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(1) A piece of decorative art that includes figurative and decorative motifs (plant and animal forms, figurines, masks, candelabras) in fanciful or fantastic combinations. Grotesque was the name given the ancient Roman modeled ornaments that were found in the 15th century in Rome during the excavation of the grottoes of the Domus Aureus of Nero (first century A.D.) and other structures. Grotesques were used in decorative murals of the Renaissance, such as in the frescoes for the Borgia suite in the Vatican (1493–94) by Pinturicchio and in the Loggias (1519), after Raphael’s sketches.
(2) A type of artistic imagery (image, style, genre) based on fantasy, jest, and hyperbole, or on the fanciful combination and contrast of the fantastic and the real, the beautiful and the ugly, the tragic and the comic, the verisimilar and the caricatured. The grotesque bluntly displaces the “forms of life itself,” creating a peculiar world that—as opposed to allegory—admits of no literal or single interpretation. The grotesque seeks to achieve an integrated expression of the cardinal contradictions of being, thus predetermining a sharp juxtaposition of polarities. The very form of the grotesque is highly meaningful: it sanctions the free play of imagination, reveals the “contradictory unity” of heterogeneous elements, and upsets generally accepted biases.
The grotesque is an ancient form of figurative art inherent in the mythology and lore of all peoples. Its methods are characteristic of the comedies of Aristophanes and Plautus. Medieval artists readily turned to the grotesque (for example, the gargoyles on cathedrals, animal characters in fables, and the images of the Devil and Sin in dramatic works). The grotesque became a characteristic form of folk culture (especially carnivals) in the Europe of the Middle Ages, expressing the people’s elementally materialist and elementally dialectical understanding of being. The artistic apogee of this kind of “grotesque realism” is the literature, art, and theater that developed during the Renaissance (for example, Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the image of the jester, Falstaff and Caliban in the plays of Shakespeare, the Italian commedia dell’arte, the paintings of H. Bosch and P. Brueghel, the graphic works of J. Callot, and especially Gargantua and Pantagruel of F. Rabelais). The principles of Renaissance grotesque that determine the structure of its imagery are its attitudes toward time and becoming and the ambivalence associated with those attitudes—the whole and undivided representation of both poles of becoming: the new and the old, the dying and the nascent. The laughter evoked by the grotesque is also ambivalent: gay and exultant, and yet at the same time mocking and derisive; it both denies and affirms, differing in this from the purely satiric laughter of modern times. Renaissance grotesque expressed the laughing freedom of the people, the joyous sense both of the relativity and perpetual “unreadiness” of being and of its unity and inexhaustibility, and simultaneously the sense of historical change. Unabashedly antiascetic, it once again acknowledged the demands of the flesh and of the earthly in Life.
The Enlightenment, with its cult of reason and harmony, gave rise to a keenly satiric grotesque, assailing ignorance and violence (J. Swift, F. Goya). The romantic grotesque expressed the impossibility of a rational knowledge of life and the tragic sense (to the point of terror) of its contradictions and their destructive effect upon the individual. Repudiating the harmony asserted by classicism and the Enlightenment, the romantics made use of the grotesque to stress the antinomy between the aesthetic and the moral (for example, in V. Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, between the lofty humanity of the disfigured Gwynplaine and the moral deformity of the beautiful duchess Josiane). The German romantics clearly distinguished in the grotesque between good and evil, bringing their separation to the point of total contrast and simultaneously weakening the joyful nature of the form—turning laughter into irony and sarcasm (as in Little Zaches and Master Flea by E. T. A. Hoffmann). But through the grotesque the romantics made the artistic discovery of the spiritual inexhaustibility of the individual and the inner infiniteness of the personality.
Among 19th-century realists, grotesque imagery is characteristic of the works of C. Dickens, H. Daumier and N. V. Gogol—all of them artists with an appreciable romantic heritage. However, the meaning of the grotesque in the works of the realists assumed a marked social and historical orientation and concreteness, at the same time growing passionately accusatory and negativistic; this tendency reached its apex in the strongly satirical grotesque Story of a City by M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, who developed the traditions of an instructive grotesque.
In the 20th century, the grotesque has again become a characteristic form of art, which has had its effect on various modernist styles (for example, expressionism and surrealism). Modernist grotesque tends to transform our familiar world suddenly into one that is alien and hostile and ruled by “it”—an incomprehensible and inhuman force, an “absolute necessity” that turns man into a puppet. The grotesque is permeated with a “fear of life” and a sense of the absurdity of being (E. Ionesco, S. Beckett, S. Dali). Elements of the modernist grotesque are present in the work of many of the major artists of the 20th century whose grotesque world, nonetheless, includes ideas inherent in realism (The Metamorphosis and The Trial of F. Kafka, the plays of L. Pirandello, the art of M. Chagall, and a number of the paintings of P. Picasso). Realistic grotesque (as in J. Hasek, C. Chaplin, and B. Brecht), while expressing the social collisions of the 20th century, the historical “forces and elements of nature,” and the power of evil, preserves the basic motifs of “grotesque realism,” the joyful nature of popular culture, the ambivalent fullness of life, and the laughter that revives and restores. In Soviet art, an integrated treatment of the grotesque form is sought in the satirical comedies of Vladimir Mayakovsky (The Bed Bug and The Bathhouse), the fairytale plays of E. L. Shvarts (The Dragon and The Naked King), and the fairy-tale opera Love for Three Oranges of Sergei Prokofiev (directed by E. B. Vakhtangov and V. E. Meierkhol’d).
As an element of style, the pointedly comical manner of the grotesque is typical of a number of comic genres, including burlesque, lampoon, farce, buffoonery, clown acts, and slapstick.
REFERENCESLunacharskii, A. “O Smekhe.” Sobr. soch., vol. 8. Moscow, 1967.
Bakhtin, M. M. Tvorchestvo Fransua Rabie i narodnaia kul’tura Srednevekov’ia Renessansa. Moscow, 1965.
Mann, Iu. V. O groteske v literature. Moscow, 1966.
Eikhenbaum, B. M. Kak sdelana “Shinel’” Gogolia. In his book Oproze. Leningrad, 1969.
Kayser, W. Das Groteske in Malerei und Dichtung. Hamburg, 1960.
Piel, F. Die Ornament-Groteske in der italienischen Renaissance. Berlin, 1962.
N. P. ROZIN