BY Daniel Baumann in Opinion | 23 APR 17
Featured in
Issue 187

Oh the Horror: A Brief History of the Grotesque

What can this term teach us about absurdity in life and art?

BY Daniel Baumann in Opinion | 23 APR 17

Is the grotesque more prevalent in art at certain times than in others? Soon after it emerged as a style in ancient Rome, its mixture of ornament and figuration was dismissed as meaningless and illogical: the Roman author Vitruvius railed against those who ‘decorated the walls with monstrous forms’. The origins of the term lie in the discovery of ornamental narrative scenes and panoramas painted in Nero’s Domus Aurea, an unfinished palace whose construction was started after the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. When the cavernous, once-extravagant building was excavated around 1480, the moulding friezes were dubbed grottesche or ‘from a cave’.

Amelie von Wulffen, Untitled, 2012, watercolour and Indian ink on paper, 28 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Gió Marconi, Milan, and Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna; photograph: Roman März

Abstract and figurative, admired and scorned, the grotesque style has always occupied an anomalous position, both challenging the canon and affiliated to it. It was prominently adopted by Giovanni da Udine and Raphael, but was deplored as ‘licentious and highly ridiculous painting’ by the Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari. Popularized by mannerism, the grotesque eventually found its way into book illustration and decoration. In the 19th century, French artist and caricaturist Honoré Daumier capitalized on this potential, taking it to a higher political level. Freeing the style of its intrinsic incongruity, between ornament and figuration, Daumier developed an exaggerated and explicit visual language that he used to caricature his time – its politicians and corruption. 

Art nouveau flirted with the grotesque in the early years of the 20th century, but it also gained new popularity and meaning through German expressionist films as well as in paintings by Otto Dix and George Grosz that brutally depicted the moral corruption of Weimar society. Later that century, during the Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl years, the grotesque seemed, once again, an appropriate tool with which to address a period of deep-seated fears and cheer­ful yuppies, appearing in artworks by Eric Fischl, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Paul McCarthy and Cindy Sherman, amongst others.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Replace Phosphates Without Compromising Functionality, a Relief, 2020, acrylic on canvas, step stool, 240 × 177.8 × 70.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and JTT, New York; photograph: Charles Benton

For a few years now, we have been witnessing yet another wave of the grotesque: a comeback addressed by Paul Teasdale in his feature ‘What’s so funny?’ for issue 167 of frieze. Asking how ‘humour feeds painting’, Teasdale starts off by referring to the critic Roberta Smith’s 2010 assertion that painting ‘had finally shaken off the hangover of the modernist separation of abstraction and representation’. In his article, Teasdale reframes the question by exploring the relationship between painting and comics, looking to artists such as Vittorio Brodmann, Carroll Dunham, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Tala Madani, Lucy Stein and Amelie von Wulffen. Three years on, yet more cartoonish and grotesque figures serve to parody the human comedy in works by Mounira Al Solh, Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Edward Kay, Luis Lázaro Matos, Jessi Reaves and John Russell.

How, then, to explain this persistence of the grotesque? As an example, let’s take the work of three Iranian artists – Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian – who collaborate on films, paintings, floor decorations, sculptures and collages. In their practice, the grotesque assumes many different forms – from explicit to hysterical to abstract. As in the early sense of the term – where decorative garlands embraced human or nonhuman figures – here it is used as a device to embrace a subject while, at the same time, keeping it at a certain distance. The style allows them to address, mock and acknowledge deeply disturbing issues such as war, masculinity, family, the art world or politics, without ever becoming illustrative, didactic or sentimental. In this way, the grotesque manages to overcome that grand mirage of painting: the supposed conflict between abstraction and figuration. Effectuating a metamorphosis, the grotesque creates an eccentric, hybrid space in which everything can be something else.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #140 from the series 'Fairy Tale', 1985, c-type print, 1.8 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London, Los Angeles and New York, Metro Pictures, New York, Skarstedt Gallery, London and Sprüth Magers, Berlin, London and Los Angeles

Should the current resurgence of the grotesque be interpreted in the same fashion? As an expression of changing times? As a barometer of a challenging moment in history, when everything seems post-something (post-truth, post-future)? Is the grotesque a superior alternative to post-internet art? Or is it simply a case of popular culture feeding back into high art once again? Perhaps, increas­ingly, the real breeding ground of the grotesque is to be found on Youtube and Snapchat, in memes and selfies. Wherever the grotesque goes next, I will always welcome its irreverent and desperate laughter.

Main image: Jamian Juliano-Villani, Green Marina, 2015. Courtesy: the artist, Tanya Leighton, Berlin, and JTT, New York

Daniel Baumann is the director of Kunsthalle Zurich, Switzerland