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When people use the term “grotesque,” they often mean many different things: bizarre, monstrous, unsightly, weird, nightmarish, or gross. But if there was one specific characteristic that I would wish for you to take away from this article, it is this: the grotesque is out to get you. Well, you and me. All of us. In that sense, it’s an equal-opportunity aesthetic, which is why I love to teach its rhetorical value in a postmodern, apocalyptic-loving society such as ours.
Take, for instance, Goya’s Caprichos, which were completed in 1799 and then quickly hidden from public view. Riddled with ambiguity, darkness, humor and horror, these aquatint etchings (80 total) resist meaning, keeping our reason forever unsatiated in its attempt to master and subdue what is “unknown” concerning these works. Instead, our emotions are pulled, pushed away, invited into horror while simultaneously making us smile. Even laugh. These paradoxes are the very essence of the grotesque. According to Geoffrey Halt Harpham and other theorists, the grotesque is a unique operation (I don’t want to use the word genre because that implies something rather static or “fixed”). Interacting with the grotesque causes the viewer/reader’s mind to shut down in order to allow a “temporary reign of the senses” that pushes the spectator into a new paradigm shift. We like our paradigms. They usually help us make sense of the chaos in the world — but often at a cost of marginalizing others. The grotesque plays on that boundary, momentarily letting the chaos (and the Other) back in. For this reason, what is grotesque for one person may not be for another since we all have different paradigms. The same could be said for cultures.
Goya’s Caprichos critique the failings of a society that believed in the power of the Enlightenment. During this period when reason and knowledge was supposedly ridding the world of all sin, Goya saw his country ripped apart by war and beleaguered by domestic atrocities that education could not undo — political greed, child abuse, and superstitious rituals. Two aquatints, A Gift for the Master (plate 47) and There is Plenty to Suck (plate 45), deal with the latter in such a way as to possibly fall into the grotesque. In A Gift for the Master, an old woman nuzzles an armless child that is standing in an impossible position. It looks more like a doll, but the expression on its face is one of horror or shock, thereby putting it back into the human category. The other hunchbacked woman is beseeching some figure off screen — is the bright light that shines upon her emanating from this being which demands a child sacrifice? The others around her are gathered in shadow, a dark face huddles down near the baby, hands gathered in hungry glee, or perhaps prayer?
The same kind of funny viciousness can be found in There Is Plenty to Suck (I use the term loosely here, some of you may see these pictures and laugh; others might be totally disgusted and see nothing humorous about them). The old women behind the basket are barely even human with an animal-like snout and protruding teeth. The children in the basket look like dolls as well because of their size and positioning — one can’t physical have a “basket of babies” and yet we see enough of real emotion on their faces to feel a strange pity for these tiny beings that are both real and not real. Goya’s title, however, is what clinches the grotesque, since it plays off the idea that there are plenty of children to feed the hungry instead of there being plenty of nursing mothers for the children.Yet having that basket of babies can be rather fun if you say it out loud — and there lies some of the humor in the Caprichos.
Now, how is this different from Saturn Devouring His Son (1821 – 23), one of Goya’s most famous paintings? I might argue that here it is all delicious horror: the headless god/man with Saturn almost unhinging his mouth for another bite, his eyes wide with madness and his fingers digging deep into the back, ready to rip it apart. It is gothic terror at its best without any humor to impede or impale us on the immediacy of the moment (Harpham 16). Yet it lacks that deeper grotesque punch since the figure Saturn is holding seems more like a fully formed man than a baby.
Laurie Lipton’s Love Bite (2002) helps combine the brutality of Saturn with the bizarre humor of the Caprichos. At first all you might notice is the woman’s wide-opened mouth — like she is about to bite into the juiciest Red Delicious apple (perhaps Granny Smith might be a more apt choice). But the little arms outstretched in such a way that they might have been broken taps into our subconscious reservoir about every child abuse story we’ve ever heard to erase any humor — broken bones, baby shaking, bite marks. We are catapulted into a sense of horror until we look more closely at that baby. Much like Goya’s children, it is much too small to be real, and the arms are in an almost impossible position. The title Love Bite would seem completely out of sync except for the heart-shaped earrings this grandmother sports, and the drool that escapes her mouth in anticipation.
Here text and title have a little fête of their own that destabilizes our interaction with the picture — even if a laugh momentarily escapes us, it is replaced with a gasp (I hear these two sounds often when I flash the image up on a screen for my students). Lipton’s drawing takes away the communal aspect found in Goya’s Caprichos, but she adds something more vital, more indicting by displaying the relish with which the grandmother partakes her meal. Could we perhaps see her representing a society that has taken their fill of the earth’s resources and money, while telling a younger generation that they will need to “fix it”? Could we be the monsters which partake in this subtle, grotesque devouring?
Baudelaire argues that “Goya’s great merit consists in his having created a credible form of the monstrous. His monsters are born viable, harmonious. No one has ventured further than he in the direction of the possible absurd. All the distortions, those bestial faces, those diabolic grimaces of his are impregnated with humanity. It would be hard to condemn them, so great is the analogy and harmony between all the parts of their being. In a word, the line of suture, the point of junction between the real and the fantastic is impossible to grasp” (185−586). This “goblin self” that the grotesque tries to unmask is nowhere more present than in the mirror, that bizarre “not me/me” reflection we battle with every day. Goya’s Until Death (plate 55) playfully and painfully explores one woman’s self deception as she views herself in a new hat. Rather than accept age and the wisdom and productivity that can accompany it, she continues to throw herself into the reflection of what she wants, what she should be, while the young men and woman snicker (not even behind her back, but right there, where she can see it).
Lipton’s Mirror Mirror (2002) removes the audience and allows the mirror to endlessly mock the woman’s loss of youth. The teddy is too tight, a single drip is about to fall from the faucet — it is the beginning of a never-ending end (at least, according to a society that only values youth). While Mirror Mirror plays directly off the Caprichos, it is Lipton’s Lies and Inconstancies (2002), that emphasizes the uncanny double-ness that the mirror unveils.
In the reflection, we see a genderless face with closed eyes and cropped hair. A mask looks out to the world, but that too is genderless, snapped onto what might be a woman’s body, given the cellulite-ridden hips. But what about that muscular back? And what has cast that giant shadow, for certainly it cannot be that doppelganger standing there? Another claw-like appendage on the left reaches out to caress — or grab — the person’s elbow. The drawing is riddled in creepy ambiguity, further complicated by the love note that has fallen to the floor. Which image does the person present — the real and yet broken self or the goblin? And which, do we in turn, end up judging as the core of who they are? There’s an odd little lesson that the uncanny might be trying to bring to light. The next time you say “that person was such an ass” and have your poor cortisol levels rise to the boiling point, perhaps just ask if they were just showing their goblin mask today, because they, too, as Plato says, are fighting a hard battle.
For all of the transgressive violence found within the grotesque, I still argue that this aesthetic is fueled ultimately by a hunger for redemption and love. Some might find these images shocking, violent, tasteless, or tragically funny. That is the nature of the grotesque — it operates upon your paradigm: where no paradigm exists, there is no grotesque. The only boundaries it likes to play on are those that keep a nice, clean line between “us” and the marginalized “other.”
To view more of Laurie Lipton’s work: http://www.laurielipton.com/.
To view Goya’s Caprichos: http://www.wesleyan.edu/dac/coll/grps/goya/goya_intro.html
Baudelaire, Charles. The Mirror of Art. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1956.
Green, Tom. “Laurie Lipton: Queen of Bones,” Dangerous Ink 2 (2009): 17 – 23.
Goya, Francisco. Saturn Devouring One of His Children, 1821 – 23. Olga’s Gallery.
www.abcgallery.com. Jan 2012.
—. There is Plenty to Suck. 1799. http://www.franciscodegoya.net. Jan 2012.
—. Until Death. 1799. http://www.franciscodegoya.net. Jan 2012.
—. A Gift for the Master. 1799. Cleveland Museum of Art. http://www.clevelandart.org.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art
and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982
Lipton, Laurie. Lies and Inconstancies. 2002. Images used courtesy of the artist.
—. Love Bite. 2002.
—. Mirror Mirror, 2002.