The Grotesque in Art

Urinals, Dreams, Graffiti, and Personal
Suffering As Art:
A Brief Overview of the Grotesque In Twentieth-Century Painting
by Alyson Muenzer
Francis Bacon
Aubrey Beardsley
Hieronymous Bosch
Constantin Brancusi
Peter  Bruegel, the Elder
R. Crumb
Salvadore Dali
Honoré Daumier
Willem DeKooning
Otto Dix
Jean Dubuffet
Easter Island Sculptures
El Greco
James Ensor
Francisco Goya
George Grosz
William Hogarth
Frida Kahlo
Alfred Kubin
René Magritte
Mexican Muralists
Henry Moore
John Ruskin
Surrealism and Dada
Alyson Muenzer
Middle Tennessee State University

Urinals, Dreams, Graffiti, and Personal Suffering As Art:
A Brief Overview of the Grotesque In Twentieth-Century Painting

When we consider what might make a work of art grotesque, we should probably look to Ewa Kurylikís chapter titled "Distorting Techniques," for she suggests that the following terms are closely related to grotesque paintings and drawings: separation, mixture, reassembly, duplication, multiplication, elongation, compression, enlargement, miniaturization, reversal, simplification, overcrowding, and fantastic interpretation and projection (Kuryluk 301-7). These characteristics will repeatedly surface in the coming pages as we take a journey observing some of the most significant art to appear in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. From Dada to Abstract Expressionism, artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Willem de Kooning were constantly producing works that would redefine the way in which we see grotesque art today. Keep in mind that "grotesque" does not necessarily mean "gross." On the contrary, it can define works that represent a dream-like state, works that are deemed art because the artist says so, works that reveal personal suffering, works that poke satirical fun at politics and society, and works that urge us to question just what kind of world we are living in. Clearly, each of the following artists and his representative movement deserves an essay of his own, but by looking at all of the artists and their works collectively, we can really get a broader view of grotesque art and exactly what it is that makes it so.

Arguably the most important art movement from 1914 to 1918 is Dada, led by the rebellious Marcel Duchamp. Dada was known for its rebelliousness as well as the sense of nihilism that its art produced, a nihilism created by uneasy feelings and disgust generated by WWI. Duchamp was widely recognized for his "readymades"--commonplace objects such as a bicycle wheel or a urinal that were to be considered art because the artist deemed it so. Duchampís most famous work, Fountain (1917), is actually a urinal signed "R. Mutt," the signature being a pseudonym. Shocking the art world at its debut, Fountain represented Duchampís feelings towards the hypocrisies of his fellow artists and their supposed progressive views. Also, Duchampís work illustrated how the artist, by manipulating the context in which a certain object is found, could change the viewerís perception of said object. Let us also remember that at the hands of Duchamp, DaVinciís Mona Lisa was befitted with a mustache and goatee, again, a manipulation of context and art because the artist says so. 

By 1918, Dada found its way to other parts of Europe, partly in thanks to the campy, rauchous, laughter-filled Cabaret Voltaire. It was at this time that Berlin Dada became a well-known movement, its artists screaming that something was not right in the world. Led by George Grosz and John Heartfield, Berlin Dada dealt more with politics and social issues in a bitingly satirical manner. Grosz, largely recognized for his satirical drawings which often appeared in newspapers, took much of his inspiration from drawings and scribbles which he found on public urinals and in childrenís drawings. His Cafe Scene (1914) depicts a roomful of people whose characteristics are clearly exaggerated; their facial expressions are harsh, and not a single one appears to be someone whom we would want to have a conversation with. Each person is self-absorbed, and Grosz portrays this with a harshness of line and color. Linking Grosz to John Heartfield is the fact that Heartfield used several of his fellow artistís drawings in his photomontages, pieces of work which were produced by combining drawings and photographs, adding in a bit of ironic, satirical text for an extra bite. Heartfieldís Adolf, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk (1932) shows Hitler, in an x-ray fashion, with a stack of gold coins for his vertabrae column, with his mouth wide-open as if he is shouting. Wishing that the viewer might gain a stronger insight into the cruel workings of politics, Heartfieldís photomontages illustrated didactic morals while addressing political matters.

Pittura Metafysica, also known as "Metaphysical Painting," was known for its use of strange combinations of everyday objects which served to represent outlandish states, along with a soothing, empty appeal that could be found in many works. Giorgio de Chirico, the forerunner of the movement, strove to produce works that would best represent the dislocating, bizarre-like state of dreams; his work The Philosopherís Conquest (1914) seems to have roots in a nightmare-world as it shows tall, industrial-like buildings, cannons, over-sized, sharp-edged flowers, and a clock. Not surprisingly, Pittura Metafysica as well as Dada would come to influence the Surrealist Movement, one of the most infamous movements in art history. 

In the mid-1920ís, a movement known as The Neue Sachlichkeit, or "The New Objectivity," was gaining momentum in Weimar Germany. Some of the art associated with this movement consisted of detached, sarcastic paintings attacking German society while other works were indicative of the artistsí time spent in WWI. Otto Dix, whose works were often positioned between the fantastic and the harshly realistic, sought to portray society in a cynical, not-too-flattering light. His painting The Journalist, Sylvia von Harden (1926), leaves the viewer wondering if the person depicted is a man or a woman; it is completely androgynous (think Ziggy Stardust or Marilyn Manson). The subjectís fingers and chin are grotesquely long, and there is a huge, black circle drawn around her right eye. Also producing cynical works dealing with German society wass Max Beckmann, best-known for his circus and carnival scenes which alluded to the phantasmagoric. Beckmannís The Trapeze (1923) shows several circus players, pushed into a small area, much unlike the vast, wide spaces which these players usually require in order to perform. Each one wears an empty expression, void of feeling any disharmony at their cramped situation. Beckmann would soon go on to become a stronger artist in the coming years, but his metaphorical circus and carnival drawings clearly marked his advent as an artist.

Rejecting Dadaís cynicism while applauding its rebuff of logic, and incorporating the dream-like state of Pittura Metafysica, the Surrealist Movement took off in the mid-1920ís and produced works that showed the combination of several tendencies to yield art that was seen as ideal. Originally literature-based, Surrealsit works derived much of their inspiration from childrenís drawings and thoughts, mental patients, and untrained artists. Freudís thoughts and interest in human dreams and behavior were also inspiration for the movement. Largely marked by the artistís alienation from his work, Surrealismís key artists included the likes of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Max Ernst.

Dali, by far the most infamous of the group, always held claim to the fact that his works came to him through his dreams and trance-like states. In The Enigma of William Tell (1933), several psychological aspects are at work; first, it is suggested that the painting represents Daliís resistance against his fatherís authority by showing a man who is kneeling, holding a small child, "William Tell" being the father. The severe elongation of the right buttock is seen as phallic while cannibalistic imagery is seen where instead of having an apple on the babyís head (Daliís head), there is a raw cutlet. However popular, fashionable, and influential Dali would become, these traits still did not prevent the artist from being cast out of the movement during the 1940ís.

Producing paintings with his blunt, matter-of-fact style, Rene Magritte was another major figure belonging to the Surrealist movement. In Magritteís work, we can see the artist taking what we know as the pre-Modernist world and distorting it, reshaping the familiar in order to produce an alien quality. We also gain a sense of Magritteís hallucinatory images through inconsistent pairings; this can be seen in his painting The Course of Summer (1938). In the foreground of the painting is a womanís body from the collarbone down to the beginning of the thighs. The "body" comes to us in two parts: the chest area and the abdomen area clearly belong to two different human beings. The background scene contains the ocean, some mountains, and a blue sky interspersed with billowy clouds and boxes; however, the boxes do not take on a different color, for it is as if they are "box-clouds"; in other words, the boxes and the clouds combine and blend into one another. Magritte also enjoyed doing works which attempted to defy word meanings; for example, in one work, he painted a pipe, the only image on the canvas, and the caption, written in French, read: "This is not a pipe."

A pioneer of several artistic inventions, Max Ernst was celebrated for his sense of the comic, and he was also the Surrealsit who was most associated with the literary Surrealist movement; many of his paintings were accompanied with poems, often sounding like childrenís rhymes. In The Elephant of Celebes (1921), he combines several inanimate objects in order to create a quasi-mechanic creature. His comic side is revealed as he has painted a tiny, little pencil beneath the elephant which is supposed to serve as some kind of stool or pedastal for the enormous creature. Ernst was also credited with the invention of "frottage": a technique where objects such as string or floorboards, for example, are layered in paper, canvas, etc., at times producing works that come out looking like monstrous creatures. Obviously enjoying the combination of different materials to produce works of art, Ernst also extensively used collages to display his creativity. Often, he would take Victorian engravings and woodcuts and set them against images of free association, those that are so closely linked to the Surrealists.

A self-taught artist and also a non-believer, Francis Bacon ironically used Christian iconography in order to produce the masterpiece that would bring him to the forefront of the art world in the 1940ís:Three Studies for the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Many view this work as a summation of the primal feelings and emotions caused by the war. Baconís Head Surrounded By Sides of Beef (1954) was just one of his paintings done in the 1950ís based on a picture of Pope Innocent X. The paintings show a sometimes-tortured, always isolated figure who has been blurred with the stroke of a brush in order to suggest human suffering. These particular paintings became images of a decade that was permeated by the threat of the atomic bomb. 

Art Brut, or "Art in the Raw," was given its name by Jean Dubuffet, a French artist who believed that art should show that it is socially responsible. Against any smoothness or fine finish that Dali was famous for, Art Brut aimed to take postwar art in a fresh direction. Dubuffet designed works which replicate wall graffiti, taking Surrealism to new extremes; he also used his graffitt-inspired paintings to portray sophisticated friends and intellectuals in a non-sophisticated way, as seen in his painting Generalized Activity No. 14 (1976). Yet another artist who made extensive use of collages, Dubuffet often constructed his collages with materials that seemed inappropriate for the uses he made of them, using materials such as aluminum foil, coal, or even butterfly wings.

Abstract Expressionism also produced several artists who created grotesque works; one in particular and perhaps the most famous was Willem de Kooning. Changing his pre-1950ís style of same "all-overness," de Kooning began to produce works based on women, presenting them as agents of both destruction and creation. Using slashing brushstrokes in order to produce a destructive element, de Kooningís painting Woman I (1950-51) asks the viewer, "Are women being celebrated, or are they being portrayed misogynistically?" Pin-up art, one of the ways in which females are seen as through the eyes of popular culture, was just one influence of de Koonongís Women series.

In the end, once we start thinking about what it is that makes art grotesque, we soon find ourselves searching for any element in a given work so that we can exclaim, "Hey! Thatís grotesque!" Always in danger of being over-used, the term "grotesque" cannot be avoided when viewing many Twentieth-century works of art. In fact, this essay barely skims the surface of those artists and their works; many other artists have arguably produced pieces that easily qualify, artists such as Joan Miro, Frida Kahlo, Paul Klee, even the infamous Andy Warhol. Looking ahead, the Twenty-first century is sure to be marked with art forms which qualify as grotesque; perhaps you know of some already. If so, just exactly what qualifies the art form as such in your eyes?

Works Cited Kuryluk, Ewa. Salome and Judas in the Cave of Sex. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 1987.