Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cultural Grotesques

An offshoot of the historical 'grotesque' style is the Grotesque Heads trend. Here are a few examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's online collection database.

By Gaetano Piccini (Italian, Rome fl. 1710 - 1730).

By Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, Jativa 1591 - 1652 Naples).

By Anonymous (Italian, 16th to 17th century).

One thing you might notice is that a significant portion of these heads depict the physically deformed, the elderly, or racial caricatures.

Gaetano Piccini (Italian, Rome fl. 1710 - 1730)

Gaetano Piccini (Italian, Rome fl. 1710 - 1730)

Sometimes these images are given the explicit title 'Grotesque Heads,' but often they are grouped together retrospectively by those who select the keywords. A similar process occurs for putting together exhibits. When I visited the British Museum last year, I was intrigued to find a section amongst the Greek/Roman sculptures that was dedicated to 'Grotesque figures.' The associated caption read as follows (click to enhance):

The comment that "there is no evidence for their original context or function" is interesting, for it acknowledges how subjective and contemporary this grouping of 'Grotesque figures' actually is. Here are a few of the heads and bodies that were brought together under the banner of the Grotesque:

They included the disabled, the diseased, a discomforting man/spout, a little person, and the head of a quite magnificent old woman. Rather a miscellaneous bunch of social outcasts compared to the rest of the ye olde action figure crew...

So stylish and well draped.

And yet there is nothing 'natural' about the separation of these figures from the rest. There is nothing innately 'grotesque' about the face of an old woman. The category 'grotesque' comes into being more via subjective arrangement. Perhaps we may call these Cultural Grotesques? Perhaps, for that matter, all so-called 'grotesques' should be situated in this manner? I think yes.

UPDATE: A follow-up to this post can be found in Cultural Grotesques II.

1 comment:

  1. oh yeah.. I had forgotten this post obviously (following from Twitter today). That first one I found because of the hair dimension, but hadn't delved deeper. One life, small brain, toooo many tabs &c....