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The Surreal in Western Culture

Related: grotesque - Domus aurea

Saturday, August 31, 1996, page 8

The Surreal in Western Culture

Lighthearted Fantasy Becomes Simply Grotesque

By Souren MelikianInternational Herald Tribune
LONDON - The modest print show was to be a midsummer art dream devised as an entertainment in a puckish mood. But rarely did such a lighthearted undertaking cast a bigger bombshell than ''The Grotesque: Ornamental Prints from the British Museum'' on view at the museum until Sept. 15.

In effect, it puts together for the first time graphic evidence of the early roots of the art of the surreal in Western culture.

Forget about Salvador Dali, Giorgio De Chirico, et a1. Composite creatures? Humans made up from cubes and spheres? The Renaissance had all that, and more.

The starting point of the show (and the excuse for its title, ''The Grotesque'') is the art of decorative patterns full of volutes, ribbons, masks and the rest, produced in the form of engravings or etchings from the 1530s to the mid-18th century.

Antony Griffiths, keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings, says that the fashion followed the discovery of the remains of Nero's palace, ''The Golden House'' (''Domus Aurea'') ensconced in a cave, some time in the 1480s.

The sight of the wall paintings and their abstract or semifigural motifs painted by the Ancient Roman artist called Fabullus, shortly after A.D. 64, caused a sensation.

Borrowed patterns first appeared in the painting of Pinturicchio and the frescoes of Filippino Lippi. When Pope Leo X commissioned Ra-phael to decorate the Loggie in the Vatican in 1518-1519, the painter working under his direction borrowed patterns from Nero's ''grotto.'' After that, the art of the ''grotesque'' took off like fire.

Artists all over Europe were keen to know what others were doing, particularly in Italy. Agostino Veneziano, who worked in Raphael's circle, was among the first, if not the first, to sense the potential demand for affordable patterns of the latest fashions.

In the early 1530s, he completed a set of 20 engravings based partly on the Loggie patterns and partly on their original source, the ''grotesques'' in Nero's palace.

Seen with a modern eye, the result is tame, not to say stale. In a typical plate, ribbons pass through a device suggestive of a lamp shade. A couple of tritons crawl on the sides, their foliate tails raised, with a peevish frown in their eyes. It is very mildly amusing.


THE grotesque could have sunk in a quagmire of graphic pedantry for the literati. Fortunately, an artist whose name remains unknown took it in a different direction around the same time. His set of 20 plates published in Rome was quickly adapted in 1541 by Enea Vico and recast in 1550 by the Paris engraver Jacques Androuet Ducerceau, first in a suite of 50 etchings in 1550 and se-condly in an expanded version of 62 etchings in 1562.

Linear and spindly, full of endless volutes inhabited by tiny beings, from chubby little winged fellows (putti) to goat-legged satyrs with grinning oldish faces, the compositions conjure up a world of mild fantasy that captured the imagination of the French.

They reprinted Androuet Ducerceau's set right into the 18th century, allowing its motifs to creep into every form of decorative art, wallpaper, textiles, paneling, marquetry - its distant influence can still be recognized in the Louis XVI creations and their Adamesque counterparts in Britain.

But this was the mere froth of the art of the surreal. More subversive currents were at work, in which Flanders played a key role. In 1555 an artist called Cornelis Floris designed 18 sheets with human faces made up from vegetal elements, some highly stylized, others still recognizable as leaves and fruits, which were engraved by Frans Huys in Antwerp.

The Flemish port was the city from which fashions were spreading across Eu-rope, to Germany, France, Italy, and in 1560, an Italian artist known only through the initials of his signature, ''IHS,'' interpreted the whole set with ghoulish relish, calling it the ''Libro di Varie Mascare'' (The Book of Various Grotesque Masks). It left a profound impression on Northern Italy.

In Genoa, Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted mad portraits in which the busts and heads are made of turnips, carrots, fruits and every possible contribution from the vegetal reign.

The art of the absurd with its logical links born of a nightmare was now entrenched. It was a genre of its own, unrelated to the original grotesque as such, partly inspired by the speculations of every kind, scientific, philosophical, that preoccupied the Renaissance mind. Luca Cambiaso, not represented in the show, perceived the human figure as an accumulation of geometrical figures, and executed hundreds of drawings, many of them popularized through engravings.

He had a successor of sorts in Baroque Italy: Giovanni Battista Bracelli, an elusive character active in Florence, Rome and Naples, between 1624 and 1649. He was in Florence in 1624 when he dedicated to the Medici 32 plates gathered under the title ''Bizzarie di varie figure.'' Bizarre, they undoubtedly are.

In one sheet, a spindly figure is made up from cubes and rods, like some robot stepping from outer space. In another, a walking silhouette is constructed from superposed rings set around wires that they do not touch. This is De Chirico plus Cesar in the year A.D. 1624.

But compared with the etchings from Christoph Jamnitzer's ''Neuw Grottesken Buch'' printed in Nuremberg in 1610, Bracelli's work looks timid. In a typical Jamnitzer plate, a figure with the head of a wolf, a neck suggestive of a python, wings that could be serrated leaves, and legs reminiscent of a goat struts in a landscape. The monster walks with a dancing step as it clutches a bone out of which there grows a trumpet.


THERE are 60 of those etchings, plus four pages of text full of self-derision - the artist compares his work, tongue-in-the-cheek, with the discovery of America by Columbus. But Jamnitzer's continent is that of fantasy running amok.

The 18th century was gentler, which is not to say unimaginative. Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin's butterflies dueling in some sort of scrolling gazebo engraved in the 1750s anticipates the best of Lewis Carroll.

On the other hand, much of this is already to be seen in the illuminated margins of medieval manuscripts and, later, in the painted visions of Hieronymus Bosch. But that is not in the show and the complete pageant of Surreal Art through the ages must be left to another, much bigger exhibition.

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