John Ruskin on the grotesque  

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True and False Griffins from John Ruskin's Modern Painters (Part IV. Of Many Things), first published in 1856.
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True and False Griffins from John Ruskin's Modern Painters (Part IV. Of Many Things), first published in 1856.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

John Ruskin was one of the first modern writers to write about the theory of the grotesque. Two of his books, Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice discuss the sensibility. The text on this page is based on a blog entry by Mariano Akerman from[1].

In the second volume of Stones, Ruskin argues that "grotesqueness" is one of the fundamental ingredients of Gothic architecture, along with savageness, changefulness, naturalism, rigidity and redundance. On this grotesque quality he comments that: "every reader familiar with Gothic architecture must understand what I mean, and will, I believe, have no hesitation in admitting that the tendency to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images, is a universal instinct of the Gothic imagination" (LXXII).

In the third volume of Stones, Ruskin discusses the grotesque "corruption" of the Renaissance style, which is understood by Ruskin to reflect a wider corruption of Christian values and the loosening of religion's hold upon the minds and souls of the citizens of Venice.

Ruskin argues that the "corruption" of Venice's beautiful Gothic architecture, during what he calls the "grotesque renaissance," accords with a more general collapse of social values that is reflected in the worst kind of grotesque.

Having already commented on the grotesque as an essential quality of Gothic, he now comes to exploring the difference between the new, heinous grotesquerie and the earlier, more positive kind:

"It must be our immediate task, and it will be a most interesting one, to distinguish between this base grotesqueness, and that magnificent condition of fantastic imagination, which was above noticed as one of the chief elements of the Northern Gothic mind" (III, XVI).

Ruskin detects two components in the grotesque:

"It seems to me that the grotesque is, in almost all cases, composed of two elements, one ludicrous, the other fearful; that, as one or other of these elements prevails, the grotesque falls into two branches, sportive grotesque and terrible grotesque; but that we cannot legitimately consider it under these two aspects, because there are hardly any examples which do not in some degree combine both elements; there are few grotesques so utterly playful as to be overcast with no shade of fearfulness, and few so fearful as absolutely to exclude all ideas of jest. But although we cannot separate the grotesque itself into two branches, we may easily examine separately the two conditions of mind which it seems to combine; and consider successively what are the kinds of jest, and what the kinds of fearfulness, which may be legitimately expressed in the various walks of art, and how their expressions actually occur in the Gothic and Renaissance schools" (III, XXIII).

Numerous contemporary discussions maintain the validity of this structure in which the grotesque finds expression as a combination of the comic and the fearful. According to Ruskin, "the mind, under certain phases of excitement, plays with terror" (XLV). The grotesque is thus understood as that which enables terrible things to be set out in the open, to be played with in a form of personal and cultural exorcism.

Ruskin discussed this earlier, in the fourth volume of Modern Painters, where he commented that:

"A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or over-leaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character" (97-98)





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "John Ruskin on the grotesque" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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