Sunday, December 6, 2009

Strange Bodies

The term 'grotesque' was coined in reference to a style of ornamental design that usually occurred around the edges of larger artistic works. What made this marginalia unique, and worthy of its special new title, was the way in which the style blended plants, animals, humans and objects into intricate patterns. These panels are an example of what I'm talking about. They are from Seer aerdige grotissen dienstich, a series of 12 engravings by Johan Bara after Nicasius Roussel's (1623) 'De Grotesco Per utilis ... Liber' (from the British Museum Print Database).

Click to have a closer look.

Heads grow from stalks and pedestals, delicately farting buttocks perch on ostrich legs, combination bodies erupt from all directions and twist together. Such ontological mangling was something of a shock to the principles of God and nature in the 17th century. It was also very exciting and daring, and soon everyone wanted their own grotesque decorations.

I'm very interested in how this theme of combination bodies has translated into today's pop culture. Once you start looking, you see it everywhere. For example, I was reading Swamp Thing comics the other day (what, it was for research) and this cover image really caught my attention:

(Series 2, #52. If you want more swamp - go here)

Swamp Thing is simultaneously man and plant, animal and mineral. And here his swampy body merges with the Gothic architecture: the dome of his head takes the place of the roof, the peak of his nose forms the pointed arch while his gaping mouth acts as the window. The intricate tangling of the vines running down and around the walls are also reminiscent of the intermingling vines of the traditional 'grotesque' style. The Swamp Thing comics also feature characters called the 'Un-Men,' and spend a lot of time examining the line between human and 'un'-human.

On another note, I bought this game today:

It seems the human/object/plant/animal figure not only remains a significant presence in contemporary culture, but has grown even more complicated. I like how the arm merges veins/roots/wires into the giant crab-claw blade: the man is simultaneously mechanical and organic. (No, I didn't buy it for the cover. How could you even suggest such a thing.) I'm promised "deadly shape shifting action." It's a whole two months before BioShock 2 comes out... I have to entertain myself somehow. Thanks to modern media I don't just have to sit like a lady and look at shapes shifting on pages, I can do it myself.

Did you know Swamp Thing had his very own TV show?
Also, a lovely theme tune:

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