Literature used for this post:
Grotesque, by Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund
Monstrousity is a large part of the grotesque. But what exactly is it, where does it come from, and how are we to understand it?
These are things discussed in the third chapter of the book Grotesque that I am currently reading.
This text explains the monstrous mainly as a sort of hybridization, interpreted as unnatural, thus potentially internally corrupt. This hybridization would consist of parts from human, animal and sometimes plants. Chimeras are one example, where one body would have parts from different animals.
In grotesque art, the monstrous is distorted and asymmetrical with incongruities in appearance and shape. It also includes a world in which the inanimate is no longer separate from the life of plants, animals and human beings. The laws of symmetry, proportion and statics are no longer valid.
What happens in said world is that when human figures merge with other forms of life, something new, unknown and abnormal. It challenges the borders of what is acceptable of being human – or non-human, for that matter.
Grotesque hybrids are very common in medieval architecture, especially in European cathedrals;
Gargoyles: grotesque figure carved in stone with human or animal face, projecting from the gutter of a building (often used as a watersprout)
Severed head: common in early christian buildings (human heads, although not from living humans)
Fantastic creatures: dragons and sea monsters, treated as both “being real” and symbolic of ethical or religious transgressions
Foliate heads: heads covered with, or protuding (from mouths, ears, nostrils, eyes), leaves, stems and vines
Something I find quite interesting is how the monstrous form shifted in meaning through the journey in time, from classical Greek and Rome into the medieval days. The classical day monster had a different purpose and was percieved as humorous, while the medieval idea of monsters was more connected to other-ness, thus in the beginning of its journey towards fear which will be more prominent in later days.
There are many aspects of the monstrousity within the grotesque that are both interesting and important.
The book brings up the difference between the grotesque (monstrous) body, and behaviour. The first cannot change and is identified as a permanent nature, while behaviour can be corrected.
Another issue brought up in this chapter is the one of other-ness. As people started travelling to foreign regions, they came back with stories of alien people, most likely exaggerated. What happened was that that which was strange and foreign was alienated and demonized.
Everything that was “other” than ourselves, was so greatly so that it became monstrous, and as such, was inferior to human kind.
As a sidenote and reference to my previous post about the chapter on theory; this other-ness is used quite strongly within exoticm and racism.
Three other kinds of monsters are described in this chapter.
Monsters of excess: these are excessively large, hairy and violent
Monsters of lack: a monstrous figure lacking body parts of normal human beings (lacking limbs, for example)
Monsters of hybridity: combined human and animal parts, but also socially constructed hybrids like cross-gender and similar
Behaviour linked to monstrous is also discussed, and considered abnormal manners would be eating habits, grooming, dressing, reactions to human approach, relations to human language, transgressing gender roles, et cetera.
And as a reminder; behaviour alone does not make a monster. The body needs to be physically different, to be considered monstrous.
While this chapter does not discuss the history of grotesque in depth, it still brings an understanding to the fact that we not only need to understand the “what”, but also the “when”. I’ll get more into detail on the grotesque history, we the blog expands and evolves.
These are some things I’ve learned, so far:
The grotesque is an art style that has changed and evolved throughout history. The meaning with it is heavily dependant on the era it operates in. Looking at it through the centuries, we can see it following societal and cultural structures, as well as psychological, religious, ethical and moral ideas.
What fascinates me, at this moment, is how the grotesque is much more related to reality than I originally thought.
One thought that comes to mind, now that I’ve read this chapter on the aesthetics of montrousity, is why are people drawn to this art style? What is it, within the grotesque, that makes people like, enjoy and appreciate it?
These, however, are questions that will be answered in another post.