The Classical and the Grotesque

Associated with rationalism, the classical provides the normalizing aspects of western culture and high culture. The classical body is closed, self-contained, monumental, symmetrical, masculine, and sleek. The classical model of progress corrects and erases mistakes. 

Opposing the classical is the grotesque, which leaves room for chance, for error.  Historically the “grotto-esque” refers to the excavation in fifteenth-century Rome of Nero’s Domus Aurea or Golden Palace across from the Coliseum. 

Built-in the middle of the first century A.D. the Domus Aurea was spectacular and grandiose, unlike any building in Rome at that time. It spread over hundreds of acres in an area known as the Oppian Hill between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills in Northern Rome.  After the fire in 64 A. D., which destroyed 70% of the city of Rome and left half the population homeless, Emperor Nero built this opulent residence on land the fire cleared. 

The artist Fabulous painted ceiling frescoes in the hundreds of rooms only when the light was right. These paintings included a series of strange and mysterious drawings that fused vegetation, animal, and detailed human body parts into fantastical combinations. There were unreal plants, impossible anatomical renderings and beasties amalgamated into symmetrical decorative forms. As the building was unearthed and excavated in the fifteenth century, the frescoes inspired Renaissance paintings depicting similar fantastical designs which were referenced as “grotesque” from the word “grotto” or cave because the underground building had corridors like caves.

The Roman architectural theoretician Vitruvius (c.80-after 15 BC) had disliked these same designs when they became fashionable in his own time. He wrote in De architectura (c.25 BC) that they were illogical and perverse:

“monsters are now painted in frescoes rather than reliable images of definite things. Reeds are set up in place of columns, … several tender shoots, sprouting in coils from roots, have little statues nestled in them for no reason, or shoots split in half, some holding little statues with human heads, some with the heads of beasts. Now, these things do not exist nor can they exist nor have they ever existed… How, pray tell, can a reed really sustain a roof, or a candelabrum the decorations of a pediment, or an acanthus shoot, so soft and slender, loft a tiny statue perched upon it, or can flowers be produced from roots and shoots on the one hand and figurines on the other? … Minds beclouded by feeble standards of judgment are unable to recognize what exists in accordance with the authority and the principles of correctness.”

The grotesque is earthy, dark, hidden visceral, and matter. It emerged as unnatural and irrational connections between the things nature and classical art had kept separate. It is identified with the lower bodily stratum filth, mire, birth, death, menstruation, menopause, and the feminine. This historical expression of the grotesque connecting the feminine to a cavernous space, however, is regressive psychologically, culturally, and politically. It links the grotto-esque, or cave with the womb, and with woman-as-mother. (Mary Russo, “The Female Grotesque; Risk, Excess, and Modernity, 1995)

The grotesque opposes the classical, the norm; normalization, which in the United States is to fit in, to associate with the ideal, indicating class and status even in the new norm, even though we will never return to normal.  We live in the spectacular normalized, acceptable as soon as it is consumed.  Hundreds of thousands of people are dead from the Coronavirus, thousands of people are displaced by drought, hurricanes, and starvation, and deforestation threatens our very existence. We assimilate anorexic females as models of beauty. We witness everyday people as they live through spectacular events televised in living color. The spectacular is normal. 

For half a year Sheila constructed stoneware figures that exist in the boundary between the classical and the grotesque. Her life-sized, clothed but not clothed, middle-aged women balance precariously. They could careen to rubble on the studio floor or memorialize the menopausal woman ready to take flight. Monumental in height and stature, the figures allude to Greek classical sculpture. At the same time, they are clearly the images of older women, fleshy, and wrinkled proceeding through age.

2000, work in progress, bisque ware, steel, wood

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