr. Frankenstein's monster can also be considered a grotesque, as well as the Phantom of the Opera and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Other instances of the romantic grotesque are also to be found in Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, in Sturm und Drang literature or in Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Romantic grotesque is far more terrible and sombre than medieval grotesque, which celebrated laughter and fertility.
The grotesque received a new shape with Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, when a girl meets fantastic grotesque figures in her fantasy world. Carroll manages to make the figures seem less frightful and fit for children's literature, but still utterly strange.
Southern Gothic is a genre 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" ("Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," 1960). In O'Connor's often-anthologized 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. The less obvious grotesque is the polite, doting grandmother who is unaware of her own astonishing selfishness. Another oft-cited example of the grotesque from O'Connor's work is her short-story entitled "A Temple Of The Holy Ghost." The American novelist, Raymond Kennedy is another author associated with the literary tradition of the grotesque.
The German and Dutch tradition
In Germany, authors such as Salomo Friedlaender and Paul Scheerbart began to label their short stories as grotesken (grotesques). Flemish poet Paul van Ostaijen was influenced by these two writers and similarly wrote 'grotesques'. The tradition was continued by Flemish writers Gust Gils and Gaston Burssens, both writers of short stories they labeled grotesques. Other writers in the genre include Ferdinand Bordewijk, Til Brugman and Fritzi Harmsen van Beek.
A writer that needs to be mentioned in this category is Franz Kafka. It should not come as a surprise that van Ostaijen had been Kafka's first foreign translator, publishing in Dutch five of Kafka's short prose pieces from Betrachtung in 1925.
- Arthur Clayborough ( The grotesque in English literature (1965))
- Thomas Cramer (Das Groteske bei E.T.A. Hoffmann. München 1966)
- Arnold P Hinchliffe (Critical Idiom writer)
- Lee Byron Jennings (The Ludicrous Demon: Aspects of the Grotesque in German Post-Romantic Prose.)
- Wolfgang Kayser (The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 1957)
In architecture the term "grotesque" means a carved stone figure.
Grotesques are often confused with gargoyles, but the distinction is that gargoyles are figures that contain a water spout through the mouth, while grotesques do not. This type of sculpture is also called a chimera. Used correctly, the term gargoyle refers to mostly eerie figures carved specifically as terminations to spouts which convey water away from the sides of buildings. In the Middle Ages, the term babewyn was used to refer to both gargoyles and grotesques. This word is derived from the Italian word babuino, which means "baboon".
aberrant - abnormal - absurd - ambivalence - amusement - arabesque - black comedy - bizarre - black comedy - human body - burlesque - caricature - carnivalesque - demon - deviant - disgust - eccentricity - exaggeration - excess - extraordinary - extravagance - fantastic - fantastique - fantasy - fear - freaks - gargoyle - horror - humor - incongruous - laughter - ludicrous - macabre - monstrous - mythology - outlandish - parody - ridicule - satire - strange - supernatural - surreal - terror - travesty - ugly - uncanny - unconventional - unusual - weird
A number of art and literary historians have written on the grotesque sensibility, the first exploration of the grotesque was by English art historian John Ruskin in the 19th century, in The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters. But even before Ruskin, an anthology of Leonardo's grotesques was published in France under the title Recueil de testes de caractere et de charges dessinees par Leonard de Vinci florentin (1730). In the 20th century there was The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957) by German historian Wolfgang Kayser and Russian Mikhail Bakhtin, who developed the notion of "grotesque body" in relation to the work of French Renaissance writer François Rabelais.
The first post-war study on the grotesque was by Philip Thomson (The Grotesque, 1972). Notes on the grotesque sensibility have been written by Joyce Carol Oates in the introduction to Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque and the contemporary grotesque in the visual arts has been explored by Robert Storr in Disparites & Deformations: Our Grotesque.
Late 20th and early 21st century research, primarily published on the internet, was done by such enthusiasts as Ian Mccormick, whose Encyclopedia of the Marvelous, the Monstrous, and the Grotesque is indispensable and by David Lavery in his grotesque checklist.
- Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, by Edgar Allen Poe
- Comic Grotesque, on the grotesque in German Symbolist art, edited by Pamela Kort
- Encyclopedia of the Marvelous, the Monstrous, and the Grotesque, an extensive online resource by Ian Mccormick
- Grotesque checklist by David Lavery
- Grotesk (Hannah Höch)