Museo Picasso Malaga

Asking the question: ‘What is the grotesque in art?’ has to be broken down into sub sections, and tackled with a wide range of visual answers. Curated by artistic director Jose Lebrero Stals with Luis Puelles as Academic advisor; this exhibition features work spanning six centuries. Considering the Italian origin of the word- ‘grottesco’, literally: ‘of a cave’ the entrance to the first room is appropriately low lit, with indirect light and caricatures from the renaissance (Hollar, da Udine & da Vinci), small anonymous busts and ugly ceramic heads from The Louvre, all working as a landmark, to allow a linguistic mapping of the rest of the exhibition. Noteworthy highlights include Pieter van der Heyden Seven Deadly Sins engravings (After Pieter Brueghel) (c.1525-1569) and invigilators imitating gothic shadows in their all-black uniform.

Emerging from the cave, eight of the Canonical Grimaces by Franz Xavier Messerschmidt (c.1777 – 1783) successfully lighten the mood a little, displaying the original comedy of the grotesque in literal and liminal light. The now open space is divided up into sub-sections of Modernism, but with ample tension to spotlight key points. One that tackles issues of memory and recollection are Perspex cabinets filled with Louise Bourgeois ephemera and small sculptures: confessional and totally lucid, especially with it sitting next to famous surrealist paintings which, on reflection have a certain insincerity and shallowness.

Unsurprisingly, Picasso’s Head of a Woman (1939) sneaks out of the permanent collection here and sits with other transformed women portraits like Untitled (1970), by Willem de Kooning as examples of the male deconstructing the female form, demonstrating the misogynistic grotesque. With these concentrated sections, the confrontation is instant, Francis Bacon’s Untitled (Seated Figure), (1984) that anxiously affirms itself through construction, nodding to Phillip Guston, who is perched around the corner.

A larger room downstairs shows more contemporary works such as Schutte and Baselitz, not artists necessarily infused with the idea of grotesque, but whose work in this context evokes a great empathy. Take the work of Bill Viola: beautiful, through using the canon of religious iconography, although in 6 Heads (2000), the plasma display has an instant response to exaggerated sketches from Hogarth’s grotesques. The sheer altarpiece style representation of the six heads show every wrinkle, wince and twitch how they would be shown as sketches on paper, one of the few video pieces in the exhibition, but does not feel at all out of place.

Through research, display and selection, the exhibition presents us with ideas of what constitutes, and has constituted the grotesque, and allows us to draw our lines in the sand, and make decisions on personal, aesthetic grounds. If we think back to The Good, The Bad & The Really Expensive at Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Curated by Johan Holten in 2010, similar open questions were raised to the public, but instead of something so complex as the grotesque, questions or relational taste were raised in regards to cost of the physical artwork. The Grotesque Factor creates questions, provides new lines of inquiry and expands the meaning of the word grotesque beyond the gothic, carved stone chimera.