Matthias Grünewald(1470 — 1528)

When the remains of the Domus Aurea (Golden House) of the ancient emperor Nero were discovered under the Esquiline hill in Rome, artists including Raphael lowered themselves down on ropes into its subterranean painted galleries. The Renaissance frescoes this opulent palace inspired – all fantastical foliage, masks and satyrs – was called “grotesque” from grotto (cave) because the underground corridors were like caverns.

The strange ornamental designs that were found there ‘featured elaborate fantasies with symmetrical anatomical impossibilities, small beasts, stylised human heads, and delicately-traced, indeterminate foliage all merged into one unified decorative whole.’ Pliny, in his Natural History, recorded the principal artist’s name: Fabullus; recounting how the painter went ‘for only a few hours each day to the “Golden House” to work while the light was right…

By the turn of the sixteenth century, some artists had begun to incorporate elements of grotesque decoration into their own, contemporary works.


Perugino’s ceiling of the Cambio in Perugia (about 1500)

Grotesques of Palazzo Vecchio:

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Arent van Bolten (1573-1633):

Arent van Bolten(1573-1633).

Arent van Bolten(1573-1633).

Heinrich Aldegrever (1501-1502 – 1555-61)Heinrich Aldegrever (1501-1502 - 1555-61) Ornament

Joris  Hoefnagel (1542 — 1601):

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Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous paintings of ‘composed heads’ date from the late 1560s.


Winter from Arcimboldo’s seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn)

Daniel Heumann (1720-174):Daniel Heumann-1720-1740

Francis Bacon  (1909 — 1952) engaged in what he called a “pitiless analysis” of his subjects, objectifying them in order to find new methods of description. Nonetheless, any meaning in the work was always tied to his search for a beauty within formalism. In this way his images of violence and death were never politicized. He was no Picasso or Goya. Instead, they were existential.

It didn’t matter much to him if people liked his work anyway. If they didn’t, he knew he was doing something right. (From How Creatives Work)

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Some call him 20th century Bosch. But Bacon wasn’t Bosch either.

Hieronymus Bosch was a moralist and didn’t believe in showing things as they appeared. His fantastical imagery earned him the nickname ‘the creator of devils’. Grotesque devils that is.Bosch

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Michael Hutter makes (and generously shares) his re-imagining of searing Bosch-like art. Yet another non-Bosch. And non-Bruegel, and non-Grunewald.

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And then there is Jonathan Payne  and his Fleshlettes — utterly disgusting creations made of materials like super sculpey, polymer clay, acrylic, and… human hair:

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[…] images like Payne’s come from a place “underground”, from an ugly malformed part of the imagination. The grotesque in modern art was heightened by the real-life horrors of the first world war. It is at the heart of dada and surrealism. The most grotesque images in 20th-century art include Picasso’s bullfights, Dali’s self-cannibalising creatures, Hans Bellmer’s mutilated dolls, and Francis Bacon’s tragic anatomies.

… The horrors that painters saw 500 years ago are just as disconcerting as anything today’s artists create. When we look into the dark, the monsters are always the same. (The Guardian. Shock horror: why art’s so obsessed with the grotesque.)


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