Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hallo What

We don't have Halloween in Australia. If you dress up as a monster and run around demanding lollies you will get arrested.

That said, if celebrating scary and unusual things is the purpose of the event, it is pretty much Halloween all year round on this blog. At least I know Tom Servo loves us creepy girls.

I like the dressing up thing. If you're on a budget these guys have a few tips for you.

As for me, it's just a regular Sunday. Although I might listen to this a few times.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Symonds U Been Gone

Another entry in my spectacularly random historical survey of grotesque writings. This time under the cloudy microscope: John Addington Symonds and his essay "Caricature, the Fantastic, the Grotesque" from Essays Speculative and Suggestive, published 1907. I think my page numbers are from this edition.

Without further ado...

In part I, Symonds begins by discussing caricature, which he defines as:
"a distinct species of characterisation, in which the salient features of a person or an object have been emphasised with the view of rendering them ridiculous" (155).

Eg. Charles Darwin:


Tangent alert: the overemphasis of physical features and personal attributes isn't always utilised as an attack. Someone can deliberately caricature themselves to generate self-deprecating comedy, and/or make a point about how they are perceived.

Eg. Ludacris.

In this music video Ludacris uses caricature to highlight the ridiculous elements of his hyper-masculine public image (threatening to fight shoes), while linking his anger at overly familiar strangers with the classic "Hulk Smash!"explosions of The Incredible Hulk. The body parts emphasised here also accord with popular 'Hulk Hands' merchandising, perhaps making a commentary on the commercialisation of the male body and the perpetuation of ideas/images of male (specifically non-white/"green" male) rage and violence in society.


Also reminds me of SpongeBob SquarePants' Anchor Arms. "Now I'm a jerk and everybody loves me!"

Anyway, back on topic.

Part II sees a discussion of the fantastic, which Symonds defines as that which "invariably implies a certain exaggeration or distortion of nature," however "lacks that deliberate intention to disparage which lies at the root of caricature" (156). The author explicitly links this definition with the early grotesque style in art, arguing that the fantastical:

"may be merely graceful, as is the case with arabesques devised by old Italian painters - frescoed patterns upon walls and ceilings, in which tendrils of the vine, acanthus foliage, parts of beasts and men and birds and fabulous creatures are brought into quasi-organic fusion with candelabra, goblets, lyres and other familiar objects of utility" (156-7).

This is one of my favourite descriptions of the early grotesque.

More widely, the term 'fantastic' can be attributed to those "beautiful and terrific forms" whose creation reflects flights of fancy: "some vision of the excited imagination" (157). These include mythological creatures such as sphinxes, satyrs, dragons, fairies, spirits and so forth, in addition to tales of human/non-human metamorphosis. This is pure fabrication; the human mind making free with pieces of reality to construct something entirely imaginary. The allure of these images results in many people desiring/believing that they actually exist.


In part III the grotesque makes its appearance. "The grotesque," Symonds argues, "is a branch of the fantastic" (158).

"Its specific difference lies in the fact that an element of caricature, whether deliberately intended or imported by the craftsman's spontaneity of humour, forms an ingredient of the thing produced" (158).

This is a dubious distinction, to my mind. He has already stated that the difference between caricature and the fantastic lies in the presence or absence of a "deliberate intention to disparage." Once disparagement creeps into the fantastic it becomes caricature. So caricature = grotesque? I'm confused.

Symonds lists a variety of historical creatures and stories which he does not consider to be grotesque, because "they lack the touch of conscious caricature added to free fancy which differentiates the species" (159).

At this point, I'm still confused.

Part IV introduces the idea of obscenity as a possible clarification point.

"Closely allied to caricature and the grotesque we find obscenity... The reason is not far to seek. Nothing exposes human beings to more contemptuous derision that the accentuation in their persons of that which self-respect induces them to hide. Indecency is therefore a powerful resource for satirical caricaturists."
"It appeals to the gross natural man, upon whose sense of humour the creator of grotesque imagery wishes to work, and with whom he is in cordial sympathy" (160).

Gross indeed.

Culture determines what is acceptable in polite conversation and representation, and what is obscene. Certain facts of life (remembering this was written in 1907: sex, genitalia, faeces, menstruation, childbirth, etc.) must be experienced but not spoken of. Such obscenity, when represented:

"brings before the sense in figure what is already powerful enough in fact. It stirs in us what education tends to curb, and exposes what human culture teaches us to withdraw from observation" (162).

[Via Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656). Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Image.]

But where to draw the line? Individuals, even though they may share a common cultural context, differ in their opinion of what is obscene and what isn't. This point is typical for any and all discussions involving the grotesque - who says what is grotesque and what isn't? Subjectivity and cultural relativism complicate everything.

Symonds believes that certain artists have the ability to "elevate" their chosen subjects, despite their base origins.

"All depends on taste, on method of treatment, on the tone communicated, on the mood in which matters of delicacy have been viewed" (167-8).

He concludes in Part V with a discussion of the true purpose of poetry and art, advocating a middle ground approach:

"the final object of the whole concert is to delight and stimulate the mind, not to exercise the brain by logical propositions, nor to excite the appetite by indecent imagery. Precisely in this attunement of all the senses to the service of impassioned thought lies the secret of the noblest art" (165).

While this is certainly not the most convincing treatment of the grotesque I have read, it is interesting to note how it registers the difficulty in separating 'grotesque' from other terms and ideas. It also firmly severs the early grotesque from the contemporary, which many discussions do not do. Symonds claims that early grotesque art is emblematic of the fantastical, whereas 'the grotesque' is something quite different - closer to the obscene than the fanciful.

His grotesque lies somewhere at the point where caricature and the fantastic meet; generating a "peculiar connection which is necessary to grotesqueness" (159).

I'm still a bit confused. But that is hardly unusual.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Short, Not Always Sweet

Music videos are under-appreciated and under-analysed in the academic context, I think.

I like the Alien-esque body morphing and antisocial clone action in this video for Aphex Twin by visual artist Chris Cunningham.

(Although 'like' probably isn't the right word. As Miss Cakehead says, if this video doesn't frighten you: "seek help!")

Cunningham was also behind this award winning video for Bjork. Much more gentle, this one.

He made a short film called Rubber Johnny, which, as one YouTube user commented, "would give David Lynch diarrhea." It is quite disturbing. I won't be posting it, but feel free to go check the video out here. Leave the light on.

Plenty of grotesquerie to examine in relation to Cunningham's work. I'm not comfortable with much of it, but that's usually a sign that something interesting is going on.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Doll Face

More cute yet sinister stuff. I don't know if you would call this 'grotesque' or not. But check out the face on that doll shop.

Rodrigo Blaas used to work at Pixar, now his animated short is being turned into a full length movie. Guillermo del Toro is producing it, so things could get (more) intense.

I should have a few more 'grotesque history' posts coming up soon. Next week if I'm feeling like I have words/mind space free.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Red Masque


Edgar Allan Poe is often mentioned in discussions of the grotesque, in particular his short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842). The full text is available here, and I would definitely recommend reading it. So short, yet so incredibly suspenseful and evocative.

Although Poe's work is of great interest in general, this tale is a special favourite because he actually uses the word 'grotesque.'

The story begins with an horrific disease; the Red Death.

"The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men."

Bloodsplosion. This would be a classic zombie apocalypse if the infected didn't die so very quickly.

The smug Prince Prospero ("happy and dauntless and sagacious") takes a thousand of his closest non-dead or bloody friends and locks himself away in a reinforced Abbey to wait out the ordeal. After about six months, and probably slightly bored, he organises a masquerade. Everyone gets dressed up and makes a spectacle of themselves, all the more horrible if you imagine the gory devastation happening outside.

This is how Poe describes the revelers:

"Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm -- much of what has been seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust."

In the middle of all the dancing, a mysterious figure appears.

"And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, of horror, and of disgust."

Who is this out-grotesqueing the grotesques?

"The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of his face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror."

Uh-oh. What happens next? You will have to read the story for yourself.

There have been a few film adaptations, of course, although this Roger Corman effort doesn't seem to have much to do with the original story.

I don't recall any Devil worshiping.

A band called Stormwitch composed a song in honour of The Masque of the Red Death. In fact, they dedicated a whole album (Tales of Terror) to Poe in 1985. Rock on.

Just in case all this blood stuff makes you uncomfortable, check out this "Little Gothic Library" print by Aussie artist Martin Harris:

He also did one for another of my favourites: The Fall of the House of Usher.

Charming. And menacing. But mostly charming.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Always interesting to see where the word 'grotesque' pops up, and what it means in different contexts.

This is a panel from Flight 714, one of my favourite Tintin comics by Hergé.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Big Up


Australian artist Ron Mueck is one of my latest discoveries. He creates incredibly detailed sculptures which resemble real humans in all ways except one: their size.

I find it fascinating how changing the size of something can alter its meaning. Miniature and gigantic people evoke very different responses.


Susan Stewart's On Longing has some insightful things to say about size:
"Our impulse is to create an environment for the miniature, but such an environment is impossible for the gigantic: instead the gigantic becomes our environment, swallowing us as nature or history swallows us" (89).

She has a few things to say about the grotesque as well. For Stewart, gigantism is a feature of the grotesque, as something exaggerated and carnivalesque. In contrast, "the miniature world remains perfect and uncontaminated so long as its absolute boundaries are maintained" (68).

The video below has a few more of Mueck's creations.

This documentary shows some behind the scenes footage of how the artist works. It's well worth a look, if you like the sculptures.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Show Time

A lot of words were blogged last week. I think it's time for a photographic interlude. These pics are from a little while ago, taken at the Perth Royal Show.

The Show happens once a year. At this precious time all manner of creepy clowns, farm animals, escape artists, inventors and fast food sellers descend upon the Perth fairgrounds and take up residence for an entire week. I hadn't been for ages, but this year couldn't resist the opportunity to revisit its glory. So many bright shiny colours.

[My sister took some of these pics. She was "looking out for grotesque things," with the criteria being "stuff Gwyneth would like." Her pics are clearly superior to mine. I shall mark them with an asterisk*.]


I wish I'd seen this big blue monster close up, but it was too crowded here. I don't like to be bumped.


Patriotic Aussie fun times.


But behind the scenes: Muppet rights were clearly being abused.





Lots of offensive bumper stickers to choose from. All worthy of The Worst of Perth.

The hypnotist in action: "You are ALL Miss World."

Even ShamWow was there.


Also lots of human/animal/object bodies on display.

Including a chocolate banana/man:

And the car/face ride.

Seriously creepy...

Let the fluffy animals cleanse your mind.





Now delicious cake.


The Daleks were clearly irresistible...

But this one was the best.






Did you know Justin Bieber pioneered Australia?

Alien pods and escape vehicle.

One last thing, which my sister spotted for me.


"Oh, that meat looks so juicy and.. HEAD HEAD THERE IS A MAN HEAD IN THE MEAT!!"


Food for thought, eh?

Well, that's about it. I like the show.