Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ruskin Around - Part One

Ok, another entry in my little historical survey of grotesque theorists. This time I'm going to talk about John Ruskin (1819-1900), who advances his theory of the grotesque in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. I'm concentrating on the latter, because there is significant overlap on this topic between the multiple volumes of each text. Ruskin wrote a lot, and not only about the grotesque, so I can really only sketch out some of the main points.

Sorry to be a quote-monster, but Ruskin's writing is so emphatic and expressive that it's difficult to resist. He has particular ideas about good and bad, right and wrong, and isn't afraid to build them into his work. Here he is defending his right to judge in the preface to the third volume of Modern Painters:

"It is an idea too frequently entertained, by persons who are not much interested in art, that there are no laws of right or wrong concerning it; and that the best art is that which pleases most widely. Hence the constant allegation of 'dogmatism' against any one who states unhesitatingly either preference or principle, respecting pictures. There are, however, laws of truth and right in painting, just as fixed as those of harmony in music, or of affinity in chemistry. Those laws are perfectly ascertainable by labor, and ascertainable no otherwise" (VI).

You go girl... er, boy.

This attitude registers strongly in his analysis of the grotesque, which he divides into good and bad, noble and ignoble.

But first, some context is probably helpful. The Stones of Venice is an immense three volume work wherein Ruskin talks about the history of Venetian art and architecture; sometimes generally, sometimes literally stone by stone. He was a great artist himself, and produced some beautiful paintings and sketches of Venice.

In the second volume of Stones, Ruskin argues that "grotesqueness" is one of the fundamental ingredients of Gothic architecture, along with savageness, changefulness, naturalism, rigidity and redundance. On this grotesque quality he comments that:

"every reader familiar with Gothic architecture must understand what I mean, and will, I believe, have no hesitation in admitting that the tendency to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images, is a universal instinct of the Gothic imagination" (LXXII).

In the third volume of Stones, Ruskin discusses the transition from Gothic architecture to the square, functional buildings of the industrial revolution. Having spent much time appreciating the Gothic in earlier volumes, he is hardly impressed by this change, which shifts:

"from the Grand Canal to Gower Street; from the marble shaft, and the lancet arch, and the wreathed leafage, and the glowing and melting harmony of gold and azure, to the square cavity in the brick wall" (II).

Basically, from:


Ruskin divides this decent into ugliness into three eras:

"Early Renaissance, consisting of the first corruptions introduced into the Gothic schools: Central or Roman Renaissance, which is the perfectly formed style: and Grotesque Renaissance, which is the corruption of the Renaissance itself" (III).

The grotesque "corruption" of the Renaissance style is understood by Ruskin to reflect a wider corruption of Christian values and the loosening of religion's hold upon the minds and souls of the citizens of Venice.

*Tangent alert* I was very interested to read how he links this moral collapse to the increasing availability and popularity of non-religious reading materials. Because:

"the human mind is not capable of more than a certain amount of admiration or reverence, and that which was given to Horace was withdrawn from David" (CI).

"All the most exalted faculties of man, which, up to that period, had been employed in the service of Faith, were now transferred to the service of Fiction" (CII).

"The habit of using the greatest gifts of imagination upon fictitious subjects, of course destroyed the honor and value of the same imagination used in the cause of truth" (CIII).

Oh, fiction. Look what you did.

[La Lecture, caricature by Louis-LĂ©opold Boilly 1828]

Anyway. It is in volume three, chapter three of Stones that Ruskin gets most vicious in his description of the new style and, consequently, the grotesque.

"The architecture raised at Venice during this period is amongst the worst and basest ever built by the hands of men, being especially distinguished by a spirit of brutal mockery and insolent jest, which, exhausting itself in deformed and monstrous sculpture, can sometimes be hardly otherwise defined than as the perpetuation in stone of the ribaldries of drunkenness" (II).


For Ruskin the "grotesque renaissance" style represents a nexus of social debasement. Yet this poses a problem, since he has already noted the presence of the grotesque in his beloved Gothic architecture. For this reason, he argues, the grotesque must be seen as divided:

"There is jest - perpetual, careless, and not unfrequently obscene - in the most noble work of the Gothic periods; and it becomes, therefore, of the greatest possible importance to examine into the nature and essence of the Grotesque itself, and to ascertain in what respect it is that the jesting of art in its highest flight, differs from its jesting in its utmost degradation" (II).

So, what on earth is the difference between a good and a bad grotesque?

To be continued...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Bleeding Tree

I walk past this tree all the time.

(Yes, I do leave the house on occasion. I 'take the air' like a gentlewoman in a Jane Austen Novel. Minus the long skirt, as it makes hurdling kangaroos difficult.)

Anyway, this tree. It is unique.

The whole trunk and upper branches are covered in weeping sores.

I'm sure there is some scientific explanation...

But I know a zombie when I see one.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Horace and Montaigne Go to White Castle

I'm writing the introduction to my thesis at the moment, and thinking about all the critics, poets and philosophers who have contributed to grotesque theory over the years. It seems anyone who is anyone has held forth on the subject, and had their own particular definition of what the term 'grotesque' actually means. For this reason I've decided to do a bunch of posts dedicated to said opinionated persons and their statements on the grotesque.

These come according to no particular chronology, or any assumed order of importance. If you want to read a good history of the grotesque, I recommend Frances Barasch's The Grotesque: A Study in Meanings. Part one of Peter Ward-Jackson's Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750 is also a great survey from the art perspective.

[Ulisse Aldrovandi (1642) Monstrorum Historia]

I'm going to start with Horace, because he is an interesting example of grotesque theory's tendency to adopt those who wrote about what is now termed 'grotesque' long before the word itself was actually conceived.

Horace begins his Ars Poetica or "The Art of Poetry" (18BC) with these lines (I'm not sure this is the best translation, but there you go):

"If a painter were willing to join a horse's neck to a human head and spread on multicolored feathers, with different parts of the body brought in from anywhere and everywhere, so that what starts out above as a beautiful woman ends up horribly as a black fish, could you my friends, if you had been admitted to the spectacle, hold back your laughter? Believe me, dear Pisos, that very similar to such a painting would be a literary work in which meaningless images are fashioned, like the dreams of someone who is mentally ill, so that neither the foot nor the head can be attributed to a single form. "Painters and poets," someone objects, "have always had an equal right to dare to do whatever they wanted." We know it and we both seek this indulgence and grant it in turn. But not to the degree that the savage mate with the gentle, nor that snakes be paired with birds, nor lambs with tigers" (1-33).

[Ambroise Pare (1582) Des Monstres et Prodiges]

Mismatched, imaginary bodies are here equated with inconsistency in poetic vision. To write well one must hold to a single premise, not place ideas together in a confusing manner. As he comments a few lines down: "let the work be anything you like, but let it at least be one, single thing."

He also includes this rather amusing snark:

"Near the gladiatorial school of Aemilius, a most incompetent craftsman will mold toenails and imitate soft hair in bronze but he is unsuccessful with his complete work because he does not know how to represent a whole figure. If I wished to compose something, I would no more wish to be him than to live with a crooked nose although highly regarded for my black eyes and black hair" (32-37).
Oh snap.

So there is no point perfecting the ingredients if you are unable to bring them together to form a convincing whole. It is interesting to note the value judgment at play here, for it is one that many others have shared. Grotesque bodies were often seen to transgress the laws of nature and God's divine plan - depicting things that could never, and should never, exist. Weirdness is to be avoided, stick with the familiar and your work will be approved of.

In Horace we also see how easily the line dividing art and literature is blurred. The hybrid bodies sketched and painted by artists are so suggestive he cannot help but observe their analogous counterpart in patchy writing.

[Fortunio Liceti (1665) De Monstris]

Montaigne later quotes Horace when offering his own, albeit brief, commentary on the grotesque. Significantly, he does so while likewise crossing the border between art and literature.

He begins his essay "On Friendship" (sometimes translated as "Of Friendship") like this:

"Considering the proceeding of a Painters worke I have, a desire hath possessed mee to imitate him: He maketh choice of the most convenient place and middle of everie wall, there to place a picture, laboured with all his skill and sufficiencie; and all void places about it he filleth up with antike Boscage or Crotesko [grotesque] works; which are fantasticall pictures, having no grace, but in the variety and strangenesse of them."

After duly admiring the grotesques, he compares them to his own writings:

"And what are these my compositions in truth, other than antike workes, and monstrous bodies, patched and hudled up together of divers members, without any certaine or well ordered figure, having neither order, dependencie, or proportion, but casuall and framed by chance?"

Montaigne then quotes Horace's line about the woman with a fish tail "Definit is piscem mulier formosa supernè."

A woman faire for parts superior,
Ends in a fish for parts inferior.

Once again the grotesque is evoked to describe a writer's attempts at creation. The assemblage of body parts is analogous to the assemblage of words and ideas. The final text is thus imagined as a form of grotesque body.

Gregor Reisch (1517) Margarita Philosophia]

This all reminds me of Mary Shelley's comment in the introduction to Frankenstein: "I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper."

Speaking of which, doesn't this sound familiar?

Woah. I only just noticed that.

[Pics via]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday's Reader

Planning to write lots of words this weekend. Hopefully they won't all be balls.

Bernard Black would never have taken such cheek.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Grotesque Romance

So the zombies are done, for now. It's grotesque time again.

In celebration, here is "Grotesque Creature" written by Hitoshi Sakimoto for the video game Vagrant Story.

It is nice to hear a song with 'grotesque' in the title that isn't metal and does not prominently feature vomit and/or disembowelment.

Here is another non-metal example; "Rotten Girl, Grotesque Romance" by Machigerita-P.

What is a "grotesque romance"? Is it inspired by the H.G. Wells story?

The lyrics give us a clue:

I wish I could touch your face, stroke your face, my sweetheart
Oh my, my, you have a guest?
What a pretty girl she is!
Tell me how much you love her
I'll kill her and pack her up


You can do anything you want to me
Because I love you this much, you see?
I wanna keep you completely riveted and I wanna have a collection of you
Why are you crying?
What's wrong? Oh, this one?
I'll affectionately hold a cardboard box that you'll be put in when you're dead


Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday's Dragon

Found this in the garden today. I think it's a good omen.

Click to check out that pattern. It is intense.

S/he got a bit stuck, and required an emergency evacuation.

Seeing a creature like this reminds you that our imaginings of exotic beasts, monsters and grotesques have a basis in reality. The mind has to start somewhere.

Also very excited to have found somebody with a similar fashion sense. Dragon totally matched the hat I was wearing:

Definitely not a coincidence...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Your Brain Looks Great Tonight

What do you get when you mix zombies with pinups? You get the My Zombie Pinup calendar by Robyn Malter & Shalaco Sching:

"A bi-product of the photographer’s sick sense of humor and ability to know how to run too far with a bad joke."

The images were all inspired by scenes from horror movies or classic pinups, and I love how they subvert both genres. Considering how often women are forced to scream and flee in horror/zombie films, it seems right that they should have their revenge.

[Via Monster Land]

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hoow Many Killings?

Still writing on zombies at the moment. Getting close to deadline now, so should be back to my beloved grotesques next week, all going well.

In other news, I find I resemble these gentlemen more and more each day:

Need that Swamp Thing t-shirt... for research purposes and all.

Friday, August 6, 2010


I enjoy the man-bag.

Partly due to the simple fact that it has the word 'man' in front of it. Usually the generic form is associated with the male, while the female form requires a qualifier. Eg: 'soccer' versus 'women's soccer.'

The man-bag has perhaps evolved via the larger assumption that clothing, accessories and beauty related doings are women's business - so it hardly points to feminist principles at work. (I often notice 'men's' haircuts/shampoo being sectioned off as a special category of hair care, as opposed to the general 'hair' world that women are involved with.) Still...

For those of you who are slightly dubious, or have ever wondered the how, where, and why of man-baggery, I give you this, the manliest of them all:

So now you know.

Short of constructing yourself a handy pouch out of corrugated iron or the still-twitching scalps of your enemies, I don't see how you could out-man this bag.

I just like saying man-bag.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Jewellery of Dr Moreau

I recently discovered the animal themed works of Tithi Kutchamuch.

She says:

"Growing up, I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have some sort of animal in the house. At one point we even had peacocks, hedgehogs and a gibbon ape. Even though I’m travelling quite a lot, living in London was the very first time that I didn’t have any animals around me. I began making my first collection, A Secret Friend, a few months after I found out that my dog at my parent home in Bangkok pass away. For me animals and sculpture represent a strong sense of home. The jewellery I make is a way of bringing a piece of home with me."

Most of her work is pretty cute.

This, however, takes it to the next level:

As Kutchamuch says, she views her works primarily as loving tributes to animal friends. In the context of environmental destruction and mass extinctions however, it is hard to deny the poignancy of wearing a creature's organs around your neck. Quite a comment on our culture of consumption and self beautification. It's disturbing. I approve.

[Via Street Anatomy]

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Myths and Monsters

The Horniman Museum in London is currently hosting an exhibition called 'Myths and Monsters' which explores "weird and wonderful creatures from around the world, and even outer space." They are billing this as a children's attraction, but it looks like a good day out for monstrosity lovers of all ages. I'd be there with bells on, if it weren't for a really disgraceful amount of water between the continents.

The exhibition aims to examine "the ways in which the stories behind the fabulous creatures have developed," including how "different legends are created in different parts of the world depending on local stories, climate and religious beliefs, [and how] monsters are created through human imagination or fear."

Taking pride of place are "five impressive animatronic models (a dragon, a chimera, a yeti, a cyclops and an alien)." My friend Tammy visited recently, and was kind enough to share her pics of these figures.

I like how the museum website refers to the Chimera (below) as "biologically complicated." An excellent description of the grotesque, really.

I also included a photo of me eating my lunch:

But seriously, I think it's excellent that young people are being encouraged to think critically about monstrosity. You can watch a pretty cool video of the animatronics in motion here, and see a bit more of what is on offer at the museum.

FrightFest is on in London this month also, if you are a fan of horror and/or monsters.

[Thanks Tammy!]