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Parent categories: aesthetics - sensibility

Philip Thomson in The Grotesque (1972) defines grotesque as "the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response. It is significant this clash is paralleled by the ambivalent nature of the abnormal as present in the grotesque: we might consider a secondary definition of the grotesque to be the 'ambivalently abnormal'". To put it more simply a grotesque work of art makes us hesitate between laughter or being appalled, being shocked or amused, being repulsed and attracted at the same time. As an artistic category 'the grotesque' shares some similarities with 'the fantastic', both 'genres' invite an ambivalent and unresolved response. [Dec 2006]

Antonym: harmonious

By medium: grotesque art - grotesque film - grotesque literature

Domus Aurea (1st century AD) - Italy

When a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Aventine hillside at the end of the 15th century, he found himself in a strange cave or grotta filled with painted figures. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves. The frescos that were uncovered then have faded to pale gray stains on the plaster now, but the effect of these freshly-rediscovered grottesche decorations was electrifying in the early Renaissance, which was just arriving in Rome.

Cultural artifacts: grotto - Mannerist art - Domus Aurea

Frescoes at the Palazzo Vecchio, Firenze, Italy

Neuw Grottessken Buch (1610) - Christoph Jamnitzer
Image sourced here. [Sept 2005]

By connotation: aberrant - abnormal - absurd - ambivalence - amusement - arabesque - black comedy - bizarre - black comedy - body - burlesque - caricature - carnivalesque - demon - deviant - disgust - eccentricity - exaggeration - excess - extraordinary - extravagance - fantastic - fantastique - fantasy - fear - freaks of nature - gargoyle - horror - humor - incongruous - laughter - ludicrous - macabre - monstrous - mythology - outlandish - parody - ridicule - satire - strange - supernatural - surreal - terror - travesty - ugly - uncanny - unconventional - unusual - weird

A pair of gargoyles decorating the Cathedral de Notre Dame (1163- 1345) in Paris, France.

Connoisseurs: Mikhail Bakhtin - David Lavery - Ian Mccormick - Wolfgang Kayser - Joyce Carol Oates - Francois Rabelais - John Ruskin - Mary Russo - Robert Storr - Philip Thomson


  • Characterized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner.
  • Outlandish or bizarre, as in character or appearance. See Synonyms at fantastic. --American Heritage

    In common usage grotesque means strange, fantastic, ugly or bizarre and thus is often used to describe shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks or Gargoyles on churches. In art history, the expression grotesques refer specifically to a decorative form of arabesques with interlaced garlands and strange animal figures which were fashionable in ancient Rome (as wall decoration, mosaics, etc.) and in Renaissance art as wall decoration, in marquetry (fine woodwork), in book illustration and in other decorative uses. It should not be confused with the decorative form of strapwork (the portrayal of leather straps in plaster or wood moldings). The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as "grotto", meaning a small cave or hollow. The expression comes from the unearthing and rediscovery of ancient Roman decorations in caves and buried sites in the 15th century. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotesque [Jul 2004]

    The word comes from Italian grotta, Vulgar Latin grupta, Latin crypta, (a crypt). It is related to the word grotesque: in the 15th century, Italians unearthed ancient Roman houses decorated in strange arabesques of garlands and animals. Because of the caves in which they were discovered, this form of decoration was given the name grotesque. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotto [Jul 2004]

    Grotto in the Bomarzo gardens, Italy

    Murals of the kind described by Vitruvius first came to light around 1500 in the course of excavations in Rome. From grotte (Ital. 'caves', thus by extension 'excavations') came the adjective grottesco and the noun le grottesca, denoting the kind of painting discussed above. The word grotesque occurs in French as early as 1532, and is used in English as well before being replaced around I640 by grotesqueEarly usages of the word in English are restricted to the antique paintings and to the imitations of this style which became popular in the sixteenth century, particularly in Italy (cf. the grotesques of Raphael). The extension of the word 'grotesque' to literature and to non-artistic things took place in France as early as the sixteenth-century (Rabelais uses it with reference to parts of the body), but in England and Germany only in the eighteenth century. With this extension 'grotesque' took on a broader meaning. In particular its association with caricature-a topic much discussed by eighteenth-century aestheticians led to what Kayser calls a loss of substance in the word, meaning the suppression of the horrifying or eerie qualities of the grotesque and a corresponding over-emphasis on the ridiculous and bizarre. --The Term and Concept 'Grotesque': A Historical Summary from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972. via http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11072/Grotesque/Major_Artists_Theorists/theorists/thomson/thomson2.html [Mar 2005]

    The term 'grotesque' entered our language with the discovery of certain unusual images in the underground passages of the baths of Titus and the ruins of Nero's golden palace. Excavation of the ruins of Nero's palace, which had been destroyed after Nero's death in AD. 68, occurred around 1480. The discovery included foremost the work of a Roman artist named Famulus (or Fabullus) who most likely drew on a long style established in Roman times, perhaps as far back as 100 BC. The works, once exposed to light, faded over time, but fortunately the 18th century French engraver Nicholas Ponce created copies that show us something of what they looked like (see Nicholas Ponce, Description des bains de Titus, Paris 1786).The design on the walls and ceiling, both 'al fresco' and 'al stucco', typically offered images of beasts fused with animal bodies and birdlike wings, a fish's tail, human forms that fuse with leaflike patterns weaving plant life, masklike human heads, and various mythological figures including centaurs, fauns, and satyrs. These images were used as borders framing white space or identifiable human figures and landscape done in classical style. They were strange and absurd, suggesting an otherness in preposterous form and effecting the viewer in the feelings of fascination, amusement, uneasiness, fear. --Tariq Zayid (Ring Tarigh), http://www.fringecore.com/magazine/m3-3.html on the photography of Mark Wallace

    The grotesque is essentially physical

    See Philip Thomson

    "Feejee Mermaid" from the New York Sunday Herald

    For Bakhtin-and one finds it difficult to disagree with him-the grotesque is essentially physical, referring always to the body and bodily excesses and celebrating these in an uninhibited, outrageous but essentially joyous fashion. The carnival, that favourite popular arena for the indulging of physical excess, is seen by Bakhtin as the grotesque event par excellence, the place where the common people abandoned themselves to exuberantly obscene excesses of a physical kind. One can see a whole popular tradition of the grotesque here, ranging from the ancient satyr-plays to the commedia dell'arte (cf. Jacques Callot's marvellously grotesque illustrations of commedia dell'arte characters and scenes), with important links with dramatists as far apart as Aristophanes and the 'pataphysicist' Alfred Jarry, creator of the monstrously grotesque Ubu figure. It might be objected that Bakhtin's view of the grotesque is idiosyncratic and narrow (he develops it principally in connection with Rabelais, to whom it applies very well), but his insistence on the physical nature of the grotesque and on the primitive delight in what is obscene, cruel and even barbaric is quite justified. We would only wish to add that this delight constitutes only one possible aspect of the response to the grotesque.

    The often intensely physical nature of the grotesque is logical when one recalls that the term was originally applied to the visual arts. Although the extension of 'grotesque' to the verbal arts occurred fairly early, the word has always been applied to the visual rather than the purely verbal. There is nothing abstract about the grotesque. I do not know of a grotesque piece of music, nor does it seem likeley that the term could be legitimately applied to music, except in a very extended sense. But that possibly most visual of all art-forms, the film, there are countless examples of the grotesque. Among the well-known contemporary film-makers (who are, collectively, as given to the grotesque as their writer colleagues), Federico Fellini perhaps stands out: his Satyricon, for example, is an outstandingly and consistently grotesque film. --Philip Thomson via http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11072/Grotesque/Major_Artists_Theorists/Theorists/Thomson/thomson4.html [Mar 2005]

    See also: grotesque - carnival - Mikhail Bakthin

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