Wednesday, February 9, 2011

good books on the Grotesque

Geoffrey Galt Harpham's 'On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature' (The Davies Group Publishers, 2007) originally published in 1982 is again available.  Unfortunately, there is a dearth of good formal studies on the grotesque.

Wolfgang Kayser's 'The Grotesque in Art and Literature' (tr: Columbia University Press, 1957; McGraw-Hill, 1966) is a classic study.

Mikhail Bakhtin's 'Rabelais and His World' (tr: MIT, 1968; Indiana University Press, 1984) is less historically wide-ranging but more conceptually so.  It's also one of my favorite books by one of my favorite thinkers. 

John Ruskin's 'The Stones of Venice' and 'Modern Painters' are ambivalent treatments.   There are a few others, but they are out of print.  And of course, even if the grotesque isn't given extensive formal treatment, its implications can be found in many thinkers.  Notable favorites are: Charles Baudelaire, Sigmund Freud, Gaston Bachelard, Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Georges Bataille, Emil Cioran, Mary Douglas, Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva.  Currently, I'm rereading parts of Leslie Fiedler's classic 'Love and Death in the American Novel' which can be approached as a study of American literature as the grotesque.  Limiting ourselves to Western cultures, one can say that the historical avant-gardes especially from Romanticism to Surrealism are impossible without the grotesque, as are Magic Realism, cut-up, and postmodernism, not to mention the Gothic and the Baroque, Mannerism, Northern Renaissance to vanitas, etc.  In fact, the grotesque is ever-present throughout the world (pre)history of visual arts, philosophy, music, literature, cinema, folktales, mythology, oral storytelling, propaganda, psychoanalysis, and existence.  Religion is also impossible without the sense of the grotesque, positive or negative.  Undertaking an exhaustive survey or even a selective one of the grotesque will be formidable.  In truth, many libraries are required for adequate research. 

I recommend 'The History of Decorative Arts: The Renaissance and Mannerism in Europe' (Abbeville Press, 1994) edited by Alain Gruber, the first of a series which stopped with the second volume 'The History of Decorative Arts: Classicism and the Baroque in Europe.'  It contains lavish reproductions of some grotesque art, but I wish the publisher hadn't overlooked the weak binding of this bulky otherwise beautiful book.

I have yet to get this book, Alessandra Zamperini's 'Ornament and the Grotesque: Fantastical Decoration from Antiquity to Art Nouveau' (Thames and Hudson, 2008).  There are also several fine facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts and a few books devoted to drollery.

Relatedly, check out 'On Ugliness' (tr: Rizzoli, 2007) edited by Umberto Eco.
Btw, Quentin Massys' 'Ill-Matched Lovers' (c. 1520/1525) oil on panel painting is at National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

When I visited the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, I was happy to see that grotesque decorations pervade its walls and ceilings, belied by its austere stone facade.  A great study in contrast.