Art and the word ‘Grotesque’
By: Dahlia Labatte
I would describe myself as enjoying challenging art, scary art, art that not everyone can digest or enjoy, art that examines things we see as unfit to be in the public light. To describe this work, we often come across the word ‘grotesque.’ A word that I find visually beautiful simply in the way it’s spelled, and a word that in art has an incredibly interesting history and modern impact.
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962
Hieronymus Bosch, Detail of Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505
Where does the word ‘grotesque’ come from?
Rome, approximately 1500, the Domus Aurea, also called the Golden House of Nero, was cleared out after Nero’s death. The underground levels were left unknown until the Renaissance, when they were rediscovered by chance. Along every surface were perfectly preserved Roman frescos. The frescos pictured combinations of cherubs, various plants and animals. Connected with various adornments of chain, and bows, the symmetrical and wonderous tapestries of frescos covered the walls and ceilings. Renaissance artists like Raphael visited the Domus Aurea to copy and use those motifs in their work. Because of the locations – underground grottoes, they were called ‘grotesques.’ ‘Grotesque painting’, even today, when the word is not being used as an adjective, it is used to reference imitations of the Roman wall decoration. When it’s used as an adjective, describing something as grotesque has now evolved to mean something with an “odd or unnatural shape, in appearance, or characters; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.” Although the word does seem to have deeper depths than just that, which we will be exploring.
Fresco detail, c. 1500
Domus Aurea, Rome, Fresco detail, c. 68 AD
Challenging our ideas of grotesque art
Feminism and Womanhood
When the feminine body has been the subject of laws, politics, and has been depicted and the sorceress, the seductress, the prostitute – the act of distorting and changing the human form becomes an act of resistance and taking back control. The grotesque becomes almost inherently associated with the feminine.
Doreen Garner, Onika, 2014
The feminine body throughout history has been viewed as a changed and edited version of man, it has been the other (in the next section, we will also go into trans and disabled bodies and our ideas of ‘grotesque’). When viewing art created by women that feature gross, fantastical and human elements, the descriptions and conversations often tend to take on very whimsical language. Grotesque art allows women artists to break apart from the patriarchal expectations we have of art, it allows us to explore that world of ‘ugliness’ that we are often weary of while also taking control of the ideas of womanhood and the concept of femininity. In a world were presentation and perception are so valuable, it becomes an act of resistance and power to purposefully go against that.
Jane Euler, (Body (Black Void)), 2017
Trans, Disabled, and Fat Bodies
The idea of the edited and butchered body can often play into the idea of the ‘perfect’ or ‘normal’ body, which can alienate and discriminate against trans, fat, and visually disabled people. It is important to note that these conversations are very different because the discrimination trans people face has a different foundation than the discrimination disabled people face, and same with fat people; transphobia, ableism, and fatphobia. Though, they are similar when we begin to discuss and show fat, trans and disabled bodies, and subsequently that creates discomfort. Showing bodies that society deems less than, or that subvert what we think of as beauty, especially in art, can often be described as ‘grotesque.’
I’d like to challenge this idea. The existence and display of a body that we are not used to seeing does not make it more grotesque, deformed, odd, shocking, or whatever word you might hear used. The deliberate distortion or flesh and the human form in art, needs to be differentiated from the simple portrayal of bodies that just aren’t seen often in art or as fitting current beauty standards.
Colleen Barry, Nexus Study, 2020
Maisie Cousins, Rubbish, Dipping Sause, Grass, Peonie, Bum, 2020
Artists are constantly challenging the way we view and depict the human form. Because of that it is one of my favourite subjects to write about, to view, to paint; there are endless ways to invoke the human form or the portrait, through art. We are constantly challenging and using new vocabulary to describe the ways in which artists are evolving the art world and our perceptions of art. I will always hold ‘grotesque’ art close to my soul. I hope after reading you understand the descriptor and its context a little more even though with words like these there are almost endless possibilities for interpretation, especially when considering art.
Cara Chards, Maria Isabel Carrasco. “10 Grotesque Works of Art That Will Remind You of Your Most Gruesome Fantasies.” Cultura Colectiva, 31 Jan. 2022, https://culturacolectiva.com/art/grotesque-art-origins/.
“The Domus Aurea.” Parco Archeologico Del Colosseo, https://parcocolosseo.it/en/area/the-domus-aurea/.
Fermor, Louis, et al. “The Feminine, the Grotesque and the Reclaimed.” Canadian Art, 11 Feb. 2021, https://canadianart.ca/features/the-feminine-the-grotesque-and-the-reclaimed/.
“Grotesque Definition & Meaning.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/grotesque.
“Grotesque.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/art/grotesque-ornamentation.
Smith-Laing, Tim. “Horrible Art Histories – the Grotesque in Art.” Apollo Magazine, 6 Apr. 2015, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/horrible-art-histories-grotesque/.
Thackara, Tess. “Why Contemporary Women Artists Are Obsessed with the Grotesque.” Artsy, 18 Jan. 2019, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-contemporary-women-artists-obsessed-grotesque.