There are certain words we love using because of their meaning, or because they have been embedded in our vocabulary since we learn how to speak. However, it just takes a bit of curiosity and interest to decipher where the origins of the word and its original meaning. Now, among that wide list of words with impressive origins is the adjective we used in the title, grotesque. We generally use this word to refer to art, movies, characters, and even people, and the intention behind the word is always the same. It’s either disgust and repulsion or fear and horror. We use it to describe things that don’t really fit our standards of normality or beauty, as well as things that might be too explicit and bloody, among others. But where does the word really come from? How did grotesque end up reflecting those sensations?
The Dwarf Morgante - Agnolo Bronzino
The Temptations of St. Anthony - Matthias Grünewald
The word was first coined during the Renaissance when a magnificent ancient palace was discovered in Italy. If we go back a little before those times, I mean to ancient Rome, there was an Emperor that still makes historians cringe for his despicable actions, and that’s Nero, the man who, according to the legend, let his city burn while he composed music with his lyre. This man, whose reign is often associated with extravagant and tyrannic attitudes, built a palace known as the Domus Aurea that became his lair of lust and eccentricities. When his reign was over, it was refurbished, but they forgot to check the underground halls. When these were discovered in the 1480s, people were amazed by the fact that all the caves had not been damaged by the passing of time. Moreover, they were also shocked by the frescoes covering walls and roofs. Unlike most of the art they knew at the time, the scenes that were depicted had no logic or central theme. The frescoes represented historical and mythological scenes of ancient Rome, but at the same time, were mixed or reinterpreted with bizarre and absurd creatures with distorted features or even hybrid beings. Soon, these paintings were known as grottesche frescoes. The name came from the Italian word for cave, grotte, since all these were found underground.
Woman Weeping - Pablo Picasso
The Garden of Earthly Delights (Detail) - Hieronymus Bosch
Naturally, it’s not that until the1480s there wasn’t art appealing to the traits we attach to the word grotesque. It’s only that the grot's paintings gave them a term to be named. Let’s remember that Renaissance art looked at ancient depictions, but they were also alarmed when ancient iconography couldn’t be adapted or went against the precepts of Christianity. Known as pagan symbology or images, these (including, of course, the newly discovered grotesque frescoes) passed to be assembled into the same set of the art described as grotesque. In that way, medieval and contemporary depictions of the devil with its hybrid essence were put in the same category, and thus, everything that went beyond the standards of normality or beauty got the same treatment.
An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess) - Quinten Massys
Sketch of a Man - Leonardo da Vinci
But why is grotesque art so appealing to artists and spectators? Why do we cringe when we see grotesque depictions, but at the same time we can’t stop looking at them? One of the reasons is that, unlike beauty that aims for perfection, something very hard to achieve, the grotesque appeals to our most human essence. According to Jonathan Jones in an article for The Guardian, as long as we remain as beings made from bones and flesh, these will always be appealing.
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans - Salvador Dalí
Miren que grabes! (Capricho) - Francisco de Goya
It kind of makes sense. But let me tell you about another theory exposed by one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century: Umberto Eco. In his book On Ugliness, he states that, contrary to beauty, we perceive the grotesque through three different lenses. The real emotional one, the formal one, and the artistic one. Now, he understands ugliness and the grotesque as synonymS that provoke the same sensations in us. It’s more like a universal feeling that each individual bestows upon determined beings or objects (not everybody would find grotesque the same things, and it also depends on each culture and era). But in the case of art, let’s say that it responds to a set of rules and standards. According to him, we see the grotesque in these works depicted by the masterly hands of their creators and, thus, they acquire a sense of beauty that makes them enticing and appealing.
Three Studies for a Crucifixion - Francis Bacon
Jaqueline - Jonathan Payne
So, what’s the grotesque? We’ve said it’s those things or images that make us feel disgusted and horrified, but what kind of images? If we look at the history of the word, meaning Nero’s frescos, we will see that the grotesque is the alteration or distortion of regular images. It’s all those things that don’t follow any pattern or beauty standard. It’s the hybridity or juxtaposition of elements that naturally don’t go together. If we apply them to real life, for centuries this term has described those people best known as freaks, who are physically different from what we consider normal and have also been a source of inspiration for artists eager to depict the grotesque nature of the human race.