Tag Archives: grotesque

RIP Edgar Hilsenrath (1926 – 2018)

German writer Edgar Hilsenrath is best-known for his novel The Nazi and the Barber (1971), the story of a German SS mass murderer, who after the war assumes a Jewish identity and escapes to Israel and becomes a zionist. The story is told from his perspective and describes the atrocities he committed.

The Nazi and the Barber (1971), Manor Books edition of 1973.


It is supposedly both funny and gruesome, which earns it its label ‘grotesque’.

American grotesque

American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen (2014)
[Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

I discovered the work of American photographer William Mortensen in May 2005 via the photo Human Relations. It is the photo of the face of a man whose eyes are gouged out by the pointing fingers of one hand.

Coming November Feral House is to publish American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen.

A fitting title.

Although it could also have been named American Surrealism …

When I think about the American grotesque, I think of Poe and Bierce, of Weegee and Arbus, of Ren and Stimpy.

And perhaps now of William Mortensen.

PS. On the cover is L’Amour, an offshoot of the dark fin de siècle fascination with human female/ape contact.

World cinema classic #178

closing credits sequence of Dogville

Yesterday, I watched Dogville (2003) on DVD with my daughter, who had to watch it for her final year in high school. Her assignment: searching for Brechtian alienation elements. That wasn’t hard: the whole film is an attack on the suspension of disbelief.

I’d previously seen the von Trier film in the cinema and that time I had missed the importance of the closing credits sequence [above] with images of poverty-stricken Americans taken from Jacob Holdt’s social documentary photography book American Pictures (1977) and accompanied by David Bowie’s song “Young Americans.”

The film is an indictment of the hypocrisy of small town morality. Its most dislikable character is Tom Edison Jr., the wannabe writer, would be philosopher and cowardly lover who abuses Grace’s trust time after time.

Von Trier’s tale reminded me both of Thomas Hardy and the misery of Jude the Obscure and of the festering perversion in the small town of Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss.

The film is a masterpiece. But bleak.

I’ve added it to my film canon: the World Cinema Classics list where it sits next to District 9 and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde.

François Rabelais and bodily fluids

He Did Cry Like a Cow

I have this thing with bodily fluids.

So does François Rabelais and it seems to me even more, his chief theorist Bakhtin, whose emphasis on excreta such as blood, sweat and tears is … well … emphatic.

In one of Doré’s illustrations of Gargantua and Pantagruel, the perverse emphasis on bodily fluids is hyperbolically administered. The print is informally titled He Did Cry Like a Cow and depicts the “grief wherewith Gargantua was moved at the decease of his wife Badebec.”

In my perverse imagination, the tears of Gargantua become drops of sweat or even sperm in a similar way that Yoshifumi Hayashi depicts those excretions of the lower bodily stratum.

On the originary date of ‘Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe’

Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille (Sapeck) (page from the book Le rire, source Gallica.bnf.fr)

I’ve been fascinated by the Incoherents since I first stumbled upon them in 2007[1][2].

After becoming a member of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp library some weeks ago, I have been able to consult two seminal books on that movement’s history: the Arts incoherents, academie du derisoire exhibition catalog (1992) by Luce Abélès/Catherine Charpin and The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905 (1996) by Phillip Dennis Cate.

Object of my research was to check the dates of works I consider canonical to the proto-avant-garde, dates which I previous held to be the neat series of 1882, 1883 and 1884.

It’s a pity, but I’ve had to adjust that series to 1882, 1883 and 1887: Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night (1882), Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1884) and Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe (1887).

According to my research, Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Sapeck, which is still listed over at Wikipedia as originating in 1883 and erroneously titled as Le rire, in fact first saw the light of day in 1887, in the book Le Rire by Coquelin cadet.

Wikipedia is not the only reference work in error. The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines erroneously states that this Mona Lisa was first shown in 1883 at the second “Incohérents” exhibition.

What is the importance of this augmented Mona Lisa?

Simple.

Perhaps the invention of high art with capital ‘A’ coincided with the first blows of its ridicule. This augmented Mona Lisa was a desecration, a violation, a rape of its masterpiece: the Mona Lisa proper by da Vinci.

Think about it.

The gaping mouths of Goya

Los Chinchillas from Los Caprichos by Francisco de Goya

Los Chinchillas from Los Caprichos by Francisco de Goya

I’m reading Rabelais and His World and I’m taking notes as I go along.

There is much repetition of the tropes of Rabelais in Bakhtin’s book. For example, the term dismemberment is mentioned about twenty times and gaping about ten times. The grotesque body and what it stands for is explained over and over again.

It suddenly occurred to me that Francisco Goya is the specialist of the gaping mouth.The mouth which is wide open. Incidentally, gaping means yawning in my language (Dutch).

 This morning I looked up the combination Goya/gaping/mouth.

British art critic David Sylvester came to the same conclusion:

“The mouth plays a role in Goya‘s art more prominent than in that of any other major artist. Mouths leer, grin, gape, gasp, moan, shriek, belch. A hanged man’s mouth lies open and a woman reaches up to filch his teeth. Grown men stick fingers in their mouths like sucking infants. Mouths vomit, the sick gushing out of them, and a great furry beast sicks up a pile of human bodies. Mouths guzzle: they guzzle avidly, ferociously, living flesh as well as dead. Saturn grips one of his children in his fists and with his mouth tears him limb from limb.”

One can add to this the Lazarillo painting and the Caprichos There Is Plenty to SuckYa es horaEstan calientes and the force-fed Chinchillas. And from the Desastres: the vomiting man in Para eso habeis nacido and the vomiting monster of Fiero Monstruo!

I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1819–23) by Francisco de Goya

Detail of A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1819–23) by Francisco de Goya

I’m a stickler for firsts and origins, almost childishly so, or at least obsessively.

While researching Goya I stumbled on a letter by Goya to Bernardo de Iriarte dated January 4, 1794, in which I read:

I have devoted myself to painting a group of pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope for fantasy and invention.” (tr. Enriqueta Harris)

Goya’s insistence on his artistic freedom (key to the notion of “romantic originality“) in making art with ‘fantasy‘ and ‘invention‘ “for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works” makes this dictum one of the candidates for a Manifesto of Romanticism.

Other dicta which emphasize the egomaniac (wording by Nordau) importance the Romantics placed on untrammelled feeling is the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich that “the artist’s feeling is his law” and William Wordsworth‘s ascertainment that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“.

In the Dutch language, the poet Willem Kloos said “I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts,” giving voice to the Romantic conception of the artist.

Goya was a god too (and perhaps the first Romantic painter) though not a god that sought to please, soothe, nor comfort.

Illustration: A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, one of the black paintings by Goya

A rudimentary taxonomic vocabulary for hybrid creatures

 Gryllus detail from the bottom of the central panel of Bosch's Last Judgment in Vienna.

Detail from the bottom of the central panel of Bosch’s Last Judgment in Vienna.

In my previous post[1] I mistakenly claimed that bodyhead is the term for what we Dutch-language speakers call koppoter or kopvoeter.

In reality, the term bodyhead was coined by English artist Paul Rumsey in the late 20th and early 21st century as titles to his own Two Bodyheads. A quick search in Google Books confirms this.[2]

Paul pointed me to the gryllus, a creature similar to gastrocephalic creatures (belly faces), to blemmyae and to his own bodyheads.

Gryllus, a term new to me, appears to be an interesting word, leading me to the discovery of the rudimentary taxonomy of hybrid creatures of the title of this post.

How so, you ask?

Here we go:

Gryllus (plural grylli) means pig in Greek and cricket in Latin. (Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making).

In Plutarch’s Moralia, Gryllus was one of Circe’s victims who preferred to stay a pig after his transformation. This episode is known as “Ulysses and Gryllus“. Innumerable writers have commented on this episode, see “reasoning beasts”.

Another ancient writer who mentions grylli is Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. His concern is visual, i.e. painting. He uses the word gryllus for a class of grotesque figures first used in painting by Antiphilus of Alexandria: “he painted a figure in a ridiculous costume, known jocosely as the Gryllus; and hence it is that pictures of this class are generally known as “Grylli.”

The history of the grylli has received its most in-depth study in Marina Warner’s Monsters of Our Own Making. Most sources agree that the current meaning of the gryllus derives from Le moyen âge fantastique (1955) by Jurgis Baltrusaitis.[3]

The book Images, Texts, and Marginalia in a “Vows of the Peacock” by Domenic Leo gives a taxonomic vocabulary of hybrids in which the gryllus is one element:

“I am using terminology proposed by Sandler, “Reflections on the Construction of Hybrids,” and Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Le moyen âge fantastique. The rudimentary taxonomic vocabulary for hybrids is as follows: bifurcated (head as center with two bodies), gryllus (body with no torso: head replaces genitals), pushmepullu (one body with a head emerging from each side), and composite (hybrids created from multiple parts).”

There is also this excellent Spanish-language page on grotesque grylli.[4].

RIP Jean Rustin

(gallery, click for images)

Jean Rustin (1928– 2013) was a French painter, and an important figurative artist.

Beginning in the early 1970s, he created a bizarre world of human figures, where an existential dead-end is transformed into frightdarkness abhorrence, without much pity nor relief.

In his own words:

“I realize that behind my artistic creation, behind the fascination for the naked body, there are twenty centuries of painting, primarily religious, twenty centuries of dead Christstortured martyrsgory revolutions, massacres and shattered dreams […] I realize that history and maybe art history are engraved on the body and flesh of men.” (‘Jean Rustin : A corps perdu’[1], collected in Vanités contemporaines)

See also: 20th-century French art,  art horrorbleak.

Goya: gruesome and grotesque

Look how solemn they are![1] from Los Caprichos by Francisco de Goya

Once again I am reminded of “To Every Man His Chimera,” one of the darkest prose poems of Charles Baudelaire.

The previous time Baudelaire’s unlucky men came to my recollection, trudging through the dust carrying upon their backs an enormous chimera as heavy as a sack of flour or coal, was while reading Joko’s Anniversary[2] (perhaps my finest reading experience of 2013, along with the many Cortázar‘s short stories I’ve had the pleasure to read).

This time the occasion is my recent acquisition of Goya : Caprichos, Desastres, Tauromaquia, Disparates (1982, Fundación Juan March), a complete set of all the engravings by Goya.

“Look how serious they are!” is number 63 from 80 prints of the Caprichos and it depicts “two demons taking a little exercise, and riding on grotesque beasts. One demon has the head of a bird, the other of a donkey.” (source) The pack animals, the grotesque beasts, look like bipedal donkeys with faces half human, half donkey.

Creatures with the head of a bird are frightening. The wattle!, the comb!

The reverse motif, creatures with the feet of birds, has been employed in Un priape marchant sur des pattes de coq, with a far less frightening — yes, even ludicrous — effect.