by Aaron Ross
The Grotesque in Western Art
No survey of the grotesque in Western art can ever hope to be exhaustive, for the phenomenon of distorted and incongruous imagery is perennial, pernicious, perspicacious, and preposterous. To think any study of the subject complete is categorically insane -- an insane assumption regarding an insane concept of an insane genre. Yet, indefatigable academicians that we are, we must try.
And so, pants spattered with excrement, we wander the Halls of Knowledge in search of the bizarre, the incomprehensible, the acutely "pathological" manifestations of the psyche which we, in our self-ordained cultural superiority, label "grotesque." Time and again, we are confronted with images which defy our aesthetic conventions, and are therefore relegated to the shadowy realm of the grotesque. We never succeed in defining the grotesque with any degree of certainty, but merely categorize those works which stimulate certain emotional reactions as grotesque, absurd, abnormal, et cetera. Indeed, the nature of the concept is such that any attempt to establish its contours with the rational faculties is doomed to failure.
This is because the grotesque is in its essence a function of that ultimate unknown, the unconscious. All of those weird images, those distortions, those impossible juxtapositions, have their origin in the unconscious, and find their expression in dreams, fantasies, reveries, and lightbulbs over the head. So impenetrable is this world that many choose to deny its very existence, especially since it is filled with innumerable little devils with sharp pointy teeth.
This is not to say, however, that no expedition into this realm can be made. We merely cannot chart it in its entirety. The unconscious is synonymous with the unknown; that which is outside of our awareness. Once we have acquired some content of this shadow-world, it is no longer unknown. But the blackness itself is infinite, and no amount of light can ever illuminate it.
Such is the case with "the grotesque." Any definition of it is inherently provisional and incomplete. At bottom, we can only pass subjective judgment on individual ideas, objects, etc., regarding their relative "grotesque-ness." In so doing, we have only our individual experiences of "culture," "nature," and "self" to draw upon.
By now it should be abundantly clear that no objective definition of the grotesque can ever be made. However, this is far from a denial of its existence. It is undoubtably a form of human experience. This experience is fundamentally subjective and interior. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder ... this holds equally true for the grotesque.
Our perception of the grotesque is personal and emotional. What's more, it is subject to radical change over time. Generally, this takes the form of an internal adjustment which favors a new interpretation. We may become accustomed to the grotesque aspects of a thing, developing such a tolerence to it that it no longer appears at all unusual.
Alternately (and more interestingly), we may achieve an insight into our own evaluations, integrating the structure of perception itself into consciousness. This does not necessarily negate one's emotional reaction to a thing; indeed, the formal incongruity may be so marked as to preclude psychic tolerance. Yet it is within our power to examine our own reactions and fit the grotesque experience within a conceptual framework, thus removing some of its sting, and learning a bit about ourselves in the process.
All of this amounts to a systematic exploration of the unconscious, yielding the fruits of endless grotesque, "abnormal," disturbing, ambiguous, and irrational images. To date, the only artist to have truly mapped this dark corner of the mind is Salvador Dali. Armed with his paranoiac-critical method, he reached deep into the recesses of the earth, and brought forth pure gold. And we, intrepid spelunkers, now follow him.
There is a long-standing myth regarding Salvador Dali which has not been purged from the common mind despite the artist's many accomplishments. This is the belief that Dali was insane. No doubt there is a certain romanticism inherent in the stereotypical view of madness, and Dali often exploited these beliefs to surround himself with an air of mystery. However, from the point of view of the psychologist, Dali's case was one of little interest in its pathological or pseudo-pathological aspects. It was his keen ability to bring to realization the contents of the unconscious which made him so extraordinary. He brought the dream-world we all unwittingly inhabit to light, exposing the things we deny and repress, the very things that make us who we are.
Indeed, the more violent one's reaction against an image or idea, the more likely it is that one has some unresolved inner conflict regarding the subject-matter. Dali's use of grotesque imagery is a way of bringing these potentially harmful objects of the unconscious to the surface, thereby negating their threat.
An eminent example is the 1940 oil painting, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening — Hope! Without doubt, it ranks high among images of the grotesque. More importantly, it forces us to examine our own ambivalent attitudes toward war. Painted during Dali's exile in the United States, the piece shows that no war, not even a victory over an evil dictator, is without moral turmoil.
The painting depicts an impossibly mutilated, elongated figure stretched over the limb of a dead tree. It appears to be female, but the head which rests inert on the ground is none other than Dali's own, abstracted from an oddly anthropomorphic rock formation at Cape Creus in the artist's native Catalonia. The spider of the title, along with an army of black ants, crawls across the face. This is a reference to a French legend that says that the sighting of a daddy longlegs in the evening hours is a good omen, a portent of good luck.
Above the gelatinous head of Dali is a cannon (recalling De Chirico's The Philosopher's Conquest) which spews forth a decayed "nightmare" horse and a deflated, balloon-like airplane. Both are in the process of trampling a Winged Victory of Samothrace which appears to be made out of bandages. On the lower left, a despairing cherub covers its eyes.
At first glance, the piece appears utterly mad, an hysterical vision of a deranged mind. On closer inspection, however, it proves to contain artistic and philosophical complexities far beyond the expected. It is a prophetic statement about the Second World War, and the hollow victory in store for the Allies. In a more general sense, it is an indictment of all wars. And, in the end, it is not Dali's emaciated figure which is grotesque, but the dehumanization and senseless bloodshed perpetrated in the name of "victory."
Nor is Daddy Longlegs of the Evening — Hope! an isolated phenomenon in Dali's oeuvre. A very similar moral content is present in the penultimate work of grotesque surrealism, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), painted in Paris in 1936. The composition is dominated by a gargantuan figure who appears to have dismembered him/herself, only to recombine in the most unspeakable mutation of the human body imaginable. It is an "insane" monument to a fragmented Spain, created before the outbreak of civil war.
As further proof of the underlying coherence of Dali's work, let us briefly consider the celebrated "Dalinian continuity," in which recurring images and concepts present in his art provide an infrastructure for his wildest extravagances of form.
Perhaps the most well-known theme of Dali's art is the contrast between hard and soft objects. He seemed to delight in an intentional reversal of these qualities, rendering commonplace objects incomprehensible by inverting their morphological characteristics. His famous "limp watches" are but one example of a proposed "soft architecture of the future," as prefigured by the biomorphic forms of art nouveau architects Antoni Gaudi and Hector Guimard. The debt Dali owed to these two artists is evident in such works as The Great Masturbator and The Profanation of the Host, and even extends to the Soft Construction with Boiled Beans. The artist wrote about this piece in his 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali:
When I arrived in Paris I painted a large picture which I entitled Premonition of Civil War. In this picture I showed a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation. As a background to this architecture of frenzied flesh devoured by a narcissistic and biological cataclysm, I painted a geological landscape, that had been uselessly revolutionized for thousands of years, congealed in its "normal course." The soft structure of that great mass of flesh in civil war I embellished with a few boiled beans, for one could not imagine swallowing all that unconscious meat without the presence (however uninspiring) of some mealy and melancholy vegetable.(1)
The soft architecture theme rested in turn on the "edible" nature of art objects. To Dali, the measure of aesthetic beauty was synonymous with edibility. This gustatory aesthetic was an expression of an ultimate desire to possess, and, indeed, merge with the object. It was the highest fulfillment of infantile desire, sublimated to the service of connoisseurship. As Dali explained . . .
Our need of taking part in the existence of these things and our yearning to form a whole with them are shown to be emphatically material through our sudden consciousness of a new hunger we are suffering from. As we think it over, we find suddenly that it does not seem enough to devour things with our eyes, and our anxiety to join actively and effectively in their existence brings us to want to eat them.(2)
A final note regarding Dalinian continuity in Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: at the lower left of the painting (partially obscured by the fleshy architecture) there stands a giant figure, far in the distance. This is the archetypal Bureaucrat/Everyman who appears in numerous Dali paintings. The first manifestation of this symbol (derived from a newspaper advertisement) was in the piece, Pharmacist of Ampurdan in Search of Absolutely Nothing.
While the inherent irrationality of Dali's work often precludes the certainty of interpretations, the figure of the pharmacist has a definite and perennial symbolic meaning. The pharmacist's gaze, directed toward the earth, is simultaneously intent and oblivious. Dali is criticizing the hyper-specialization and dehumanization which plagues the present age.
Our epoch is dying of moral skepticism and spiritual nothingness. Imaginative slothfulness, entrusting itself to the mechanical, momentary, and material pseudo-progress of the post-war period, has de-hierarchized the spirit. It has disarmed it, dishonored it before death and eternity. Mechanical civilization will be destroyed by war. The machine is doomed to crumble and rust, gutted on the battle fields, and the youthful, energetic masses that have constructed them are doomed to serve as cannon fodder.(3)
Thus far, we have examined the first layer of meaning in the art of Salvador Dali -- the rational, conscious symbolism which he has imparted in a more or less direct fashion to the viewer. Now, we ask, what of the much-heralded unconscious, incomprehensible symbols which have made themselves visible on Dali's canvases and panels? To come to terms with these incongruous images, and to glimpse the process by which they are generated, is to come one step closer to understanding the genius of Salvador Dali, and, indeed, the creative process in general.
As an example, consider the canvas Meditation on the Harp, painted between 1932 and 1934. Again, at first sight, the piece defies interpretation. What are we to think of a painting depicting a spectral man with his head bowed in prayer, a deformed figure kneeling before him, and a voluptuous nude woman embracing them both? There is obviously some perverse sexual content lurking in here, but its meaning is elusive, if not totally inaccessible.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the standing male figure is derived from Millet's The Angelus, which depicts two peasants in a moment of prayer. This piece, which was a one time nearly as popular as the Mona Lisa, was a nearly ubiquitous image in European bourgeois households such as Dali's. In early childhood, he developed an obsession concerning the piece and its latent contents of sex and death. He even went so far as to later write a book about it, entitled The Tragic Myth of Millet's Angelus.
However, Dali did not arrive at his interpretation of the Angelus through conventional psychological methods. Rather, his insight into the painting came through his famous paranoiac-critical method, a process whereby the interpretive disorder of paranoia is simulated to produce alternative forms of knowledge not ordinarily available to consciousness. Dali's irrational reaction of simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from the Angelus eventually led to his conscious realization of the undercurrents of sexuality and morbidity present in the work. In his homages to Millet, Dali brought these elements to the surface. Once revealed, they explained the enormous popularity of the image in terms of subliminal perception and unconscious symbolism.
The ordinary objects depicted in the Angelus carry extraordinary suggestive meanings. Specifically, the pitchfork is a phallic symbol; the wheelbarrow a representation of the vulva; the sacks of grain mimic a particular sexual position; and the man's hat is held as if to cover an erection. As if this weren't enough, Dali, upon a visit to the Louvre, proclaimed that a small, piano-shaped coffin rested between the peasants' feet — and that it had been painted over by the artist. The piece was finally x-rayed, and Dali's observation was verified!
So Meditation on the Harp can now be seen as a poetic evocation of these perverse themes of latent sexuality and death. The kneeling figure is probably the artist himself, somehow personally engaged in the weird ritual being enacted. The title, once mystifying, can now be interpreted literally -- given certain art historical knowledge. The harp was considered by medieval inquisitors to be an instrument of the Devil, as were other instruments, such as the bagpipe. One recalls Hieronymous Bosch's portrayal of a man crucified on the harp in The Garden of Earthly Delights ....
All of this may seem somewhat tangential, but it is in fact a testimony to the power of the paranoiac-critical method. Dali was capable of examining his own "paranoiac" perceptions and interpretations and subsequently integrating their salient (often salacious) contents into his artwork. Sometimes, this yielded a later, rationalistic interpretation in the language of psychology. Such was the case with the recurring Angelus theme.
Dali's stated goal as an artist was to bring the world of dreams, visions, and hypnagogic imagery to tangible, concrete reality. His tools were those of the photo-realistic painter, his methods were those of the psychologist and philosopher. The raw material thrust itself upon him, direct from the unknown. In his famous essay, "The Conquest of the Irrational," 1935, he made a detailed exposition of the paranoiac-critical method, discovered six years earlier:
The new delirious images of concrete irrationality tend towards their physical and actual "possibility;" they surpass the domain of phantasms and psycho-analyzable representations. It was in 1929 that Salvador Dali brought his attention to bear on the internal mechanism of paranoiac phenomena and envisaged the possibility of an experimental method based on the sudden power of the systematic associations proper to paranoia; this method afterwards became the delirio-critical synthesis which bears the name "paranoiac-critical activity." Paranoia: delirium of interpretive association bearing a systematic structure. Paranoiac-critical activity: spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretive critical association of delirious phenomena. (4)
The paranoiac-critical method provides a window into that unknown world of the unconscious, and yet does not present the danger of psychic inundation. To quash any objections from the surrealist camp regarding the role of critical awareness in the method, Dali explained that its nature was that of a passive filter, and not a willful or determining force.
The presence of active and systematic elements does not suppose the idea of voluntarily directed thought, for, as we know, in paranoia the active and systematic structure in consubstantial with the delirious phenomenon itself -- all delirious phenomena of paranoiac character, even when sudden and instantaneous, bear already "in entirety"Êthe systematic structure and only become objective a posteriori by critical intervention. Critical activity intervenes solely as liquid revealer of images, associations and systematic coherences and finesses already existing at the moment when delirious instantaneousness is produced ... (5)
Thus, the infinite array of possible interpretations of images and ideas is made accessible through voluntary submission to the paranoiac faculties of the unconscious. This is, of course, easier said than done. Paranoiac mechanisms are not at the disposal of consciousness; one can only remain open to their imaginative power. As Dali wrote in his first manifesto, a book entitled La Femme Visible, "The new images which paranoiac thought may suddenly release will not merely spring from the unconscious; the force of their paranoiac power will itself be at the service of the unconscious."(6)
The primary function of the paranoiac-critical method is, of course, to produce images of a startling and authentically unknown nature. Contrary to belief, these are not hallucinations. Rather than perceiving an object which does not exist, the paranoiac mind perceives alternate meanings and interpretations of objectively "real" things. The new interpretation may, in fact, be totally viable, and can displace the original perception instantaneously. Whether this new relationship is created or merely noticed by the viewer is irrelevant. "It is enough that the delirium of interpretation should have linked together the implications of the images of the different pictures covering a wall for the real existence of this link to be no longer deniable."(7)
Ultimately, this process is identical to that of contemplating random cracks in a wall, as described by Leonardo. From seemingly formless, chaotic fissures and discolorations come distinct shapes which can be utilized in artmaking. Dali's particular gift lay in an ability to unconsciously extract an almost endless array of forms from a particular stimulus -- even if that stimulus carried with it a dominant rational image. Sufficient development of the "paranoiac faculty" would enable one to envision multiple images given any retinal impression, and not merely one which is ostensibly random and formless.
The clearest and most celebrated example of this phenomenon can be seen in Dali's painting of 1940, Slave Market with the Invisible Bust of Voltaire. Dali, seeing Houdon's Bust of Voltaire, instantaneously envisioned a pair of figures hidden within the features of the philosopher. These have been interpreted as either Dutch merchants or Spanish nuns. The hypothesis of the nuns is somewhat more tenable, given Voltaire's anti-Catholic stance and Dali's averse reaction to it. Regardless of art-historical interpretation, this painting is a splendid example of the paranoiac-critical image, as described in La Femme Visible:
The way in which it has been possible to obtain a double image is clearly paranoiac. By a double image is meant such a representation of an object that it is also, without the slightest physical or anatomical change, the representation of another entirely different object, the second representation being equally devoid of any deformation or abnormality betraying arrangement.
Such a double image is obtained in virtue of the violence of the paranoiac thought which has cunningly and skillfully used the requisite quantity of pretexts, coincidences, etc., and so taken advantage of them as to exhibit the second image, which then replaces the dominant idea.(8)
Despite the irrational overtones of Dali's surrealist works, the paranoiac-critical method is in fact a fundamentally constructive process. Properly harnessed, these unpredictable and often incomprehensible psychic impulses can be used to create new and unknown images. This objectification of the inner world is not only fascinating for its aesthetic applications, but is a significant scientific and philosophical discovery with far-reaching implications for our current views of psychology, perception, and semiotics. It constitutes a subtle but radical change in the relationship between "images" and "reality." As Dali wrote, "The paranoiac mechanism whereby the multiple image is released is what supplies the understanding with the key to the birth and origin of all images, the intensity of these dominating the aspect which hides the many appearances of the concrete."(9)
With the outbreak of World War II, surrealism, with its grotesque extravagances of political and aesthetic reform, more or less disintegrated as a movement. Dali, long estranged from Andre Breton and company, and living in California, finally decided to embrace the classicism he had courted for ten years. His emphasis then fell on mythological and religious topics, as well as overtly academic themes and techniques. Yet the paranoiac character of his inspiration did not change — he merely focused his obsessions on more classical subjects.
Dali's contact with and celebration of the bizarre and unusual persisted throughout his career. Even in a "traditional" mode, he nearly always inserted paranoiac associations where one least expected them. For example, when he set out to create an homage to Vermeer, he painted a study of The Lacemaker composed entirely of exploding rhinoceros horns! To further mystify the public, he painted this piece, Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer's Lacemaker, at the Paris Zoo.
The apparent incongruity of The Lacemaker with rhinoceros horns is resolved upon investigation of Dali's obsession with perfection of form. The horn is an example of a planar logarithmic spiral, similar to that created in the gnomonic expansion of the golden rectangle. For Dali, the rhinoceros horn was a perfect organic shape, and he often used it in formal deconstructive analysis of pictorial composition.
An even more famous example of this sort was the Dalinian masterwork of 1958, Velasquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory. Created to honor the 300th anniversary of the death of Velasquez, this piece also features the rhinoceros horns, which converge to define the head of the Infanta. It is quite an unusual effect: evocative, beautiful, and yet somehow disturbing.
Perhaps the most disturbing of Dali's later masterworks is the singularly weird Tuna Fishing, 1966-67. This is an extremely violent and irrational depiction of a profusion of fishermen netting, spearing, and knifing live tuna. Some of the figures refer to Greek sculpture, but otherwise this is not a "classical" piece such as The Madonna of Port Lligat. Tuna Fishing is above all a poetic portrait of the Catalonian fishermen which Dali knew as neighbors and friends. It depicts anguish and panic; it shows the lives of these men as a constant struggle.
The latter half of Dali's artistic career showed a marked evolution in his painting from surrealism to "nuclear mysticism." Only rarely did this later work evidence truly grotesque imagery. With few exceptions (such as The Battle of Tetuan and Dionysus Spitting the Entire Image of Cadaques onto the Tongue of a Three-Storied Gaudinian Woman), Dali no longer indulged in anamorphic distortions or radical inconsistencies in composition or form. While his subject matter ultimately derived from the paranoiac-critical method, he seemed to consciously manipulate images and ideas much more than during his surrealist period. The result was enchanting, and at times sublime, but rarely stupefying. Dali had swung to the opposite pole of the grotesque — the harmonious.
Salvador Dali was a complex individual who once explained that his painting was but a small part of his total cosmogony. His art was a paradoxical unity of conscious and unconscious motivations, which tended on the one hand to the scatalogical, and, on the other, to the divine. Many of his works can easily be classified as grotesque. However, he also excelled in creating sublime classical works in the style of the academicians.
Dali proves that artists and their work often defy categorization, and demand to be taken on their own terms. Without doubt, a painting such as Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano is grotesque. Yet can the artist who created Christ of St. John of the Cross be placed in the genre of the grotesque?
In addition, it is necessary to keep in mind that the borders of "the grotesque" are poorly defined. What is demonic today may be angelic tomorrow, and vice versa.
Dali's unique achievement was that of depicting the impossible with an "imperialist fury of precision." He alone was capable of rendering the grotesque imagery of the paranoiac mind in an objectivist, realistic manner. In so doing, he added to the fine tradition of Bosch and Böcklin, and paved the way for future visionaries who truly wish to explore the inner landscape. True, that realm is inhabited by lions who emit "cavernous roarings of form." However, the treasure they guard is priceless -- it is truth itself.
(1) Dali, Salvador, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Dial Press, New York, 1942, p. 357.
(2) Dali, Salvador, "The Object as Revealed in Surrealist Experiment,"1932. Reprinted in Surrealists on Art, edited by Lucy Lippard. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970, p. 95.
(3) Dali, The Secret Life, p. 303.
(4) Dali, Salvador, "The Conquest of the Irrational," 1936. Reprinted in Salvador Dali: A Panorama of His Art, edited by A. Reynolds Morse. Salvador Dali Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, 1974, p. 49.
(5) Ibid., p. 49.
(6) Dali, Salvador, "The Stinking Ass," 1930. Excerpted from his book La Femme Visible, and reprinted in Lippard, Surrealists on Art, p. 97.
(7) Ibid., p. 98.
(8) Ibid., p. 98.
(9) Ibid., p. 99.
ALEXANDRIAN, Sarane, Surrealist Art. Preager Publishers, New York, 1970. Translated by Gordon Clough.
DALI, Salvador, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Dial Press, New York, 1942. Translated by Haakon M. Chevalier.
GERARD, Max (ed.), Dali. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1968. Translated by Eleanor R. Morse.
LIPPARD, Lucy (ed.), Surrealists on Art. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970.
MORSE, A. Reynolds (ed.), Salvador Dali: A Panorama of His Art. Salvador Dali Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, 1974.