Chaos and anti-structure in European grotesque ornaments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

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The chimerical nature of grotesque ornaments of the Renaissance and Mannerist periods is investigated here with respect to the way in which the boundaries that normally separate the human, animal, and plant categories are transgressed and dissolved. A cross-cultural discussion of chimerical monsters and related concepts in myth and ritual is used as a starting point. It is demonstrated that monsters such as the dragon, the rainbow snake and the ourobóros, as well as the Mediaeval carnival and similar rites of inversion, share an underlying structure with certain creation myths en analogous rites. The ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, Mircea Eliade, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Victor Turner and Friedrich Nietzsche are used to elucidate the matter.

The visual analysis of several art objects from these periods is supported by a literature survey which discusses, among other things, several art-historical approaches to the subject. For reasons relating to the history of art-historical writing and related fields in the humanities, a wider approach is taken to make sense of the above phenomenon of anti-structure, the dissolution of boundaries. The issue of universals in art history, as presented by Heinrich Wölfflin and others, and their subsequent refutation is discussed, along with a brief historical survey of the history of this issue in the humanities, culminating in the radical refutation of universals by poststructuralist researchers. This is necessary to clarify the approach taken by this article. Related to this history is a general antipathy towards evolutionary approaches to the human sciences, which has started to wane only in the past few decades. Theories of human cognitive evolution, particularly relating to mimetic communication and its impact on human thought and perception, are used here to deal with the issue of universals and apparent universals in the cultural material under discussion. The approach taken here is a layered one that combines various disciplines to encompass the immediate historical and cultural context of the art works as well as wider cultural patterns.

An analysis of the art works reveals a strong visual relationship between the chimerical creatures and water, both in iconographic and in formal terms. This is discussed in relation to the European carnival and rites that represent a ritual return to a state of primordial chaos, flux, and wholeness. Water plays a prominent role in many of these concepts of primordial chaos. Lévi-Strauss demonstrated at length that a mythic progression from the category of the continuous to that of the discrete is fundamental to the mythic thought of indigenous cultures of the Americas. This principle can also be found further afield, particularly as the structuring principle of creation myths. Eliade argued that in numerous rites in various parts of the world a ritual return to primordial wholeness (the continuous) and chaos is undertaken by celebrants in order to perform the cosmogony in illo tempore. Victor Turner, building on the ideas of Arnold van Gennep, showed that rites of passage, for example ones in which boys are “recreated” as men, there is always a liminal intermediate phase that entails a return to such a chaotic liminal state. In certain rites of cosmic renewal described by Eliade, and similar rites of inversion, as well as the liminal phase in Turner’s rites of passage, the boundaries of normative social behaviour are deliberately transgressed, violated, and inverted so that human society, with its discrete structuring categories and boundaries, is temporarily dissolved, and the human world regresses to a state of primordial chaos and flux. Bakhtin points out that the transgression of boundaries in Renaissance grotesque ornamentation is analogous to the transgression of boundaries in the European carnival. This observation is developed here by focusing specifically on the one aspect of carnival that he almost totally ignores – the Dionysian element. Nietzsche’s explanation of Dionysian ecstasy in Classical Greek culture as a state in which Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis is dissolved in a similar regression to a state of primordial chaos and wholeness is discussed in light of the above and used to cast light on the aesthetic enjoyment or perception of these grotesque ornaments.

This discussion is then placed within a Renaissance and Mannerist cultural context. The appeal of the monstrous, the irrational and the grotesque is seen in relation to the prevailing Renaissance cultural bias towards reason, order and harmony as reflected in paintings, architecture and other arts forms. In a discussion of a famous ornamental piece by Wenzel Jamnitzer it is shown that the dissolution of boundaries entails not only those that exist between the different kingdoms of nature to produce chimerical creatures, but also those that exist between the sexes – as also occurs in the carnival and other rites of inversion. Two grotesque vases by Adam van Vianen in the auricular style that formed a transition between Late Mannerism and the Baroque during the early 17th century show how the grotesque is no longer confined to the iconography of the works, but is applied as a formal principle as well, so that the whole piece becomes a continuous flowing form in which there are no clear or definite boundaries between the various creatures and things depicted. Everything dissolves into a single visual whole.

In conclusion it is shown how the progression from structure to anti-structure, as discussed above, can be used fruitfully to analyse grotesque ornaments in terms of several widely divergent approaches. For example, the arguments of those that present it as sheer artistic freedom or sophisticated entertainment can be developed further in terms of Nietzsche’s concept of Dionysian ecstasy: The average Renaissance courtier’s extraordinary need for entertainment and diversion, along with his need to escape from a perhaps overly rationalistic culture into a world of fantasy and irrationality, is satisfied by the aesthetic delight, analogous to Dionysian ecstasy in its dependence on the dissolution of formal and normative boundaries, provided by these grotesque ornaments. By the same token, arguments for the destabilising and innovative role of grotesque ornaments during these periods in order to challenge existing hierarchies and norms can be enriched by showing that the progression from structure to anti-structure that underlies these ornaments is also fundamental to rites of inversion that temporarily overthrow or invert such hierarchies and norms.

Keywords: anti-structure; carnival; chimera; grotesque; ornaments; Renaissance


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Chaos en teenstruktuur in Europese groteske ornamente van die 16de en 17de eeue

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