Halloween: The Art of the Grotesque

By Amina Cassis, class of ’23

Mariano Rodríguez (Havana, Cuba, August 24, 1912 -1990) Mozambique, 1965, Oil on canvas, 35 ✕ 30. Col. Fundación Mariano Rodríguez.

From cubism to abstract expressionism, many different art styles influenced Cuban artist Mariano Rodríguez as he traveled widely in his lifetime. Unfortunately, however, here in the United States, our exposure to his work has been limited due to challenging political relations with Cuba. Luckily, for those who would like the opportunity to view his artwork, our current exhibition at the McMullen Mariano: Variations on a Theme | Variaciones sobre un tema, features many of his impressive paintings and drawings.

In honor and keeping with the Halloween season, it seems fitting to consider his Baroque Grotesque work from the 1960s. His painting “Mozambique” is typical of this style; it invokes a sense of mystery, darkness, and strangeness. The grotesque art form often involves the mixing of animal, human, and plant forms. The subject in this painting appears half-human and half-animal (dog? fox?). The creature’s facial expression is one of intensity and intelligence. We can see the human images of a face and hand behind the orange creature. The vivid Halloween orange is juxtaposed with the somber charcoal background, which grounds and locks in our attention. The creature is not frightening but somewhat mysterious and fantastic. Great art is meant to invoke a human response, and with this painting, our response and interpretation are highly personal. This painting easily grabs the viewers’ attention, and one’s reaction is influenced by his or her own imagination and sensibilities.

Francis Bacon (Dublin, Ireland, October 28, 1909 – Madrid, Spain, 1992) Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, oil paint and pastel on Sundeala fiberboard, 94 × 74 cm each. Tate Britain, London.

Artist Francis Bacon may have been a contemporary artist who influenced Mariano’s grotesque period. One work in particular by Bacon, the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, embodies the grotesque art form. He created this painting in 1944, following one of the most devastating years during WWII. He painted a horrific triptych of anthropomorphic, disembodied, faceless creatures writhing in agony. Bacon’s images go beyond the historical and religious significance of the Crucifixion; his images symbolize extreme universal human suffering. He evokes images of the brutality of the slaughterhouse and death. We can see slabs of meat in the left panel and the butchered carcass of an animal in the right panel. The bloody man in the center panel further depicts the inevitability of death. Bacon’s work is dark, disturbing, and filled with despair. The grotesque art form presents freakish images that often disgust, frighten, and confuse us. We can’t relate what we see to standards of normalcy. However off-putting a painting is visually, many are still drawn to it, perhaps because of the visceral emotion it evokes. We all struggle with the concept of beauty and perfection. Grotesque art must appeal to that part of our psyche that recognizes the truth of human imperfection.

Pablo Picasso (Málaga, Spain, October 25, 1881 – Mougins, France, April 8, 1973) The Woman Weeping, 1937, 61 x 50 cm. Tate Modern, London.

Pablo Picasso also explored universal human suffering in his painting, The Woman Weeping. This painting is part of a series that expressed Picasso’s distress over the Spanish Civil War. The image evokes the Mater Dolorosa, the weeping Virgin, a traditional image in Spanish art, often represented by graphic presentations of tears and pain. His model for this painting was his mistress, and it symbolized the grief experienced by mothers and sisters following the death of loved ones in wartime. When asked about this painting, Picasso said, “women are suffering machines.” The fragmented features and the use of acid green and purple heighten the emotional intensity of the painting. It has become a visual representation of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of desire for peace.

Hieronymous Bosch (Duchy of Brabant, Burgundian Netherlands c. – 1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail from the center panel), 1503–1504, oil on oak panels, 205.5 × 384.9 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted by Hieronymous Bosch, is yet another triptych and example of the grotesque and fantastical. This series of painted oak panels represents a sequential narrative of man’s fall from grace. The left panel shows God presenting Eve to Adam in this initial state of innocence, surrounded by exotic and grotesque animals. The center panel depicts a panorama of male and female naked forms engaged in all types of lustful and creative sexual abandon. Fantastical creatures, real animals, and engorged fruits all take part in the carnal celebration. Finally, the right panel illustrates Hell as the ultimate punishment for man’s carnal sins. The setting is a dark night devoid of natural beauty. The figures are brutalized and tortured in retribution for their failings. 

James Ensor (Ostend, Belgium, April 1860 – 1949), Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man, 1891, oil on canvas 59 × 74 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Antwerp.

Finally, we can’t let Halloween go by without mentioning the artist James Ensor and his famous painting entitled Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man. He utilized the grotesque art form to depict two skeletons fighting over a dead body on the floor and the dead man hanging between them labeled ‘civet’ (hare stew). Ensor creates humor and the macabre by depicting the skeletons in masks and women’s clothing; their weapons are a broom and umbrella. The scene is twisted, full of aggressive imagery and sarcasm. Art critics offer two main interpretations of this work. Some say that the two skeletons represent the artist’s wife and mistress fighting over him. Other critics support the view that the skeletons represent his critics, and he is the powerless prize, and the people waiting in the wings are his divided fan base. Interpretations aside, the mood is dark and disillusioned and seems to comment on the absurdity of life. Ensor did not see ‘art’ as pretty decoration but rather as a means to explore the ugliness of the human condition. 

The grotesque presents the opportunity for artists to push the limits of what society deems acceptable by placing on display and exploring dark subject matters that make us uncomfortable. From different artists and vastly different periods, all these paintings are perfect accompaniments to the spirit, mystery, and spookiness of the Halloween season.

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