If the truly Weird causes a sense of great dread, then the grotesque provides another approach to the inexplicable through aggressive horror and humor. Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that the truly grotesque stands “at the margin of consciousness between the known and unknown…calling into question the adequacy of our ways of organizing the world” (3). Caught between categories, the grotesque momentarily robs of us of language, of any kind of agency that we would assert against the unspoken paradoxes and hypocrisies of culture. In order to achieve this theft, the “‘demonic grin of the incongruous and absurd…wrenches, splits, gashes the mind till it utters the whirling vapourings of lunacy’” (Knight qtd. in Harpham 18). For Harpham, this is the state of a mind “poised between death and rebirth, insanity and discovery, rubble and revelation” (18).
Baudelaire says something similar regarding Francisco Goya’s Caprichos (1799) which contain “the gaiety and vivacity of Spanish satire from the good old days of Cervantes” but with “a far more modern spirit, or at least one that has been far more sought after in modern times: I mean a love of the ungraspable, a feeling for violent contrasts, for the blank horrors of nature, and for human countenances weirdly brutalized by circumstances…light and dark play across all these grotesque horrors; and what a singular kind of playfulness!” (183-184). I like to say you don’t laugh at the grotesque without expecting to be emotionally backhanded across the room. Flannery O’Connor believed that the violence associated with this aesthetic is intrinsic to its very nature because of “the discrepancies that it seeks to combine” (43). Writers and artists of the grotesque “use the concrete in a more drastic way” because in their work the “distances” which “are so great” become collapsed (42).
Now, what would this rupture look like for a meta-infused intellectual culture, one that is so aware of its ironic, mediated existence that they’ve turned humanism into its own plasticized idol, one to be worshiped at every gallery walk and literature reading? You would need a particular kind of violence to collapse those boundaries, mute the mind for only a few moments–enough to allow a rebooting of sorts. You would also need to pick an idol that could hold the weight of such an assault. Goya’s Disasters of War has long been hailed as the sacrosanct emblem of anti-war sentiment. Goya created the prints sometime between 1810-20, but they were not published during his lifetime. The edition Jake and Dinos Chapman bought in 2001 were made from the artist’s original plates in 1937 as a protest against the brutalities of fascism during the Spanish Civil War. The brothers’ “rectification” of the 82 prints, aptly named Insult to Injury, made its first appearance in a 2003 show called The Rape of Creativity at the Modern Art Oxford (Jones). It drew widespread criticism for “vandalizing” and “defacing” an Old Master’s work while simultaneously garnering praise for bringing to light the true horrors of war. These “enfants terribles of the art world,” continued to be labeled as either adolescent narcissists or the champions of humanism. Very few critics seem to actually engage with Insult to Injury on a deeper, analytical level which the work seems to warrant, given the time it must have taken to accomplish it.
“‘We always had the intention of rectifying it, to take that nice word from The Shining, when the butler’s trying to encourage Jack Nicholson to kill his family – to rectify the situation,’” Jake said in an interview with The Guardian in 2003 (Jones). Every review or critique I read says the brothers had superimposed the heads of puppies or clowns onto the victims of war. Taken as such, then the prints become something of a “low joke,” to borrow a phrase from O’Connor. But take a closer look at those heads sutured onto the bodies of the broken, and you can see how the Chapmans rectified the prints so they fall more in line with the monstrous power of Goya’s Caprichos. The creature in Sad presentiments (1) seems to have been cross bred with skull, mouse, and a clown on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he waits and listens for a rescue that will never come. The dark rimmed eyes, wide in horror, are undercut by the clown nose and big ears. We do not know which part of his face to believe, or where to keep our focus.
Antonio Lazaro-Reboll asserts that in the Caprichos, “Goya’s alternative accounts of the body, those monstrous and grotesque bodies, pose a challenge to the singular, universal model of the Enlightenment’s self-determined individual, and seemed to me instrumental in bringing back into play Reason’s underside, its demonized other” (113). The Chapmans’ reworkings of The Disasters of War do indeed “fix” them of the easy binary they created, despite their horrific content. The subjects in most of the original prints are human–sometimes they draw closer to the monstrous, but not enough to warrant the frustration of narrative closure we experience when viewing the Caprichos.
Goya’s To the Cemetery (56) is almost banal in its representation of how the sick are carried off, compared to the plates preceding and following it, which show more skeletal humans hanging on to the last few hours of life. It is a portrayal of the other kinds of slow, undignified dying that happen during war time. In the new version, the subject is frighteningly alive and takes on the guise of one driven to utter madness by the carnivalesque brutality they’ve endured. The faint lines between eyes and eyebrows suggest that even this possible “clown” is wearing–or perhaps was forced to wear–a mask, the toothy grin stretched to the point of pain. We have no idea if they are dead or about to be buried alive.
Plates 38 (Barbarians!) and 33 (What more can one do?) come in a series that show victims hanging, impaled, or being drawn and quartered on a tree. Others are tied to wooden posts, awaiting execution. In Barbarians, Goya chose to hide the face of this victim–we don’t have to see the last moments of terror etched on his face as he waits for the shot to be fired. We can rest in our momentary horror of such atrocities (silently grateful that we will never have to experience such barbarisms). Plate 33 is more naked in its brutality, yet here the man seems to be unconscious or dead. His hands are only slightly clenched, as one might do when sleeping. The feeling of complete disgust comes when I see what is almost a smile on one of the men’s faces–the ambiguous enjoyment they got out of not only conquering, but also humiliating their enemy.
The Chapmans drew hybrid faces on each victim so that they are now caught between human and animal, tragically awake, forever bound and waiting to die. Goya hasn’t been exorcised from the Disasters of War so much as haunted by the ghosts of Pennywise the clown. And that is the very vehicle of the grotesque–the intersection of high and low, humor and horror–to collapse that which critics would dismiss as mere vandalism and silliness even as it fixes our gaze. Drawing over Goya’s print was the only kind of violence, perhaps, that the art community could still feel, could still register as being very personal. Because this aesthetic naturally resists closure, the viewer is denied the catharsis expected in our queasy relationship with the humanities. Flannery O’Connor argued that society suffered from a “hazy compassion” that had forgotten the price of redemption and restoration (48). The grotesque reminds us that perhaps, as Lazaro-Reboll argues, the lofty ideals of reason and humanism are themselves social constructs that still fail to address the deeper wounds of a post-modern society. Certainly plate 33 (What more can one do?), with its castrated male victim, now troubles me even more in light of reports about growing incidents of male rape in different parts of the world.
Were the Chapman brothers manipulating Goya’s prints to elicit such a response from the viewer? I’m not sure that artists and writers use the grotesque so much as it uses them to bring a meta-critical society to its knees. Given their rather monstrous oeuvre, I would say that the brothers have a rather long-standing partnership with this wondrous beastie. Put Bosch, Bruegel, Hitler, and Joel Peter Witkin in a room and give them nothing but toy soldiers to play with, and you have Hell (1999)–which burned when the Saatchi warehouse caught on fire–and Fucking Hell, 2008, which they made to replace it. Their 2005 Like a Dog Returns to Its Vomit is a “reworking” of Goya’s Caprichos, much like the Disasters of War. Each exhibit unleashes the rhetorical power of pathos to momentarily shut down the logic–not to unveil any great truth–that is not the grotesque’s job. It is what Francis Connelly calls a “boundary creature,” (3) and as such, it only exists to playfully distort and deform societal constructs. I argue that these cultural paradigms create demarcating systems where the “other” is damned in the name of politics, aesthetics, religion, economics, class, ethnicity–call out the boundary, the grotesque will be there. Insult to Injury throws its victims into the realm of the monstrous, thereby rupturing the cathartic haunt I think most viewers have when looking at the Disaster of War. Because when viewing art about such atrocities, you don’t get to walk away without a wound.
Visit the Chapman Brothers’ website to see more of their work.
Connelly, Francis. “Introduction.” Modern Art and the Grotesque. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Mirror of Art. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.
Jones, Jonathan. “Look What We Did.” Guardian.co.uk. the Guardian. 30 March 2003. Web. February 15 2011.
Lazaro-Reboll, “Counter-rational reason: Goya’s instrumental negotiations of flesh and world.” European Ideas. 30 (2004) 109–119.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.