Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2015
Frances S. Connelly The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 199 pp.; 62 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9781107011250)
Thumbnail

The grotesque is not an easy concept to define. One of the strengths of Frances S. Connelly’s The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play is that she accepts this and turns it into a key observation: “Grotesques are by their nature intermixed, unresolved, and impure . . . and to represent them as fixed entities misses their most salient feature” (19). In her interdisciplinary study, the grotesque is analyzed as a leitmotif in modern, Western culture (mainly through visual art and literature) from around 1500 until today. Based on fundamental analyses in the field of art history (among others, Nicole Dacos, André Chastel, Frances K. Barasch, Philippe Morel, David Summers, and, more recently, Alessandra Zamperini), on theories of cultural anthropology (from Mikhail Bakhtin to Julia Kristeva), and on literary studies (particularly of the nineteenth century—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, John Ruskin, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, and others), Connelly’s book generously includes a wide range of artists and their work. In addition to ornamental frescoes by Raphael, Giovanni da Udine, and their followers in the sixteenth century that correspond to a strict definition of the term “grotesque” by art historians, Connelly discusses works by Hieronymus Bosch, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacques Callot, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francisco Goya, Gustave Moreau, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, along with contemporary representatives such as Carlee Fernandez, Andrew Lord, Dieter Roth, to mention only some in this variegated collection.

The legitimization of this broad project lies in an understanding of the grotesque that has less to do with what the images look like (style) or what they represent (iconography) than with what they do, how they work, and what relationship they bring about in the space between image and beholder. To Connelly, the grotesque works by breaking boundaries. It is a figure of hybridity and flux, questioning established conventions and challenging the relation between individuals and their surroundings. By foregrounding this interaction, Connelly turns the grotesque into a constituent component of art since 1500, and she avoids reducing it to a specific formal quality that might or might not be present in an artwork.

A major part of the book deals with how the concept of the grotesque was subject to culturally and historically determined fluctuations in its meaning and use during this period of time. Connelly examines strands of grotesque expressions that include the invention, wit, and virtuosity of the ornamental grotesques; the subversive qualities of the phenomenon; its close relation to the human body and femininity; and its association with horror, abjection, and the sublime.

These themes function well as divisions of images and literary sources, and they even delineate an elastic chronological-historical overview, although this is not Connelly’s primary intention. Generally speaking, however, a certain development is mapped in the book: in the early phase, the ornamental grotesque expressing wit and virtuosity dominates; in the later phase, the grotesque develops toward its remarkable, horrifying manifestations in the Romantic era, during which monstrosity and nightmares were thoroughly explored in both visual art and literature. These trajectories within grotesque expression are in no way absolute for Connelly, and, naturally and unproblematically, there are overlaps between chapters, just as some artists are allowed to appear in more than one context.

Seen from the point of view of art history, The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture is delightfully free of the constricting connection of grotesques with antiquarianism that often defines the values of sixteenth-century art history. Connelly avoids a definition of the grotesque limited to the discovery in the late fifteenth century of the Domus Aurea, the palace of the Roman emperor Nero from the first century AD; and her study includes not only decorative frescoes but also other art forms—typically, decorative art, artificial grottoes, and panel painting.

The convention of placing the shift in paradigms from the medieval to the modern period at around 1500, however, is adopted without much discussion. Here, there is a tendency toward a circular argument in the book since the premise that the grotesque has specific characteristics in modern times is so self-evident to Connelly that, to a certain extent, she neglects to explain her choice of delimiting her analysis to precisely this period in history. In other words, although the term “grottesche” was coined around 1500 to designate the ornamental grotesques in vogue at the time, it would still be useful to have a systematic analysis of the similarities and differences between “modern” grotesques and their medieval precursors. She is, for instance, practically silent with regard to comparisons with the medieval period. The medieval drollery is, indeed, mentioned; and material from antiquity (e.g., Horace and Vitruvius) is included when it fits productively with her characterization of the grotesque. But she omits an explanation of why the ancient and medieval tradition is not part of the book, and she only sporadically points to distinctions between post-1500 grotesques and earlier centuries. It seems to be somewhat unsettled in her account whether and when the grotesque represents something universal, independent of time and space, or whether and when it is historically—and culturally—determined, including when it is specifically modern. She presents the claim that a certain individualism is present in modern times that endows the grotesque with a character distinct from what came before, but the observation that something decisively new happens in the sixteenth century tends to be formulated as a matter of fact rather than an argument systematically developed or documented through illustrations, sources, and comparative analyses with ancient and medieval traditions.

My point here is not a critical stance toward the hypothesis and historical delimitation of the book, but only a wish for a more thorough argumentation for connecting the emergence of this individualism with the sixteenth century. Humanistic disciplines other than art history might instead understand this individualism to be established in the (late) Middle Ages. Again, this remark is a call for a discussion of the problem and a clarification of the status and character of grotesque expression within a larger perspective of the history of ideas and mentalities. At the other end of the book’s chronology, the issue of its historical boundaries is not raised. But if the grotesque is specifically connected to modernity, where are we heading now? If grotesque expression has to do with a certain individuality emerging circa 1500, it is not historically absolute. Consequently, it is probably already transforming into something different along with current changes in the concept of individuality.

A broad overview, which is unquestionably one of the book’s qualities, is developed at the expense of a certain detail in its documentation. This want of specificity could have been filled to some degree by more extensive, thorough references, not least in relation to the quotes and paraphrases from other texts (some references are missing or are very general) and with a more elaborate documentation of the historical sources of the time. Moreover, it would have been useful if the book had been provided with a bibliography (instead of endnotes only).

Finally, an expanded selection of exemplifying illustrations in this otherwise beautifully produced book would have helped to support and concretize the analyses. Among the many intriguing observations that would have benefited from more illustrations is the connection between the grotesque and femininity, which is typically overlooked by most surveys of the field. Sixteenth-century grotesques abound with such imagery. To the extent that the figures constituting the ornamental grotesques of this period are gendered, they are, in fact, predominantly feminine—for instance, with representations of harpies, sphinxes, mermaids (with fish or vegetal tail), and female monsters displayed frontally with open goat legs. The femininity of the grotesque could also have been elaborated through reflections on the relation between art and nature: the fusion of nature and artifice in the hybrid compositions of the grotesque is only mentioned in passing. Moreover, in an extension of this, reflections are missing on the relation between grotesques and artistic self-representation; on the creation, emergence, or appearance of images; and on pictorial representation in itself as gendered, i.e., painting as feminine. In the book’s vast historical perspective, a focus on the shifting relation between art and nature from 1500 onward could have been a point of departure for a reflection on the position and character of the grotesque in art today. Biotechnological and genetic art, body art, and related new genres fusing the natural with the artificial are, somewhat surprisingly, not included in the discussions of contemporary art. Since a challenge to and play with boundaries is otherwise a pivotal point in Connelly’s analyses, a discussion of the aesthetic and ethical questions raised by these new art forms would have been an enlightening addition. Similarly, a reflection on the relation between the grotesque and the development of the modern concept of art could have complemented the analyses and legitimized the focus on 1500 to the present.

However, to accommodate these desires would obviously require a much larger and more comprehensive book. The remarks here do not spring from any fundamental disagreement with the analyses offered and should not distract from the fact that Connelly’s book is a highly readable, unpretentious, and concise account containing remarkable insight and richness in observations. With well-balanced erudition, Connelly focuses precisely on what is relevant in relation to the aim of her analysis without superfluous elaborations, and she handles with great confidence a vast spectrum of artists, theoretical observations, examinations of works, and themes.

The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture corresponds in terms of profundity to the definition of the grotesque by Ruskin, whose writings on the topic are Connelly’s declared point of departure. Ruskin observed this imagery’s potential to open a space of reflection on the relation between images and their beholders. In this sense, Connelly’s book is a well-wrought grotesque in terms of its methodological hybridity, its conjoining of cultural anthropology, literature, and art history, and its successful breaking down of conventions and demarcations—especially in the field of art history.

Maria Fabricius Hansen
Associate Professor, Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.