The Concept of the Grotesque from the Reneissance to the Twentieth Century. A Critical Study

Scientific Essay, 2015

21 Pages



I- The term “grotesque”:

II- The concept “grotesque”:
1- The grotesque : from the Renaissance to the second half of the eighteenth century:
a- Vasari:
b- Justus Moser and Johann Christoph Flogel:
2- The Romantic grotesque:
a- Friedrich Schlegel:
b- Jean-Paul:
c- Victor Hugo:
3- The grotesque in the nineteenth century:
a- F. Th. Vischer:
b- Heinrich Schneegans :
c- Thomas Wright:
d- John Addington Symonds:
e- Walter Bagehot:
f- John Ruskin:
4- The grotesque in the twentieth century:
a- G. K. Chesterton:
b- Wolfgang Kayser:
c- Mikhail Bakhtin:
d- Arthur Clayborough:

III- Conclusion:

I- The term “grotesque”:

A good understanding of the grotesque necessitates not only an account of the historical development of the word “grotesque” and its usage, but also the various concepts with which it has often been associated, and the different theories and opinions expressed about it. We begin, first of all, by giving a brief examination of the history of the term, its origin, derivation, and semantic evolution.

It is widely agreed that the word “grotesque originated to describe the murals which were discovered, in the course of excavation, beneath the baths of Titus in Rome at the end of the 15th century”.[i] These paintings present a style of art which was completely unknown at the time. It is mainly characterized by its heterogeneous nature; it combines many different and ambivalent elements: human, animal, and vegetable. In his book, les grotesques, Théophile Gautier wrote:

L’étymologie de grotesque est grutta, nom qu’on donnait aux chambres antiques mises à jour par les fouilles, et dont les murailles étaient couvertes d’animaux terminés par des feuillages, de chimères ailées, de génies sortant de la coupe des fleurs, de palais d’architectures bizarre, et de mille autre caprices et fantaisies.[ii]

The discovered ornaments were soon baptised grottesca which came from grotto, that is cave in Italian. (Grotta itself derived from the Latin word crupta.) Kayser explains that the term was used for the first time as early as 1502, when the painter Pinturicchio was ordered by Cardinal Todeschini Piccolomini to decorate the ceilings of the library of the Cathedral of Siena with “such fantastic forms, colours, and arrangements as are now called grotesque(…che oggi chiamano grottesche.)”[iii]

In English the word “grotesque” was introduced around 1640 to replace other previous forms, which came either from the Italian, like grotesco or crotesco, or the French like, crotesque. In fact, according to the O.E.D. the French form was the first to be recorded in the language.[iv] In French, crotesque occurred in 1532 and continued to prevail until the end of the 17th century. One can find it in the writings of many literary figures:

Et ne sembloient engravez dedans la matière, mais en bosse, ou pour le moins en crotesque apparoissoient enlevez totalement.

RABELAIS, V, 40.[v]

Il choisit le plus bel endroit et milieu de chaque paroy, pour y loger un tableau ela bouré de toute sa suffisance ; et le vuide tout autour, il le rempli de crotesques : qui sont peintures fantasques, n’ayans grace qu’en la varieté et estrangeté. MONTAIGNE, I, 27.[vi]

Je ne suis pas d’humeur à rire tant de fois Du crotesque récit de vos rares exploits. CORNEILLE, L’illusion Comique, III.[vii] (My italics)

The excavated paintings, in which there are no restrictions, no borders between the animal, the vegetable and the human, the comic and the terrifying, the natural and the supernatural, interested many artists since the beginning of the 16th century.[viii] Besides Lucas Signorelli,[ix] Raphael and his students used them as a source of their work. In his decoration of the loggias of the Vatican, Raphael imitated the antique murals. And throughout this century, sculptors, engravers, and architects adopted this style all over Europe. Consequently, the word “grotesque” was no longer confined to the old murals, it came to describe the imitations as well. And it is with this sense that it was first introduced in the English language.[x]

As early as the 16th century, the word “grotesque extended in French to non artistic things and literature. In his Essai , Montaigne wrote: “Que sont ce icy aussi (Les Essais) a la vérité que crotesques et corps monstrueux”.[xi] And Rabelais used it to refer to parts of the body in Gargantua et Pantagruel (1535), (“Couillon crotesque”). From the late 17th century, the word as an adjective knew a large usage.[xii] But in both England and Germany, it remained restricted to its early original usage until the 18th century when it got a wide application. It was associated with caricature which provoked too much emphasis on the ridiculous and a neglect of the terrible and terrifying side of the grotesque. Of this development Clayborough has remarked:

The word grotesque thus comes to be applied in a more general fashion in English during the Age of Reason- and of Neo-classicism- when the characteristics of the grotesque style of art- extravagance, fantasy, individual taste, and the rejection of ‘the natural conditions of organization’- are the object of ridicule and disapproval. The more general sense… which it has developed by the early eighteenth century is therefore that of ‘ridiculous, distorted, unnatural (adj); ‘an absurdity, a distortion of nature’ (noun).[xiii]

The following step in the development of the word is its extension to phenomena other than the decorative art with which it is etymologically associated. Firstly, the word grotesque is extended to describe natural objects; but since these cannot be described as “unnatural”, the pejorative extension is done with a limitation of the idea of the natural. For instance, when we say that in Dickens’s Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey’s treatment of his orphan daughter, Florence, is “unnatural”, we mean that as her father, he should not behave with her in such a way. When we refer to dress and manners as “grotesque”, as Clayborough has explained, “the word is used hyperbolically to reprove that which is not consonant with the orthodox ideas of what is right and proper”.[xiv] With landscape, the word can hardly be used, for nature can neither be unnatural nor ridiculous. It may be employed, nevertheless, with such senses as: “Romantic, picturesquely irregular…”[xv] or wild, bizarre, etc.

Secondly, the word “grotesque” comes to describe other styles of art, but with no pejorative coloration. Caricature and other forms of low comic art such as commedia dell’arte and burlesque are referred to as grotesque. The word (in its adjectival form) is even used to refer to Gothic architecture. And with the Romantics, it became applicable to literature, meaning fantastic, fanciful, or strange. It is to be noted that in these two extended usages, the primary meaning of the word “grotesque” both as adjective and noun is that of incongruity with what is normal or real.

To sum up, as Clayborough has asserted, the term “grotesque” which originated as terminus-technicus, denoting the excavated murals in Rome, becomes applied to all that is not congruous with conventional patterns in art as well as in life. We employ it in our daily conversations with a pejorative tone to describe that which is ridiculous or eerie. In critical usage, it is used to depict that kind of art which is not compatible with the familiar norms, with the accepted.

II- The concept “grotesque”:

The grotesque, as an artistic mode, is not a phenomenon of the Renaissance or of modern civilization. Leo Spitzer claims that it was present in remote antiquity; [xvi] Bakhtin argues that we find it in the mythology and the archaic art of all nations, including the pre-classic art of the Romans and the Greeks;[xvii] and Thomas Wright, who does not distinguish its origin from that of caricature, traces its existence back to ancient Egypt.[xviii]

1- The grotesque : from the Renaissance to the second half of the eighteenth century:

a- Vasari:

However ancient, the grotesque was completely neglected; there was no debate or analytical theories concerning this tradition. The first attempt to approach it was Vasari’s in the Renaissance. Vasari, who based his judgment on the classical-minded Vitruvius, a Roman architect who was interested in the art of the Augustian period, denounced the grotesque. Vitruvius found the combination of animal, human, and architectural elements monstrous as well as ludicrous. He was outraged to see the laws of nature violated and the familiar world disfigured. Vasari emphasizes his fierce attack on the new style by citing the following fragment from his work De architectura:

… for our contemporary artists decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world. Instead of columns they paint fluted stems with oddly shaped leaves and volutes, and instead of pediments arabesques, the same with candelabra and painted ediculces, on the pediments of which grow dainty flowers unrolling out of roots and topped, without rhyme or reason, by figurines. The little stems finally, support half-figures crowned by human or animal heads. Such things, however, never existed, do not now exist, and shall never come into being. For how can the stem of a flower support a roof, or a candelabrum bear pedimental sculpture? How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils?[xix]

Vasari adopted Vitruvius’s view, and it continued to prevail for a long time.

b- Justus Moser and Johann Christoph Flogel:

Nevertheless, as M. Bakhtin has asserted, Vasari’s discussion remains a mere “description” and “appreciation” of the grotesque;[xx] a serious concern for it would not appear until the second half of the 18th century, mainly in Germany where the classicists waged a merciless was against Harlequin. They insisted that such a character, who was present in many dramatic performances, should be banished from the stage to leave his place to serious and decent characters. This led to a wide discussion about the possibility of accepting the grotesque or not. The subject was treated by Justus Moser in Harlekin oder die Verteidigung des Grotesk-Komischen (Harlequin or The Defence of the Grotesquely Comic, 1761). Moser discusses the world of commedia dell’arte and its own esthetical law and mechanism. But he deals with the grotesque as a comic phenomenon. He stresses on the necessity of humour and the importance of the comic.[xxi] This is indeed the view of another literary critic, Johann Christoph Flogel, as he expresses it in a study of the mediaeval grotesque in 1788. In short, both critics see the grotesque as a vulgar species of the comic, depriving it, therefore, of its serious aspect.

2- The Romantic grotesque:

In the Romantic period, the grotesque knew a “resurrection” and took a new meaning. It became a means of expressing a “subjective” and “individual” vision of the world.[xxii] The most important expression of this kind of the grotesque is Sterne’s book Tristram Shandy and the grotesque or black novel. This kind of the grotesque thrived considerably in Germany, with the novels of Jean-Paul, Hippel and, of course, the works of Hoffmann, which contributed to its development and were the source of inspiration for many literary figures. (It is worth mentioning that Hoffmann was influenced by Shakespeare and Sterne- the two famous leaders of the grotesque.)[xxiii]

The Romantic grotesque presents many features which distinguish it from the grotesque in the both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For convenience’s sake, we have selected three which we consider the most important:

1- In the romantic grotesque, laughter ceases to be joyful; it is no longer a positive force as it used to be; it takes several forms like satire, irony, or sarcasm.
2- With this considerable diminution of laughter, the world is transformed into a “terrible”, strange place. All that used to be familiar in the world around us becomes menacing, alien, and even dangerous for us.
3- Unlike the grotesque images of popular culture, those of the Romantic grotesque are meant to terrify the reader or spectator.[xxiv]

a- Friedrich Schlegel:

Among the German Romantic theorists who wrote on the grotesque, we find Frederich Schlegel. In his Gespraich uber die Poesie (conversation on Poetry, 1800), he does not at all distinguish the grotesque from the arabesque. In fact, he regards the grotesque as “la forme la plus ancienne de la fantaisie humaine. ”[xxv] Moreover, he insists, here, as in his other theoretical works, that playfulness is an essential element in the grotesque as well as in other modes, such as the fantastic, the ironic, and the paradoxical…[xxvi] in reference to Schlegel fragments in the first volume of Athenaum, Kayser sums up:


[i] See Encyclopedia Italiana (1933), p.20n.

[ii] Les gotesques, Paris : Michel Lévy Frères, Librairies-Editeurs, 1853, p.350.

[iii] Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art Literature, trans. by Ulrich Weisstein, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963, p.20. (Kayser’s italics)

[iv] (1561) Item, twa paintit broddis the ane of the muses and the uther of crotesque or conceptis. (Inv. R. Wardrobe (1815), 130.) (O.E.D.)

[v] ((Quoted in Edmond Huguest, Dictionnaire de la langue francaise du XVIe siècle, Paris : Librairie Anciènne Honoré Champion, 1932, p. 658.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Quoted in Trésor de la langue francise, Dictionnaire de la langue francaise du XIXe au XXe siècle (1789-1960), Paris : Editions du CNRS, 1981, p. 556.

[viii] « cette découverte avait frappé les contemporains par le jeu insolite, fantaisie et libre des formes végétales, animales et humaines qui passaient de l’une à l’autre, se transformaient de l’une à l’autre. On ne voit pas les frontières nettes et inertes qui partagent ces « royaumes de la natures » dans le tableau habituel du monde : dans le grotesque, ces frontières sont audacieusement violées.. », Mikhail Bakhtin, L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au moyen age et sous la Renaissance ; trans. By Andrée Robel, Paris : Gallimard, 1970, p. 41.

[ix] He decorated Orvieto Cathedral in the same style as Raphael.

[x] See the O.E.D.

[xi] Quoted in Algirdas Julien Greimas and Térèsa Mary Keane, Dictionnaire du moyen français. La Renaissance, Paris : Larousse, 1992, p, p. 166.

[xii] See Arthur Clayborough, The Grotesque in English Literature, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965, p.4.

[xiii] Ibid., p.6.

[xiv] Ibid.,p.8.

[xv] See the O.E.D.

[xvi] See Michael Hollington, Dickens and the Grotesque, London and Sydney: Croom Helm 1984, p.2.

[xvii] See L’œuvre de François Rabelais, op-cit, p. 40.

[xviii] See A History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art, London: Vitrue Brothers and Co. , 1865.

[xix] Quoted by Kaser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, op-cit, p. 20.

[xx] L’œuvre de Francois Rabelais, op-cit, p. 42.

[xxi] Ibid., pp. 44-45.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 4

[xxiii] See Marcel Brion, L’Allemagne Romantique, Paris : Albin Michel, 1963 ; vol. II, pp. 111-199.

[xxiv] See M. Bakhtin, L’œuvre de François Rabelais, op-cit, pp. 46-48.

[xxv] Ibid., p.51.

[xxvi] See Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, London : Muthuen and Co., Ltd., 1972, p. 16.

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