The Monstrous in Art

by Kristine Guzmán, general coordinator of MUSAC

Fantasy and reality become confounded in the Romanesque world, producing imaginative artistic forms. The bestiary that makes up the sculpture of this period — dominated by human, mythological, hybrid, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures — invades the walls of churches or cloisters to fulfill a pedagogical role, serving the indoctrinating purposes of the Church. They are not mere results of the imagination of their creators, devoid of meaning; they want to convey a message.

For much of the Middle Ages, the natural world was believed to be only an intermediate facade behind the transcendent reality of God. For this, art rejected the realistic representation of nature in favor of disproportionate, rigid figures, adapting to the architectural framework and observing symmetry and geometric logic regardless of the distortion of the carved shapes. Thus, the sculptures of this time were subjected to continuous mutations and hybridizations.

Man, created in the image and likeness of God according to the Genesis, becomes superior to the other species — the beasts — who are inferior beings and do not await salvation. For this reason, they frequently embodied negative values, representing sinners or the inhabitants of hell. The Bible was an inexhaustible source of inspiration: the sea beast Leviathan; the first beast with seven heads and ten horns, with the appearance of a leopard, bear paws and lion jaws; the second beast with two horns; the lobsters of Abadón; or the army of 200 million horsemen. The monsters in the figurative universe, with expressive gestures, thus embodied the devil, but also human vices or spiritual deformity, fulfilling a warning function:

"Remember the presence of hostile forces that lie in wait for man, set traps for him, obstruct his path, trying to divert him, preventing his progress towards salvation. In fact, it is convenient that the soul does not doze off in stillness: the cloister is not an inviolable haven. It must remain awake, mindful of the dangers, since the omnipotence of God collides with an opponent who resists him, Satan, the devil "(Georges Duby, 1993, 275).

The Androphagous Corbel with Lion from the Master Esteban"s workshop is a supporting cantilever element, on the underside of which there is a sculpted lion with prominent features and voluminous curly mane. His open eyes, framed by large eyelids and bulging eyebrows, watches the passers-by below, as he catches a naked man in his claws. Its location at the entrance of the Romanesque cathedral of Pamplona could be a reminder of the terrors of eternal damnation. It recalls the representations of infernal torments in the capitals of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, or the monstrous intertwined birds in the Basilica of San Isidoro de León, both by the same master, with their moralizing and instructive intention.

After the Romanesque, the monstrous appears in different forms of expression. One can speak of the aestheticization of violence, as an old procedure to incite the spectator"s piety or admiration. The monstrous, the violent and the terrible were embellished in Christian art in the images of the holy martyrs, subjected to different forms of torture before death. Humans disfigured, skinned, blinded, crucified ... turned into venerated icons. In the Baroque, heroes or heroines, overcoming physically superior opponents, were given brutal representations where the idea of beauty remained, even while representing horror. Judith slaying Holofernes or Delilah cutting Samson"s hair, in the dramatic chiaroscuro of the works of Caravaggio or Rembrandt, come to mind.

However, as of the 20th century, there is already “a generalized process of de-aesthetizicing violence related to the search for the shock effect on the public” (Gerard Vilar, 2012, 14). Displeasure, disdain or disgust, which were banned in art for so many centuries, began to form part of the expanded plastic representation beyond beauty.

Enrique Marty is one of those artists who has no qualms about showing the monstrous — what, according to his official definition, is classified as “abnormal” and manifests itself above all in the everyday and most familiar things. Marty shocks us and makes us uncomfortable when faced with characters and scenes that have lost their reassuring daily aspect in favor of the theatrical terrain of the grotesque and satire. The absurd, the tension and the buried anguish emerge in his work, to explore the sinister, those situations in which the familiar becomes strange, in the line of Freud"s unheimlich, contrary to the Heimlich that recalls the pleasant and the familiar.

The posters of Flaschengeist, the German"s Cottage advertise “the wonders and horrors” that are hidden in the booths of the typical fairs of yesteryears, recalling the circus full of deformed and creepy beings that Todd Browning presented in Freaks . The snake woman, the man with the seven heads or the girl with the nine legs, are representations of the abject, the strange, the different, that Marty uses to show the vulnerability of the human condition and confront us with our own predatory and self-destructive condition. Because the monstrous manifests itself in that thin line between the real and the fictitious, in the interpretation of "the normal" whose dark side wants to escape from reality.

The exaggerated, ugly and grotesque characters that Marty presents are far from the beasts that adorn Romanesque architecture, sculpted with geometric precision; but the expressive gestures in both works are provocative, even attractive. The contemporary world does not need symbols to remember its spiritual salvation, but it is not superfluous to use art as a mirror to reflect the monstrous in each one of us, which in the end, depends only on a change of views.

On the grotesque in the androphagous corbels of the Museum of Navarra

by Marta Arriola, Senior Museum Technician at the Museo de Navarra

If in Enrique Marty's work the familiar becomes strange, it could be said that, on the contrary, in the monumental sculpture of the Middle Ages, the strange becomes familiar. I try to put myself in the shoes of the people who lived in those centuries and who, in their frequent visits to the church, were received by impossible monsters, hybrid beings or fantastic characters; and I wonder at what moment they stopped looking at them with surprise, or with fear . Or if they ever did at all.

Everything points to yes, of course. The abundance of this iconographic type that we can define as "anthropophagous monster" in representations of the peninsular Romanesque is interpreted mainly from a moralizing sense. Presumably announced from the pulpit, the words of the sermon turned to stone and stunned those who saw in them the warning of the consequences of sin.

But, if we consider these images as a category of "the grotesque", we could imagine that in addition to fear, they could also cause fascination. The concept of the grotesque in art arose in Italy in the 15th century, when the ruins of Nero's Domus Aurea were discovered and, initially confused with grottos (grotte), gave name to the type of decoration found there, in which monsters abounded in fantastic wall paintings that did not conform to the rational and natural order of things. But long before Nero and also long after, in the history of humanity we can find a multitude of artistic manifestations that can be described as grotesque and that, on a recurring basis, present a reality that is distorted, invented, satirical, disfigured, bitter, burlesque, harrowing, demonic, denatured… ambiguous.

The B-side of our existence. Carved as in the corbels, in the lower part, as if it wanted to hide, but then arranged in such a way that it is enough to look up to be discovered. Because with the grotesque, with the non-normative, what happens is that sometimes we don't want to see it and yet we can't stop looking at it.

To further accentuate if possible, the multiplicity of interpretations and ways of perceiving these disturbing and suggestive works, the corbels were part of a complex and intellectualized scenography in which they coexisted with other “beautiful” elements that tried to assimilate them to the good in the same way that they wanted them to be associated with evil. They were silent spectators of a world of waste and virtues that they wanted to destroy, but also to protect. Because even the wicked, they say, have their little heart.

And this is the fascinating thing about art, that nothing can be taken as a fact or taken for granted. That since our origins we have expressed and communicated from beauty and from ugliness (who decides what is what?) and that often, those forms of expression, with all their different faces and edges are, as Aristotle said, to represent and not to like. And in that representation is where we put our most intimate desires, our fears and questions, our vindication or complacency. None of that has changed that much.

· Sister Works. Flaschengeist and Androphage corbel from Museo de Navarra (2020)





















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© pictures by MUSAC & Museo de Navarra