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Jan Bäcklund

Grotesque Forms and the Ideology of the Fantastic in Northern Renaissance Art

The hypothesis is that an essential part of the many grotesque forms and conglomerates of members is based on a method of 'writing with pictures'. With a starting point in an interpretation of the medieval marginal illuminations, the aim will be to suggest a radically new possibility in the interpretation of Bruegel's oeuvre. An interpretation, which, if it could be proved valid, would have a significant impact, not only on our understanding of Northern Gothic and Renaissance art and its many applications in tapestries and engravings, but on the general discussion of the word/image relation as well.

It is often stated in scholarly works on the iconography of Bosch and Bruegel that they both stem from the Flemish tradition of manuscript illumination. Since one of the few things we know of Bruegel's early life is that he in the 1550s worked with illumination of manuscripts in Giulio Clovio's studio, a connection between manuscript illumination and, in this case, Bruegel's panels is very probable. Scholars have usually searched after pictorial and stylistical ascendants in the manuscript, with a meager, if any, result. The problem is, I believe, that the possible results of a formal comparision and iconographical genealogy between manuscript illumination and Bruegel's panels are very limited indeed, as the technical and contextual differences are considerable. Instead I would assent to a more functional and structural method of comparision, i.e. in their respective applications of 'writing with pictures'.

My starting point for this hypothesis is unconventional: the French antiquarian and archeologist Grasset d'Orcet (d. 1900), wrote in the 1880s a series of essays on, mainly, Rabelais and Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) in the journal Revue britannique. In these essays he reconstructs a method of drawing - according to him the very art of drawing - which is said to have been common during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when this 'art' was a condition for being accepted as 'franc-ma'tre' in the guilds. This is not the place to discuss Grasset d'Orcet's argument, which by the way is worthless in a scholarly sense as he, in the spirit of his time, never acknowledges from where he has his information. This does not necessarily mean it is false, but the object for me must then be to examine independent sources and documents to test his argument. Most importantly the many books on 'L'art du blason' and Estienne Tabourot's Les Bigarrures du Seigneur des Accords (1583 & 1588).

Two circumstances motivate attention to Grasset d'Orcet's hypotheses. The first is that recent researches in the field of Gothic marginal manuscript illumination to some significant degree seem to corrobate his thesis. Scholarly research on Gothic marginal illumination is new. It commenced with Lilian R. Randall's Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts, from 1966, and Gombrich expresses clearly how these were looked upon earlier, when he characterises them as 'an irresponsible imagination on holiday'. Randall's work has since been continued by Michael Camille (especially Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art, from 1992, where he demonstrates a number of intricate relations between the text's discursive field and the contradictory logic of the grotesque in the margins. This relation is, according to Camille, founded on the Gothic mind's way of 'etymological thinking', i.e. if two words are phonetically identical or similar, their signification also cognate. This application of homonymies is well known in the case of Bruegel. A. Monballieu argued in an article from 1982, how apes (singes) for Bruegel and his time could be used to signify 'seigneurie'; and this phonetical method is the very core of Grasset d'Orcet's argument.

The second reason for considering Grasset d'Orcet's argument again is that his readings and interpretations of some of the woodcuts in the Hypnerotomachia appear as almost straight-forward descriptions of significant scenes in Bruegel's 'Battle between Carnival and Lent', a painting Grasset d'Orcet probably never saw in the original or in any copy, as he seems to be as unaware of Bruegel as the rest of the antiquarian community at this time. This coincident between two independent sources, the central scenes in Bruegel's painting and Grasset d'Orcet's reading of the Hypnerotomachia and Rabelais, could, in my view, prove to be a promising approach to the iconography of Bruegel's fantastic picture. I myself pursued this theme in an analysis of Bruegel's 'Battle between Carnival and Lent' (1559),* where I argue that the iconological program put forth there is a grotesque-comic tournament between the painters' and the masons' guilds. Grotesque, because it 'writes in pictures', comic, because this circular battle, could with reasonable probability, at the same time be seen as a document describing a common program for the artisans' guilds in the Renaissance: a program which seems to be orthodox Christian, but was, nevertheless founded on Pagan myths, and in which aesthetics aimed at 'developing a taste for the fantastic'.

*) 'The World, is it far from Heaven'' -'See for Yourself!' The Battle of Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and François Rabelais' 'Messir Gaster', Aarhus: Center for Cultural Research (Work in Progess 70-98), 1998. Forthcoming in: East & West: European Iconography (ed. György E. Szõnyi).

Updated 23 November 2000 by csc. Please mail comments to the webmaster at Centre for Cultural Research.