Grotesque – bizarre art with harmless humor

Old grotesque caricature
Old caricature

The grotesque in visual arts (from the Italian grottesco – “whimsical”) is a kind of pictorial or sculptural decor, which is characterized by a combination of real and fictional, beautiful and ugly, as well as comic and tragic images. Grotesque is a peculiar style in art and literature that distorts generally accepted norms and is filled with harmless soft humor.

Thomas Tyndall Wildridge. Engraving. 1890s.
Thomas Tyndall Wildridge. Grotesque. Engraving. 1890s.

Features of the grotesque

Grotesque is the art of unexpected contrasts and inconsistencies. According to historians, initially, the need to create ugly images was explained by purely practical considerations. The artist did not have enough space on a small section of the wall to make the correct drawing. Fantasy came to the rescue: human forms were closely intertwined with animals, plant elements with mythological ones. This is how bizarre hybrid images appeared.

Grotesque architecture has never been the main style of interior decoration. On the contrary, it has always been used for auxiliary purposes, to fill small spaces around the frames of architectural structures or as an original ornament around the main plot of a painting.

Whimsical images on the walls of buildings make different impressions on people. Grotesques can be liked or cause feelings of disgust, pity or discomfort, but they invariably attract attention with their unusual form and content.

Michelangelo. sketches. 35x25. 1530.
Michelangelo. Grotesque sketches. 35×25. 1530.


The history of the grotesque originates in ancient culture. A few unique examples of bizarre murals of the houses of the nobility of Ancient Rome, discovered during archaeological excavations, have survived to this day.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the art of grotesque was lost for a thousand years. Only in 1481 a group of Italian artists invited by Pope Sixtus IV to paint temples in the Vatican accidentally discovered the ruins of the palace of the Roman emperor Nero during the construction of the church. On some sections of the walls, bizarre ornaments have been preserved that aroused keen interest among artists.

The found grotesques inspired many prominent Renaissance masters to create original frescoes with elements of hybrid artistic images.

Grotesque painting on the ceiling. 1600s
Painting on the ceiling. 1600s

In particular, they did this:

  • Domenico Ghirlandaio;
  • Pinturicchio;
  • Pietro Perugino

At the beginning of the 16th century, the genius Raffaello Santi used grotesque motifs in the painting of the Vatican galleries together with his students. A little later, the Florentine masters learned how to make tapestries, and then the famous ceramic majolica with bizarre original ornaments.

Grotesque, Ceramic bottle with grotesque decoration. End of the 16th century
Ceramic bottle with grotesque decoration. End of the 16th century
Until the end of the 16th century, the scope of the grotesque spread to other types of art:
  • engravings;
  • inlay;
  • book illustrations;
  • pottery.

The grotesque had a particular influence on literature. In it, over time, he took shape as a separate genre.

Grotesque, A selection of grotesque paintings from the Renaissance. XV-XVII centuries
A selection of grotesque paintings from the Renaissance. XV-XVII centuries
Examples of world famous literary works in this manner include:
  1. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift;
  2. “Little Zaches” by Ernst Hoffmann;
  3. Notre Dame Cathedral by Victor Hugo;
  4. “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol;
  5. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaton Leroux;
  6. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein;
  7. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

In painting and architecture, grotesque did not lose its popularity over several eras (mannerism, baroque, rococo, romanticism), until the middle of the 19th century. And in the twentieth century, bizarre motifs in works of fine art clearly manifested themselves in surrealism and expressionism.

The beginning of the twentieth century was also marked by the emergence of the Theater of the Grotesque, which 50 years later found a new life in the form of the Theater of the Absurd. And at the end of the last century, grotesque artistic images were firmly entrenched in modern cinema and pop culture.

Nowadays, the grotesque in painting and architecture is rarely used by artists. But no one prevents connoisseurs of art from enjoying the peculiar beauty of the unique works of masters of bygone eras.

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