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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Hieronymus Bosch to Patricia Piccinini: Our long-held fascination with the grotesque

The confronting hyper-realistic, mutated life forms created by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini are clearly not of this world. But in light of our 21st century obsession with creating new, genetic-modified super-things, Piccinini’s intriguing sculptures are perhaps not that far-fetched.

Piccinini’s masterful use of silicone and human hair (at least I think its human) in her current survey exhibition Curious Affection at Brisbane’s GOMA, certainly give the eerie and often human-like figures at once a grotesque yet familiar countenance - an authenticity allowing she says “people to connect so well with the subjects, even when they’re challenging”. [1]

Piccinini’s sculptures at first shock, no doubt intentionally. This should not come as any great surprise, in even in the midst of our most rarefied galleries. Great art in all its grotesque forms - often with its use of twisted bodies and distorted limbs - from Piccinini’s sculptures back to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch has long held a fascination.

Patricia Piccinini's 2018 survey exhibition at GOMA, Brisbane

Looking back as far as Renaissance Italy, with its love of opulent frescoes and subterranean painted galleries featuring aesthetically fantastical foliage, masks and satyrs, the word “grotesque”, from the word “grotto” (cave), was first ascribed to art.

And while the meaning has changed from denoting a place underground, the grotesque has come mostly to be associated with an ugly malformed part of the imagination. This form was heightened in modern art by the real-life horrors of the First World War and came to lie at the heart of Dada and Surrealism, with Picasso’s bullfights, Dali’s self-cannibalising creatures, Hans Bellmer’s mutilated dolls, and Francis Bacon’s tragic anatomies widely seen as among the most grotesque images in 20th century art. [2]

Pablo Picasso, Bullfight Death of the Troubador (1933)

Much of the discussion over time around the use of grotesque imagery has been at an aesthetic level (represented say by 19th century Dickensian-like deformed caricatures) and a philosophical level (as an idiom in competition with theories like ‘The Sublime’).

But to me the endurance of grotesque imagery relies less on these competing centuries old theorems and more on a somewhat voyeuristic, present-day fascination in the psychology of the artist, coupled with a desire to understand the context in which the art is made and to be viewed. These are now intertwined.

The grotesque’s staying power then has for me more to do with delving into the dark places of the artist’s mind and the vicissitude of their often mixed up lives. This is a response in no small part of our collective desire to transgress the ordinary or normative world in which we live. This entreats us to explore the ambiguity between the common reality we all share and non-reality. This slant is certainly implied in the modernist aesthetic, represented most famously in early works by Francisco de Goya, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch and Henry Fuseli.

Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag visiting the Lapland Witches (1796)

This fresh characterisation of the grotesque is not intended to disregard the modernist perspective. It is more a recognition that the ever-changing nature of the grotesque over time renders a blanket definition in the present day nearly impossible. A 200 year old static definition may well have no meaning in today’s fast-paced world. The best approach in my view then is to focus on the chronological evolution of its meaning within any given arts discipline, in this case the visual arts. This will go some way to an understanding of how such a controversial and arguably unattractive art form could survive to find a place at the centre of contemporary art.

The evolution of the grotesque

Tracing the genre back to as early the 15th century, the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516) confronted his viewer with monsters and fantastical animals in depicting the depths of hell. In his seminal work The Garden of Earthly Delights, both in the central panel (Delights), and the right panel (Hell), Bosch depicts a world in which humankind has surrendered to the temptations of evil, reaping eternal damnation. The contrast is said to portray a sense of detachment both from the real world and from the painted fantasy world, moralising and appealing to the audience of the time. [3]

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych

Centuries later, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) adopted this device to encapsulate the horror of the Spanish Civil War relying upon the distortion of the human face and body to heighten the sense of alienation, futility and the loss of a moral normality.

The surrealist Salvador Dal (1904-1989) pushed these deviations to a further extreme, adding exceptionally realistic details that made his wretched, outlandish creatures almost believable. Dali turned the art of the grotesque into an examination of the human psyche, marking a pivotal point in the direction of modern art. While Picasso’s famous work “Guernica,” was informed by war’s fallout and emotional debris, Dali's work went deeper and represented the war of inner turmoil, a conflict not only temporally but also eternally relevant. Positioning himself prominently at the forefront of the surrealist movement, Dali was intent not to appease the senses but instead was determined to challenge them.

Salvador Dali

The 20th century figurative painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was renowned for his bold, grotesque, emotionally charged, raw imagery. His violently abstracted figures were typically placed in geometrical cage like spaces, set against flat, unremarkable backgrounds to highlight their abhorrence at and isolation from the world around them. But any understanding of Bacon’s work could not be separated from an understanding of the dark psyche of the artist himself. (This aspect is explored further in a previous blog post "I believe in a deeply ordered chaos", Francis Bacon: The artist's dark pursuit of reason, 2 Mar 2018)

​Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)

The Australian artist James Gleeson (1915-2008) channelled his own psychological turmoil of living through two World Wars. Gleeson generally made large scale paintings in keeping with the genre of surrealist interior landscapes of the psyche. The works outwardly resembled rocky seascapes, although in detail the coastline's geological features contained giant molluscs and menacing crustaceans.

In keeping with the principles of surrealism these grotesque, nightmarish compositions stood to symbolise the inner workings of the human mind. And while Gleeson's later works incorporated the human form less and less in its entirety, it was represented in his landscapes by suggestions; an arm, a hand or merely an eye. [4]

James Gleeson, The darkening stage (1991) Photo: AGNSW

In a not dissimilar way, the work of Melbourne-based painter Peter Booth (b1940) is often characterised by intense, dark narratives, and cryptic symbolism. Booth's Australian landscapes predominantly explore the relationship between environment and individual, as well as the individual's capacity to create and destroy and draw upon an imagery of what the world will be like in the future, with humans as menacing mutants, and a world in ruin.

The defining role of the grotesque in Contemporary Art

It is in this way that the grotesque continues to provoke a response. Indeed it commands our attention like no other artistic device. The grotesque today continues as a phenomenon that exists on the margins of society, even in a modern social scheme where the boundary between the real and the unreal seems to blur.

Peter Booth, "Painting" (1982) Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia

Sitting at the centre of Contemporary Art, representations of the grotesque particularly as it emerges from modernism - accompanied by an increasing emphasis on the ambiguity and the dissolution of reality - have become familiar to us.

In the modern context, we add to this our fascination with the machinations of the mind of the artist and the world they inhabit. Through this modern-day lens we are able to view this ambiguity most starkly in terms relevant to our own experiences.

The grotesque and its defining characteristic of inhabiting the margins of society is paradoxically now found at the centre of contemporary art to help us define the purpose of our modern one.[5]

No doubt Piccinini ultimately succeeds in the challenge she sets herself, to connect a marginalised, unreal and grotesque subject with the present-day viewer; and in so doing places herself squarely at the forefront of contemporary art.

Patricia Piccinini, Curious Affection runs until 5 August at GOMA


[1] New York Times, 2009

[2] Jonathon Jones, Shock horror: why art's so obsessed with the grotesque, The Guardian, November 2014

[3] Geoffrey Galt Harpham. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1982

[4] Wikipedia, 2018

[5] Harpham, op cit

Hans Bellmer

Main Photo: Patricia Piccinini and The Bond (GOMA)

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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