grotesque

Joel-Peter Witkin by Chris Hall

Joel-Peter Witkin (born 1939) is an American photographer, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His photography celebrates the grotesque and society's outsiders, as he often uses dwarves, transsexuals, inter-sex persons, and the physically deformed as models.  His complex tableaux often recall religious themes, sex, death, and classical paintings. 

Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother, who soon split because of they were unable to overcome their religious differences.  His twin brother, Jerome Witkin, and his son Kersen Witkin, are also painters.  Between 1961 and 1964, Witkin was a war photographer documenting the Vietnam War.  He attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture, attaining a Bachelor Arts degree in 1974.  Later he would get his Master of Fine arts degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  Witkin claims that his photographic sensibility springs from an event he witnessed as a young child, an automobile accident in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated:

“It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it someone carried me away.”

Witkin's favorite artist is the early Italian Renaissance painter Giotto.  His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq, who also specialized in photos of society's outsiders.  Bellocq is known for his haunting photographic portraits of Storyville prostitutes in New Orleans and images of life in the opium dens in the early 20th century.  Like William Mortensen (a fellow champion of the grotesque), Witkin also uses techniques to manipulate the image, such as scratching the negative, bleaching and toning the print, and a hands-in-chemical printing process.

Witkin also uses corpses and body parts in his photographic arrangements.  I have not posted any of these photographs (interesting though they may be to look at) as I believe the dead should be respected and not used for art (documentation in war photography is another subject all together, and the ethics even here are in a moral gray zone).  To get around restrictive US laws, Witkin creates his photography using the dead in Mexico.

Many critics have come out to label Witkin's transgressive photography as exploitative, made to purposefully shock a weak stomached, bourgeois public.  Corpses and body parts aside (the dead have no choice as to whether or not to be included in art), I believe that Witkin's use of subjects that society would rather ignore is a noble occupation with a long tradition, from Diego Velazquez to Pablo Picasso.  Showcasing society's outcasts and outsiders in art forces people to acknowledge their own prejudices and hypocrisies.  And once you get past the initial shock of the grotesque and unfamiliar, many of Witkin's photographs can become quite beautiful.

Joel-Peter Witkin's work was the major source of inspiration (along with Francis Bacon) for Mark Romanek's video for the Nine Inch Nails song Closer.

Francisco Goya by Chris Hall

Francisco Goya,  Self Portrait , 1795.

Francisco Goya, Self Portrait, 1795.

Francisco Goya was a Spanish Romantic painter and printmaker, often regarded as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns.  He was a court painter to the Spanish aristocracy, all while secretly holding liberal, republican beliefs.  Of more interest, however, are the imaginative works he painted for himself, which, as Goya grew older, became more and more satirical, macabre, and grotesque.  

Goya was born in Fuendetodos, Aragón, Spain, on 30 March 1746.  As a young man, he moved to Madrid, and then to Italy to study art.  After some initial difficulty and a period of hard work, Goya managed to become a popular portrait painter, and in 1786, secured himself a salaried position as a court painter to Charles III of Spain.  Goya was retained when two years later, Charles the IV succeeded to the throne.  In 1789, the revolution erupted in France, and discussions of republicanism was in the air in Spain.  Goya was a liberal and was sympathetic toward republicanism, but he also needed his job as a portrait painter to support his family.  

Goya kept his opinions to himself, although he sometimes portrayed his subjects in an unflattering light.  His painting of Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800), for instance, is thought to be something of a social satire.  Charles IV was generally thought to be weak and corrupt.  His wife, Louisa was thought to be the real power behind the throne.  Goya painted Louisa as the central focal point of the painting.  The family stands before a painting depicting Lot and his daughters, echoing the idea of aristocratic corruption and moral decay.  To the back and left, hidden in the shadow, Goya painted himself painting and silently judging his patrons.

Sometime late in 1792, Goya contracted a serious illness (the exact nature of which is unknown) which left Goya deaf.  He had a physical and mental breakdown as a result and became withdrawn and introspective.  A contemporary reported, "The noises in his head and deafness aren’t improving, yet his vision is much better and he is back in control of his balance." These symptoms are typical of Ménière's disease, although many also suspect the cumulative effects of lead poisoning.  Goya was known to have used a massive amount of lead white in his paintings, both as a primary color and as a canvas primer. 

During his convalescence, he undertook a series of experimental paintings.  These paintings are decidedly darker from his earlier work, the horrific stuff of nightmares.  Paintings such as The Yard of the Madhouse suggest themes of loneliness, fear, and social alienation, while other works are undisguised sharp social criticisms.  These works would culminate in his series of 80 aquatinted etchings, Los Caprichos, published in 1799.  Goya described the work as "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”  Shortly after being published, Goya withdrew Los Caprichos, for fear of a backlash from the Inquisition, which was still active in Spain.

In 1800, Goya completed two of his most famous paintings, The Clothed Maja, and The Nude Maja.  These life-size paintings depict the same woman in the same pose, one clothed and one nude.  Nudity was tolerated when it referred to allegorical or mythological subjects, but without this pretense, Goya's painting was considered profane.  The Nude Maja is also considered the first painting in Western Art to show pubic hair.  The two paintings were never shown in public; they were owned by the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Godoy.  When Godoy fell from power in 1808, he was exiled and all his property was seized.  The Inquisition confiscated the paintings, because of their “obscenity.”

In 1808, French forces under Napoleon invaded Spain, leading to the Peninsular War of 1808 – 1814.  Napoleon set up his brother, Joseph, as the new king.  Goya kept neutral during the fighting.  He was a Spanish patriot, but also a republican, hoping Napoleon would bring social and political reforms.  Goya took a loyalty oath and became the new court painter for Joseph I. 

During the 1810's Goya created a new set of 82 aquatinted etchings titled The Disasters of War.  These works, while politically ambivalent (they condemn atrocities committed by both Spanish rebels and the French), are thought to be a protest against all war and violence in general.  The prints document events from the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, through the Peninsular War, and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the reintroduction of the Inquisition in 1814.  The prints are, at times, graphic and disturbing in their depiction of battlefield horrors, and represent Goya's outraged conscience in the face of death and destruction.  The Disasters of War was not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya's death.  It seems likely that Goya considered it politically unsafe to release them, as the prints criticizes both the French and the restored Bourbons.  

After the restoration of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, in 1814, Goya denied any involvement with the French.  In 1819, Goya retired to a country house outside of Madrid.  The house was known as the Quinta del Sordo, which means “House of the Deaf Man.”  It was named after its previous owner, though it is something of a strange coincidence that Goya was also deaf.

Francisco Goya, Witches' Sabbath, c 1823

After the Napoleonic Wars and the even more repressive monarchy of Ferdinand VII, Goya became an embittered man and developed a bleak outlook toward mankind.  This attitude, and his growing fear of insanity, is reflected in his series of so called Black Paintings, created between 1819 and 1823.  These paintings, fourteen works in total, were painted directly onto the walls of the house.  Because these works are thought to portray Goya's growing sense of panic, terror, and hysteria, the Black Paintings are sometimes thought of as a precursor of the Expressionist movement in the early 20th century.

In 1824, Goya, disgusted with Spain, moved to France, where he would die of a stroke four years later in 1828, age 82.  He left Quinta del Sordo, and the Black Paintings contained within it, to the care of his grandson, Mariano Goya.  In 1874, the slow process of removing the Black Paintings and transferring them to canvas was started.  In 1881 they found a new home, in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Christian Martyrs in Art: A Grotesque Fascination by Chris Hall

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Maybe I have a sick mind, but I've always found depictions of Christian martyrs fascinating; you want to look away, but you can't.  I suspect I am not the only one today who thinks this way.  Of course I respect the holiness of saints, their wisdom, their many good works, and their dedication to their beliefs in the face of death.  But the imagination and grotesque beauty of the art suggests to me that the artists may have also been fascinated with their violent subject matter.  Incidentally, I've never cared too much for horror movies and realistic violence.  Usually, when the Christian martyrs are depicted in art, the violence is either stylized or symbolized in some way.

Click each image to enlarge.

Here we have Saint Agatha of Sicily, who had her breasts removed before being tortured to death.  She is often shown holding a plate or a chalice containing her breasts.

Saint Bartholomew was flayed alive.  Oddly enough, he is the patron saint of tanners.  Michelangelo painted himself as Saint Bartholomew's flayed skin in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  Sometimes depictions of Saint Bartholomew can be pretty graphic, making my own skin crawl.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was tortured to death on the wheel that now bears her name.  To have the object of your execution named after you seems like a strange honor.

Saint Clement of Rome was tied to an anchor, tossed into the sea, and drowned.

Saint Hippolytus of Rome, a convert and fellow soldier of Saint Sebastian, was drawn and quartered.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch was thrown into the Colosseum in Rome and devoured by lions.

Saint Lawrence was grilled alive.  Reportedly he had a sharp sense of humor, and told his torturers that he was he finished on one side, and that it was time to turn him over.

Saint Lucy of Syracuse had her eyes gouged out prior to her execution.  She is often depicted holding a plate containing her own eyes.

Saint Peter of Verona was hacked to death.  He is often shown with a sword in the head.

Saint Sebastian is a favorite subject among Renaissance artists.  He was a Roman soldier under Diocletian and a Christian Convert.  When he was found out, he tied to a tree and had arrows shot at him.  Saint Sebastian was reportedly brought back to life by Irene of Rome, but when Saint Sebastian went directly to Diocletian to rebuke him, he was killed a second time, this time by being clubbed to death.

William Mortensen, Photography's Antichrist by Chris Hall

William Mortensen, Off For the Sabbot, 1927

William Mortensen (1897 – 1965) was one of the most well known and respected photographers in America in the 1930's.  He worked primarily in Southern California as a Hollywood movie studio  portraitist, but later taught his methods and ideas to a new generation of younger photographers.  Mortensen championed Pictorialism, a movement within photography that promoted retouching, hand-worked negatives, chemical washes, and an artistic, painterly approach, standing in opposition to the straight shooting aesthetics of the Modernist-Realist school, as exemplified by Ansel Adams.  

Ansel Adams, and others in the Modernist-Realist school, rejected theatrical set-ups, retouching, and strong, imaginative subject matter, all the things which Mortensen stood for.  Mortensen had an ongoing written debate with Adams in photography magazines, which lead to him being ostracized from the more authoritative canons of photographic history.  Ansel Adams held so much animosity toward Mortensen, that he variously referred to him as “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.” Adams' approach would eventually win out and Mortensen was considered an anachronism and an outsider in the art world.  After World War II, photographers began to favor the straight shooting, Modernist-Realist approach, becoming a documentarian of preexisting situations rather than a creator of new ones.  William Mortensen soon faded into obscurity.  

“Even the death of the individual cannot destroy the imagination, for that which is clearly and strongly imagined partakes of eternity."  William Mortensen

In recent years, William Mortensen has returned to the public's consciousness; Feral House has just published a book of his photographs.  Mortensen's work is imaginative and weird, celebrating sexuality and the grotesque.  Mortensen recognized the power that sexuality and the grotesque has on the imagination of the viewer, and he applied both tactics liberally to his work.  On the grotesque, Mortensen wrote:

"Herein lies the reason for the equivocal effect of grotesque art on many people: the material is unfamiliar, and, by ordinary standards, unpleasant: yet it calls forth a deep instinctive response. Thus they are torn between repulsion and attraction..." 

Perhaps the most striking of all of Mortensen's works is his 1932 piece, Human Relations.  Of Human Relations, Mortensen would write late in life:

"Hatred is frequently the emotion that lies behind grotesque art... These were the days when stocks were stopping dividends, when lives of thrift and industry were being wiped out by the foreclosing of mortgages and the closing of banks, when Japan was carving herself a large slice of China. Everywhere there was the spirit of 'Take what you can, and to hell with your neighbor.' Those who were strong seemed to be, in sheer wantonness, gouging the eyes of humanity."

Medieval Fun Times by Chris Hall

I've always loved Medieval illuminated manuscripts.  The artists during that time produced work that was so imaginative, scatological, strange, grotesque, and vulgar.  Below are some of my favorite images that I have been able to track down.  Click the image to enlarge.

Here we have a bathing dragon lady, a blindfolded, multi-armed girl, a boneless man dancing to music, and cats doing people things.  

Here we have a Centaur and Harpy, a dead King walking, a dog licking his balls, and hybrid dog-man with a human leg in his mouth.

Next we have bizarre fish-goat-man-lady creature, a Zitiron, or Sea-Knight, God planting a tree bearing people heads, and a man ripping his heart out (Happy Valentine's Day!)

Here we have some headless swordsmen, a hermaphrodite swimming in a fountain (most likely an alchemy illustration), a human being sawed in half, and a Knight freaking out over a UFO.  

Now we have two illustrations of killer rabbits (there are lots of those for some reason), a King catching a dragon in bed with his wife, and a man with a club sneaking up on another couple in bed.

Here we have a Medieval Bigfoot, some men vomiting up frogs, and a couple of illustrations of Mermaids.

Here we have a woman picking fruit from a Penis Tree, a woman riding on a giant Penis Monster, an illustration of strange people from foreign lands (giant one foot guy, a dog-man, a two-headed child, a cyclops, and a face in the chest guy), and a man eating a baby.

Medieval artists seem fixated on asses and shitting for some reason.  Here we have a monkey shitting on a plate, a man defending himself from a shitting bull, a man shitting next to a pig, and a monkey with an arrow in his ass.  

Early Influences: Schiele and Klimt by Chris Hall

Egon Schiele,  Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock , 1913

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock, 1913

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt (along with Edvard Munch) heavily influenced my drawing during my first two years as a student at the University of Georgia.  In 1995 I even filled an entire sketch book copying Egon Schiele’s work.  I fell in love with their line work which is searching, sensual, and organic, like the very fiber of life.  Below is a little about Schiele and Klimt.  Sometime later I will devote an entire blog post to Edvard Munch.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an Austrian painter born in 1890.  His work is known for its intensity and its expression of raw sexuality.  His figure drawings and paintings, many of them self-portraits, often have twisted body shapes defined by expressive contour lines.  The work is often suggestive of sex, death, and the grotesque, with a disturbing eroticism bordering on the pornographic.  In 1907 Schiele sought out Gustav Klimt as a mentor, who was impressed with his work enough to help him secure exhibitions and patrons.  As a young artist-bohemian, he lived an unconventional lifestyle that led him to being driven out of one town and being imprisoned in another.  Eventually Schiele decided to settle down and marry Edith Harms in 1915, but three days later he was conscripted for the Austrian Army as the First World War exploded across the continent.  Schiele was lucky to get a reasonably comfortable assignment as guard and clerk in a POW camp in Prague, and Edith was allowed to follow him.  But in the fall of 1918, tragedy came in the form of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which would kill over 20,000,000 people.  First it would take Edith’s life, and then three days later, Egon Schiele’s.  He was 28.  Schiele’s last drawing is of his dying wife.  

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter born in 1862.  His work is known for its frank eroticism and decorative elements, often incorporating gold leaf.  The subject of much of his work is women, often in shown in allegorical, symbolist, mythic, and erotic circumstances.  He would also make landscapes and portraiture as well.  Klimt kept his life private, but it was a life marked by sexual hedonism.  He would often dress in a robe and sandals, wearing no undergarments underneath.  Klimt would have many mistresses and would father 14 children.  Early in his career Klimt received many public art commissions, but he would stop taking the commissions after his three paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized for being pornographic.  These three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, were later destroyed by retreating Nazi SS forces in May of 1945.  Klimt, like Schiele, would die in 1918, from complications brought on by the Spanish Flu.

A Dark Humor by Chris Hall

Sometime during my undergraduate days, one of my professors criticized someone in my class for making “funny” paintings (he was always good at rattling cages and making people cry).  He said that the first word in painting is PAIN, and that he would not have any of that fantasy clown shit in his class. I laughed inwardly, because I happened to agree with him; this was in my younger, more angstier days. Now, however, I have reevaluated my position somewhat.  I think there just might be a place for comedy in art.

The world, in such a condition as it is, is in need of all the humor it can get.  In fact a sense of humor is all that keeps many people, including myself, sane.  I tend to cling to any joy, laughter, or beauty I can find.  Humor to me is my way of assimilating and recuperating from pain, of which there is plenty.  I understand that a lot of comedy comes from pain.  Not many people know this.  It was no surprise to me, for example, that such an outwardly happy and comedic an individual as Robin Williams recently committed suicide, God rest his soul.

In my art, my humor tends to be dark.  It is my way of inverting the pain into something more palatable (to me anyways).  The results are usually grotesque, abject, and ridiculous.  Some people find it surprising that I don’t paint flowers anymore, instead opting for gross out, violent, and sex heavy humor.  So be it.  I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to them if they are that far removed.  Some things for some people are beyond understanding.  For the time being, I am content knowing that I found my own way transmuting humor from pain.  

Christopher Hall,  Born To Paint , 2002

Christopher Hall, Born To Paint, 2002

A Celebration of the Abject and Grotesque by Chris Hall

Today let us celebrate the abject and the grotesque!   

This is the life of the carnivalesque body.

Why do I make art on the absurd, the dirty, and the impure?  Perhaps it is the last refuge of those who refuse to assimilate.  Hell, no one really paid me the money I wanted when I painted flowers anyways, so why the fuck not make art about all the things which you consider ugly and depraved?  Perhaps, this body of work is my revenge on society.  But this is only my catharsis speaking, my own personal take on things.  So you want to learn about a theory that considers the art of ugliness?  Let us look at the ideas of Francois Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin!

Here, all that is rejected by and disturbs the rational, social reason has its time in the sun, and it is here, in this abject space, that conventional identity and cultural concepts are challenged freely and without consequence.  It is liberation through humor and chaos.  The merger and commingling of the sacred and profane, heaven and hell, masculine and feminine, and other such ideas of mutually exclusivity, allows for the free exchange of opposing ideas.  In such places cultural, and, perhaps, political change can occur, as all hierarchal positions are destroyed.  Purity is the enemy of change, the enemy of life, of progress.  

So we must cross boundaries and take risks.  We must transgress against what is thought to be holy.  We must celebrate life, with all its messiness.  Death is stasis, where there is no movement, and we must have movement in order to progress.  We must turn the world upside down, if only for one night.

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” Karl Marx