Warning: If you a) are easily offended, b) are a proper art historian, c) have a delicate constitution or d) are halfway through a bacon sandwich, this probably isn’t the article for you.

Since time immemorial, art has explored the darker, weirder and squelchier side of life. What probably began with a caveman daubing a massive penis on a rock face (who hasn’t?) has now become a circus of the grotesque, with celebrated artists vying to shock and disgust. But why? Why, for example, would someone shell out for one of Jonathan Payne’s writhing, bubonic “Fleshlette” sculptures instead of a nondescript, pretty landscape?

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A Payne “Fleshlette” – perfect for your nan’s mantlepiece

Blame the Romans. As a civilisation, ancient Rome has become a byword for jubilant blood-shedding and bacchanalian orgies. In perfect contrast to their refined marble statuary and colossal imperial edifices, Roman “naive” art revelled in the bizarre, cruel and playful. It was a world of vengeful gods, ferocious sea monsters, limbs being unceremoniously popped from their sockets and, best of all, flying penises.

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“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…”

Such items can, of course, be laughed off as “novelties” of little cultural value, but that’s utterly missing the point. They demonstrate an unfussy, unrestricted and unflinching approach to visual representation. Sex is a part of life and should, therefore, appear uncensored in a mosaic. The gods are real and should, therefore, appear on pottery. Lions tear people apart in the arena and should, therefore, appear in a wall relief.

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A typical Friday night in Newcastle

This artistic inhibition reached its climax in the Middle Ages. Most people still hold the view that “before the Renaissance, mainstream European art was largely flat, figurative and religious”. There is some truth to that, but it ignores the wealth of, often subversive, secular art – where the distinctively Medieval sense of humour is most clearly visible. It ignores the gargoyles and marginalia.

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Any requests?

Picture the scene: a room full of shivering monks methodically copying out huge texts by hand. One novice, bored to tears, decides to doodle in the margins to add a bit of “blue” and entertain his fellow Franciscans. Needless to say, the Church frowned upon such vulgarity. The 12th century abbot St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:

What profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvellous and deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men…

Well, Bernard, they serve a very important purpose. These rare acts of individualism offer a precious glimpse into the mindset of the people who created them. They tell us their hopes and fears – that they shared a very human fascination with the “monstrous” and “unclean”.

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Gargoyles at Notre Dame, Paris

Of course, no timeline of grotesque art would be complete without the godfather of “what the fuck?”, Hieronymus Bosch. Born around 1450 in the Netherlands, he is best known for his fantastically detailed, nightmarish depictions of hell. Bosch’s paintings are jam-packed with humanoid monstrosities, naked suffering and scatology. Their impact on an early modern audience, unspoilt by The Walking Dead or David Cronenberg’s body horror, would have been profound. If a giant man-eating birdfrog that makes you fart sparrows doesn’t keep you on the straight and narrow, nothing will.

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A tequila hangover

This interest became a powerful political tool in the buttoned-up, seemingly prudish 18th century. Widely circulated cartoons and engravings used “bad taste” to satirised public figures and social issues. The grotesque became a weapon. John Wilkes summed up this irreverent atmosphere in his Essay on Women in 1754:

Life can little more supply, than just a few good fucks and then we die.

The undisputed king of these sarky visual satirists was William Hogarth. His work, like Bosch’s or Pieter Bruegel’s, is instantly recognisable for its sheer detail and layers upon layers (upon layers) of meaning. Perhaps most famous are his Gin Lane and Beer Street prints, which depict the evils of drinking gin (known, to this day, as “mother’s ruin” in the UK) compared to the benefits of drinking beer.

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Coming soon to Channel 4…

The two works exemplify the moralisation of the macabre – showing the dangers of excess and iniquity. You can imagine bewigged, perfumed dandies swooning at the sight the cackling hag, the skeletal gin-drinker.

That brings us on to those lovable, cheeky Victorians. The 19th century was the period when the macabre became truly fashionable. From the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus to Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories to the media frenzy that surrounded the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel in 1888, grim tales punctured cosy drawing rooms around the country. Oh my.

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From the Police Gazette, 1888

The grotesque became almost festishised, approached with previously unknown reverence. It truly entered the mainstream, with almost everyone poring over the both real and imaginary darker side of life. As Jonathan Auxier said:

The Victorian era was perhaps the last point in Western history when magic and science were allowed to coexist.

That changed irrevocably in the 20th century. There was no more magic. The century’s early generations of artists lived through such unimaginable horrors during the First and Second World Wars that anything macabre was imbued with a deeper meaning. It was no longer funny or playful, but very real and on the doorstep. The abstract humans and animals of Picasso’s Guernica (a response to the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937) are Bosch reimagined. The mother holding her dead child. The bull leering. The trampled, deconstructed figure at the bottom. The flash of the lightbulb sun. The scene is one of sheer panic and despair.

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Detail from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

It was also the period that spawned so-called “shock art”, which still dominates the bad-taste scene to this day. This is, smugly, defined as a way of “shocking smug, complacent and hypocritical people” and takes in many, many mediums. One memorable example was when, in 2007, British street artist Mark McGowan ate a corgi in London to protest against fox hunting by Prince Philip. Another is Gottfried Hellwein’s Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi), which replaces baby Jesus with Adolf Hitler. Yet another is the bizarre work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, known for their use of small Nazi figurine-populated hellscapes and lambasting of contemporary themes.

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In Our Dreams We Have Seen Another World by Jake and Dinos Chapman

So have we come full circle? No. Have we learnt much over two thousand years of art history? Not really. Will the grotesque always shock and will people always want to hang macabre art on their walls? Yes. Was that a satisfying conclusion? Let me know in the comments section.


Want to know more about horror? Here’s James Arnold’s deconstruction of the genre on the silver screen.

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