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Delimitating the Concept of the Grotesque

Author(s): Peter Fingesten

Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Summer, 1984), pp. 419426
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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Delimitating the


a symbolic category of art
that expresses psychic currents from below
the surface of life, such as nameless fears,
complexes, nightmares, Angst. It is a dimension of intense and exaggerated emotions and intense and exaggerated forms.
The main thrust of this paper is that in
genuine grotesques there must be a congruity between subject matter, mood, and
the visual forms in which they are cast.
The famous Isenheim altarpiece, by
Matthias Grunewald, contains the most
tragic, lacerated, and distorted crucifixion
ever painted. Although exaggerated to the
extreme, the painter expressed but one
concept, the physical death of the body
of Christ. It cannot be grotesque, technically speaking, in spite of the power of
Grunewald's genius to depict graphically
the extents of human suffering. In other
words, grotesque form without a grotesque
concept to match it (the self-sacrifice of
Christ is not a grotesque concept) does
not constitute that unity between concept
and form which characterizes grotesque
Before modern artists looked at primitive art as art, it was generally considered
aesthetically grotesque because neither its
purposes, its forms, nor its symbolism
were understood. Employed in this sense,

PETER FINGESTENis. Chairman of the Art and Music

Department of Pace Unii'ersitv, New\ York.



"grotesque" is a term of derision if not

rejection. Not all elongated, wildly ecstatic Romanesque sculptures, for instance,
are grotesque. Only when the work of art
in question contains certain well defined
conceptual and formal characteristics
should we employ this term. The sculptors who carved those gyrating Christ
figures, forbidding Madonnas, ecstatic
saints, and imaginary animals were not
aware of whether they were creating grotesques or fantasies, or were just expressing certain literary, verbal, and stylistic
traditions to make visible to the unlettered
the almost fanatic religiosity of their

El Greco, whose Mannerist works were

disregarded for about 350 years because
of their "grotesqueness" of form, has
been rediscovered and reinstated by our
modern taste, which itself has been conditioned by Van Gogh, Gauguin, the Fauves,
and other Expressionists. A changed taste
may accept a body of work that was formally
considered grotesque as not so any more.
Exaggerated forms with exaggerated emotions are more symbolic and conducive to
evoking the numinous, the uncanny, or the
horrible. Indeed, as Gerardus Van Leeuw
has put it, "Beauty kills Holiness.^'
Strong emotions must necessarily distort and exaggerate form, as Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Goya, Delacroix, Van
Gogh, Picasso, and Munch, among others, have amply demonstrated. However
exaggerated the forms, this is still not
enough to characterize such works as grotesque, nor would the mere presence of a
? 1984 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

skeleton or a skull in a painting qualify it
as a grotesque either. The presence of the
deformed dwarf companion to the left of
the Infanta in Velasquez's well known
painting, "Las Meninas," for instance,
lends a touch of realism to this ambitious
virtuoso group portraitratherthan a touch
of the grotesque. Without falling into the
trap of taste preferences or of a judgmental or pejorative use of this term, we must
look for more than either exaggerated
form or subject matter alone, for in
genuine grotesque both must come together in a very specific manner. Attention to
subject matter primarilyis verbal seeing.
It does not engage with the work in question in all of its aspects. Form and subject
must be in mutual relationship as the
lyrical subjects of Botticelli are entirely
consistent with his lyrical linear style, and
vice versa.
If the form alone is so exaggerated,
distorted, or violent as to call for the descriptive term "grotesque," but the subject is not, or, if the subject is grotesque,
but the form is not related to it (academic,
for instance), then we are not dealing, in
the opinion of this writer, with fully realized works of art of this symbolic genre,
but with almost or quasi-grotesques.Coupled with this modifier this term preserves
that aspect of the work that is indeed grotesque, and rejects that which is not. A
quasi-grotesqueis a step short of a genuine grotesque because an importantpart is
either missing or not matched to it, or it is
only a step toward it. (The term quasigrotesque was chosen over pseudo- and
mezzo-grotesque, although the latter term
may be the most accuratealthoughthe least
Technically speaking, a grotesque consists of the presence and clash, incongruity, or juxtaposition of two or more different or even contradictoryelements within
the same work that may result in a visual
and/or psychological surprise or shock.2
In the strictest, one may say classic,
sense, imaginary hybrid creatures were
called grotesque, some of which were
fearful and dangerous, some destructive,


others benign creations of the fantasy.

Prominent examples are Medusa, Basilisk, Pegasus, Centaur, Griffin, Pan, and
Harpy, among others.3 Other well-known
grotesques are the animal-headedgods of
ancient Egypt and human-headedanimal
deities of Assyria.
The first genuine grotesque in art is the
so-called "Apocalyptic Beast" of the
caves at Lascaux in France. It is a totally
imaginary creature, a humped, pregnant,
hybrid animal composed of a lion's body
with deeply sagging belly, and a horse's
head with a pair of long horns protruding
from its forehead, and all over the body
are distributed strange circular markings.
This earliest grotesque known is a fearsome, demonic creature, perhaps the embodimentof the magical powers of animal
procreation. On the other hand, the wellknown Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf,in
the KunsthistorischesMuseum of Natural
History in Vienna, is not a grotesque,
technically speaking. This small stone
carving overstates grossly all those parts
of the female body connected with carrying and feeding, while arms, hands, and
face are understatedexcept for the careful
execution of tight curly locks surrounding
her entire skull. It is neither grotesque
nor fantastic, but symbolic, and evokes
the miracle of human procreation.
There is an undeniableoverlap between
the categories of the grotesque and the
fantastic. The difference is rather subtle,
for both terms shade into several meanings.
Therefore it is important to broaden the
category of the fantastic while limitingthat
of the grotesque; in other words, narrow
the gap between the grotesqueand the fantastic. Should the suggested term "quasigrotesque" not be acceptable, then we
should suggest a transferback to the category of the fantastic some of the less precise aspects of the grotesque, lest it lose
its distinctiveness.
Fully realized grotesques are rare in the
visual arts. They require a form and expression adequate to the implications of
the subject matter. To clarify this point,

Delimitating the Grotesque
we would like to compare two line draw- Figure 2, by George Grosz, which also
ings: Figure 1, by Sine, which has a gro- has a grotesque concept, but with an
tesque concept but inadequateform, with adequate form.
Sine draws a French wife having just
stabbed her husband to death with a kitchen knife still in his back. He falls over
from his chair onto the dining table toward her so that his head, cut open like
a melon ready to eat, faces her. To one
side of the head of the dead husband, the
ubiquitous wine bottle, to the other, his
blood running over the table. She, with
proper bourgeois table manners, extends
the little finger of her right hand, which
grasps the table knife delicately. With it
she pokes in his open brain, the fork in
her left hand ready to pick up a morsel.
Sine's subject matter is entirely grotesque, but its expressive purpose is defeated by a weak line, lack of style, pathos, or expression, i.e., inadequateform,
so that the total effect of this drawing is
no more than a quasi-grotesque.
Figure 1

Figure 2

George Grosz draws an analogous
scene, the hatchet sex murder of a prostitute. This drawing immediately conveys
the atmosphere of a prostitute's single
room arrangement, with a large screen dividing it into two parts, the wide bed in
the foreground, behind it a dresser with a
lamp, a wash stand, and a mirror. The patron's jacket is carefully folded over the
screen, next to it hangs his elegant bamboo cane. A phonograph on the table at
the head of the bed blares to drown out
the cries of the victim. Her high-button
shoes and his derby lie in front of the bed
on a small oval carpet. The half-empty
wine bottle and glass on the table to the
right indicate that either one or both
drank before the tragedy. He is a pervert,
as is indicated by the willow branches on
the chair in the foreground with which he
hit her or she hit him in order to augment
the senses. She is not fully undressed; her
upper body is nude, her corset is ripped
open, and her skirt is thrown on the lower
corner of the bed. She lies headless,
bloodstained upon the bed, the hatchet
next to her. The murderer, with trousers
hastily pulled up, suspenders still hanging
down, stands at the washstand, cleaning
the blood from his hands. He looks over
to the mutilated dead body, stunned at the
terrible deed he committed during sexual
excitement. The absence of her head is
horribly ludicrous in this otherwise highly
detailed drawing. The artist made use
here of another, legitimate aspect of the
grotesque genre, namely, macabre humor,
thus enlarging further the scope of his
work. The entire scene is gripping; it is
convincing in all of its details from the
cluttered room to the excellently drawn
murdered woman. Sex, murder, joy, excitement, perversion, and the ludicrous
are juxtaposed in this grotesque, styand powerful
listically expressionistic,
The previously mentioned Isenheim altarpiece does indeed contain a grotesque;
however, it is not the Cruxifiction but the
"Temptation of St. Anthony.' This panel
shows the bearded desert saint attacked
and tempted by horrible hybrid creatures.
He represents steadfast belief in spite of


the evil creatures of the imagination that

oppress him. To the lower left of the saint
is a creature with a monk's cowl over his
head, his exposed body of green skin is
covered with oozing boils and lesions and
his toes are webbed like a frog's. The others are various imaginary horned beasts, a
bird-headed dragon, and other strange
creatures in front of an eerie landscape
reinforcing the mood of this panel. In
its entirety, the "Temptation of St. Anthony" creates a powerful clash of ideasChristianity and Paganism (an allusion to
Egyptian gods, since St. Anthony was a
hermit in that country), spirit and the devil,
faith and temptation-brilliantly integrated
and executed. It is this unity between concept, subject, and form which makes this
masterpiece a grotesque.
The same applies to the familiar Goya
painting, "Saturn Devouring One of His
Children." Rarely has the feeling of the
horrible been expressed in a more convincing manner. From a dark, mysterious
background emerges a gigantic monster
with bent knees, hair flying, eyes bulging
hysterically, mouth wide open, swallowing the bloody arm of his daughter whose
head he has already bitten off. His large
hands lift the dead child by her chest,
squeezing out the last spark of life from
her limp body. This painting shocks and
violates our sensibilities because of the
extreme situation of a father eating his
own daughter. The looseness of the form,
distortion of the monster's arms, thighs,
and legs, dark color scheme, open texture, and strong composition combine to
form an integrated masterpiece of the grotesque genre.
Henry Fuseli's
(1782), Figure 3, has become the archetypal grotesque for our modern sensibilities. Sensitized by psychoanalysis and surrealism, we look with admiration at its
prophetic expression of a psychic state, a
complex mixture of fear and lust, the
horrible and the beautiful, dream and reality. The mare peers into the scene from
behind a curtain with bulging yet dead
eyes, watching from the inside the same
scene that we are contemplating from the
outside. The ugly male incubus crouching

Delimitating the Grotesque


Figure 3

upon and oppressing the chest of the

prone, dreaming female looks at us with
piercing eyes as if dispproving of our
voyeuristic participation in this entirely
private dream. This painting is particularly helpful in our attempt to define
and linmit the concept of the grotesque
in visual art. The dreaming woman has
great physical beauty of face, body, arrangement of legs, hair, and arms. She
lies trancelike upon the couch in an eighteenth-century interior, overwhelmed by
an intense inner experience. Her prone
position, left arm dangling to the floor,
head hanging down and bent back, are in
a dependent relationship to the grotesque
details of horse and incubus. In spite of
her neo-classic beauty and grace, this is
entirely consistent within the overall concept of Fuseli, for one detail depends upon the other. In short, somfledetails in a
genuine grotesqutle of art may be intrinsically beautiful, but they must participate
in or contribute to the overall concept and
subject matter, which will create a dependent relationship between them.

Another powerful grotesque is the

sketch "Madonna and Child with Gas
Masks," by the contemporary American
painter, Nahum Tschacbasov, Figure 4.
Drawn in 1938, one year before the outbreak of the Second World War, it has
political as well as religious significance.
It is also a biting commentary on the rejection or suspension by society of one of
its most cherished symbols, for the Madonna and Child signify not only maternal
love but ideal love as well. The grotesque
travesty of the Madonna placing a gas
mask tenderly on the Christ-child's face
to protect it from mankind's evils is a total reversal of what would be expected
from this traditional motive. These two,
who are the most beloved, become here
symbols of man's inhumanity to man.
This drawing may be taken at the same
time as an expression of macabre humor,
for what could be more ludicrous than
this paradox? They are situated in front of
an old wooden fence placed outside and
away-isolated, as it were-from the disaster area, for no one wants to be re-



minded while killing and gassing that he is

betraying the very ideals he may have
been taught in his youth. For this reason,
the artist drew a dark, gloomy sky with a
setting sun, symbols of the Crucifixion
("And it was about the sixth hour, and
there was a darkness over all the earth
until the ninth hour. And the sun was
darkened, and the veil of the temple was
rent in the midst" St. Luke 23: 44-45;).
Iconographicallyrelated to fifteenth-century Italian Madonnas, and further back
to Russian icons, it is nevertheless contemporary,all too contemporary.The grotesque use of gas masks on the Madonna
and Child do not completely obliterate
the traditionalassociations of the motive,
and it is precisely this clash that provides
the shock and power of this drawingwhich
is even strongerin the painted version.

Figure 4

A good example of proving the necessity of the congruence between a grotesque concept and a grotesque subject
and form is the medium of photography.
A photographis an image (trace) of what
is given, including subjects that are distorted or bizarre, in short, what is conversationally described as grotesque. It
would be extremely difficult if not impossible in this medium to create a genuine
grotesque, for even if the concept and the
subject selected appear as such, the form
itself, namely the printed image, is not.
Darkroommanipulationcan indeed modify a negative or a positive, but it may be
impossible to create a grotesque print, as
print, to match a grotesque subject. What
is possible for a painter like Francis
Bacon or a sculptor like GermaineRichier
is not attainablein the mediumof photography. Since the grotesqueness of a work
of art is not based upon subjective opinion, but is so intrinsicallyaccordingto the
above describedcriteria,it would be false to
arguethatone person's burlesqueis another
person's grotesque.
This brings us to Picasso, whose mural,
"Guernica,"' represents the most ambitious and important indictment of war in
our time. It is extremely stylized, with
synthetic cubist elements, some painted
collage effects, as well as stylistic innovations he started in the early thirtiesdouble eyes in profile face and/or the entire rear shown in a simultaneous side
view. The fleeing, the wounded, the burning, and the crying in it are not grotesque,
but are pitiful and deeply moving. If this
mural were grotesque in concept, technically speaking, we would see the intrusion
and clash of an opposite idea, or metamorphosis into other creatures, which is
not the case. This paintingis dedicated to
one overridingconcept: to express visually Picasso's revulsion and opposition to
the rape of Republican Spain during the
Civil War. Picasso had to distort, pull
apart, exaggerate, and violate certain
forms, for the depth of his concept demanded this kind of stylistic treatment,
which may be termed by some viewers as
"grotesque," although the entire mural is

Delimitating the Grotesque

surely not in its intention; therefore we
consider it a quasi-grotesque.

Since a fully realized grotesque is an
extreme (if not the most extreme) art form
it also requires extreme feelings to create
it. The so-called grotesques of Medieval
or Renaissance imagination are, with the
rarest exceptions, neither monstrous nor
grotesque in a deeper psychological and
formal sense, but are illustrative devices,
marginalia, ornaments more to amuse
than to shock. Since the artists who invented them lacked neither the subject
matter nor the talent to create them, it
must have been an insufficient concept of
the grotesque, lacking either empathy or
knowledge of the satanic, the horrible, or
the fantastic.
While illustrations in old treatises of
magic and witchcraft are technically described as grotesque, with hybrid creatures, devils, flying witches, and so forth,
they are also harmless, if not naive, fantasies of the imagination, based upon
whispered rumors, hearsay, and fantasies
of the superstitious masses.4 They do not
arouse the emotions, they produce no
shudder, nor leave us cold. The term
"grotesque' itself is loaded with much latent meaning and suggestiveness which,
however, is not usually confirmed by the
illustrations and ornaments used to prove
it.5 It is for this reason that this paper has
attempted to reduce or neutralize this
term to a certain extent with the prefix,
quasi" or, as previously stated, classify
less convincing works of art simply as
A mere caricature or a charmingly
executed grotesque subject fails on a crucial point, namely the pictorial form in
which it is cast. The principle of the unity
of form and expression would therefore
reveal either the depth or lack thereof or
even throw doubt upon the genuineness of
the concept which underlies it, as is illustrated by Figure 1. Geoffrey B. Harpham
has correctly emphasized that form alone
should not be the main criterion on establishing what is and what is not to be considered grotesque: "No definition of the

grotesque can depend solely upon formal
properties."6 Therefore we have spelled
out two additional criteria as they apply
to the figurative arts, namely a grotesque
subject as well as a grotesque concept.
Only when the form fits the subject as
a glove fits the hand and takes on its peculiarities do we have a solid basis of
While examples of the grotesque may
indeed appear in many widely separate
styles in time and place, it is a rather
rare phenomenon because the grotesque is
not a style but a genre. From a modern
point of view "Goyaesque" could often
serve equally well as an adjective for grotesque, but then not all grotesques are
Goyaesque. May not Goya's consistency
or rather indissoluble unity between concept, subject and form serve as a model?
Some of Goya's paintings and etchings
may be described as grotesque, but even
in his oeuvre there are few. One cannot
claim that his depictions of Satanism (and
at the same time his disdain of the Church
of Spain as exemplified by the "Saint Isodoro Procession") were painted for aesthetic pleasure or as a survival of folk
superstition. Their realism betrays either
acquaintance with or even participation in
such forbidden rituals. Imagination informed by experience lent Goya's grotesque works their remarkable power.
In 1798 Goya painted a scene showing the Hegoat blessing some aged and repulsive witches (a
theme which he revived on the walls of the
Quinta del Sordo in 1820), as well as a series of
other pictures of the same type, destined to
adorn the reception rooms of the Duchess of
Osuna. Diabolism was all the rage, and it was
this particular asoect of Gova's eenius which
Baudelaire referred to in Les Fleurs du Mal:
"Goya, cauchemar pleinldes choses inconnuesl
De foetus qu 'on fait cuire au milieu des sabbatsl
De vieilles au miroir et d'enfants toutes nuesl
Pour tenter les demonsa ljustcnlt bien leurs
hbls. '7

In view of the fact that Goya decorated

the Madrid Palace of the Duchess of
Osuna with witchcraft and scenes of black
masses he must have been aquainted with
it. One may also infer from the details
that Goya, who was very near to the
Duchess, must have either witnessed or
even participated iin such rites.

Goya was attracted to grotesque subject
matter during the latter part of his career.
He had witnessed the outrages of the
French army on the population of Spain
which he criticized in his savagely biting
and occasionally grotesque plates of his
"Los Desastres de la guerra," and "Los
Caprichos." He even decorated his own
home with withcraft scenes. Goya was attracted to and depicted the enemy within
of his people who, with superstitious awe,
were fascinated by satanism and witchcraft. At the same time he witnessed the
enemy from without, namely the French
invasion into Spain. For both perceptions
only the grotesque in its deepest sense
could serve to portray what he know and
After the tragedies and horrors of the
twentieth century we see the grotesque
genre differently and with deeper undertones. We expect more of it in terms of
mood, subject and form than in the past
when a grotesque subject alone sufficed.
This essay suggests reserving the noun
"grotesque" for all those works of art that
are fully integrated as suggested above, and


applying the adjective "quasi-grotesque" to

all the other works that only partially meet
these criteria. While we could not and would
not eliminate this term, we suggest however
using it most cautiously, and in cases of
doubt as an adjective rather than a noun.
1 Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art
(New York, 1963), p. 173.
2 Wolfgang Kayser The Grotesque (Bloomington,
1963), pp. 20-24.
3 John Vinycomb, Fictions and Symbolic Creatures in Art (London, 1906: reprint, Detroit, 1969).
Howard Daniel, Devils, Monsters, and Nightmares
(New York, 1964). "Sex Murder," 1916, (New
York, 1965 edition).
4 Alan Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700 (Philadelphia, 1972).
Geoffrey G. Harpham, On the Grotesque
(Princeton, 1982), figs. 2-5, 10-20, 21-30, 31-39. Figs.
1,6,7,8,41,and 43, or 6 out of 45 illustrations, are
grotesque while the others are either quasi-grotesques or just fantastic ornaments and devices.
h Harpham, p. 14.
7 Jean-Francois Chabrun,
GovCa (New York,
1965), p. 113.
Reproductions in this article were made possible
by a subvention of the Scholarly Research Committee of Pace University.