Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series: Art, Anthropology and Art History

From the Grotesque to Outsider Art: Where Does Art History Stop, and Anthropology Begin?

Tue 26 Oct, 2021

Grotesque figuration is a constantly recurring phenomenon in Western art. Because of their roots in ancient Greek Herms and Dionysian ritual, grotesques are intimately linked to both the origins of art and the frenzy that threatens to overturn civilization. In the early modern period they literally question and undermine artistic and aesthetic autonomy, because they offer what may be called a paratextual discourse of parerga in which the wild, the playful, the obscene and the threatening are acted out in grotesque figuration that is represented in a process of continuous transformation in the margins of ‘real’, autonomous art. By the late 18th century grotesques had lost much of their power to fascinate or terrify, to become the epitome of ornament in the sense of a parergon, without function or meaning except to frame and to decorate in the same way that earrings or pearl necklaces do.

In their lecture Caroline Van Eck and Stijn Bussels will use the grotesques designed by the Antwerp artist Cornelis Bos c.1550 to show that such art forms are very interesting to reflect on the relation between anthropology and art history. They enable us to question the Kantian doctrine of aesthetic autonomy, and to develop an anthropological model, in which grotesques, like other varieties of outsider art, are shown to function as apotropaic images, made to deal with the threats posed to a community by the exotic, the bestial or the supernatural.

Stijn Bussels is Lecturer of art and theatre history at the University of Leiden. There, he directs the ERC starting grant ‘Elevated Minds. The Sublime in the Public Arts in Seventeenth-Century Paris and Amsterdam’ (2013-2018). His publications include a monograph on sixteenth-century joyous entries, Rhetoric, Performance and Power (Amsterdam-New York, 2012) and a monograph on Roman theories on naturalism, vividness and divine power The Animated Image (Berlin and Leiden, 2012).

Caroline van Eck is Professor of Art and Architecture to 1800 at the University of Leiden. From 2006 to 2011 she directed the NWO/VICI program ‘Art, Agency and Living Presence’, in which anthropological and rhetorical approaches to the attribution of life to art works were combined. Recent publications include ‘Grotesque Figuration in Rubens’s Designs for the Pompa Introïtus Ferdinandi’, in: A. Knaap and M. Putnam (réd.), Rubens’ Pompa Introïtus Ferdinandi (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014); ‘Art Works that Refuse to Behave: Agency, Excess and Material Presence in Canova and Manet’, New Literary History, October 2015; and Art, Agency and Living Presence: From the Animated Image to the Excessive Object (Berlin and Leiden, 2015).

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