Where the Wild Things Are
Paul Andrew gets the shivers from NGV Curator Maria Zagala about horror, fantasy and the diabolical throughout art history.
Diabolical art in the age of reason could well be the alternative title for this very black and exquisite exhibition of witches, monsters, mephistoes, minotaurs, horny satyrs and devils. An extraordinary collection has seeped through from the dark labyrinths of the NGV’s hidden cache to rear it’s cornucopia of grotesque heads, bodies and genitalia during the recent shiny happy festive period like a welcome bolt of lightning from the Underworld.
“It is an antidote to Christmas”, cackles good curator Maria Zagala. “ We wanted a thematic exhibition around death, monsters and ghouls. The NGV has a terrific collection of Durer, Blake and Goya - artists intrigued by these subjects from antiquity, it’s mythological gods and beasts ”, she explains.
Art History is laden with images of the “monstrous dark forces of nature that reside outside and within”. This must-see exhibition covers “500 years of art-making” - a rare chance to look at the plethora of historic images that mutate the human body into “half man, half woman, half whatever”.
“Whatever”, are strange startling hybrids. Mortal beings transposed with fawns, goats, satyrs, devils, goblins, wildmen, stone and every conceivable species from the animal world. Creatures of the night and humanity’s nightmares are cast on paper by artists including the decorous romantics like Delacroix and Fragonard, the teutonic angst of Klinger, the strange symbolists like Redon, the cubistic misogyny of Picasso to the monstrous feminine by oz contemporary Sharon Goodwin.
Comprising over 200 works, including intricate engravings from the Fifteenth century by Albrecht Durer. “Images produced at a time when print media and the information society as we know it today was nascent. Durer produced these works on paper and sold them at markets, largely to an illiterate population. These were imagemakers who started to make sense of troubled times, Christian fears and social querulousness."
“Artists like Durer we working at a time when the great digs and excavations in Greece and Italy emerged to reveal classical friezes and architecture. Europe was agasp with all this new information being unearthed - especially the satyrs of antiquity, the half men, half goats. Hairy, hoofed, horned beings often portrayed with erect genitalia- it was an image that informed modern day depictions of the devil."
“Renaissance artists like Montegna used classical references - like satyrs - to create personifications of violence. While Fragonard an artist from France saw them very differently as an instinctive and erotic creature at complete harmony with nature and a gentle family man with young kids. Picasso saw them as Minotaur-like, a cerebral creature appreciative of beauty who admired sleeping nymphs.”
William Blake was a leading exponent of British romanticism, an art movement that grew in opposition to the age of reason. He looked to the occult, eastern philosophy, the metaphysical, the irrational and the supernatural. “We acquired our collection of Blake’s in 1918 and critic at the Argus (The Age, of the time) was confounded by these works and called them grotesque. Art critics of that day thought he wasn’t a very good artist, that he couldn’t draw the body and that sensitive children shouldn’t gaze upon them”, the curator explains. “Today we have people, artists and students coming from all around the world to see his works at the NGV”.
Dark contemporaries, the Chapman brothers create sinister images much like children doodling, “they work by chance, one brother draws something, it is passed to the other brother with the work in progress remaining secret- so on and so on, when it’s completed a startling image is revealed”. These are provocative images that contain disturbing sexually charged representations of children with bodies transformed and mutilated. “The Chapman’s are inspired by Goya an artist very intrigued by fantasy and the irrational too."
Grotesque is where the wild things are this Festive season.
Albrechet Dürer, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Jean- Honoré Fragonard, William Blake, Eugène Delacriox, Max Klinger, Pablo Picasso, Paula Rego, Peter Booth and the Chapman Brothers are among the artists represented is the NGV’s new exhibition, Grotesque: The Diabolical and Fantastic in Art.
18 December 2004–08 May 2005
Grotesque: the Diabolical in Art
St Kilda Road
Until May 8.