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Wolfgang Kayser

By medium: academic - grotesque

"By the word grottesco the Renaissance, which used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one, a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.

This second, more threatening form of the grotesque seems to have taken shape during the sixteenth century, and although, as Ruskin asserts, the grotesque has often assumed playful forms during the past two centuries, the more common, darker kind has commanded most attention in art, literature, and criticism. In varying degrees all the sages emphasize that certain monstrous quality of the grotesque "constituted by the fusion of different realms as well as by a definite lack of proportion and organization" --Wolfgang Kayser, 1957, page 24

The grotesque is a structure. Its nature could be summed up in a phrase that has repeatedly suggested itself to us: THE GROTESQUE IS THE ESTRANGED WORLD. But some additional explanation is required. For viewed from the outside, the world of the fairy tale could also be regarded as strange and alien. Yet its world is not estranged, that is to say, the elements in it which are familiar and natural to us do not suddenly turn out to be ominous. It is our world which has to be transformed. Suddenness and surprise are essential elements of the grotesque. In literature the grotesque appears in a scene or animated tableau. Its representations in the plastic arts, too, do not refer to a state of repose but to an action, a "pregnant moment", or at least -- in the case of Kafka -- a situation that is filled with ominous tension. In this way the kind of strangeness we have in mind is somewhat more closely defined. We are strongly affected and terrified because it is our world which ceases to be reliable, and we feel that we would be unable to live in this changed world. The grotesque instills fear of life rather than death. Structurally, it presupposes that the categories which apply to our world view become inapplicable." The various forms of the grotesque are the most obvious and pronounced contradictions of any kind of rationalism and any systematic use of thought --Wolfgang Kayser, 1957, page 185

The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957) - Wolfgang Kayser

The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957) - Wolfgang Kayser, Ulrich Weisstein (Translator) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

. . . For our contemporary artists decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world. Instead of columns they paint fluted stems with oddly shaped leaves and volutes, and instead of pediments arabesques; the same with candelabra and painted edifices, on the pediments of which grow dainty flowers unrolling out of robes and topped, without rhyme or reason, by little figures. The little stems, finally, support half-figures crowned by human or animal heads. Such things, however, never existed, do not now exist, and shall never come into being. . . .

For how can the stem of a flower support a roof, or a candelabrum bear pedimental sculpture? How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils? --Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, writing during the reign of Augustus (Quoted by Kayser, p. 20)

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