VISUAL ARTS : Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder

It's kooky, it's spooky and it inspired surrealism. Iain Gale on `The Grotesque' at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

The audience are in stitches. The weirdo with the goggle eyes and the spiky hair has just put a trumpet to his arse and farted. But the couple on the receiving end haven't noticed. They only have eyes for each other. Which is just as well: he's got a face like a goat and she's no beauty. It's not a scene from some puerile TV sitcom, but a print by Arent van Bolten dating from the 1630s and included in a fascinating exhibition, recently opened in Manchester.

"The Grotesque" explores the history of an art form over three hundred years. These decorative, ornamental prints, populated by half-men, half- beasts, were, we are told in the catalogue, inspired by Ancient Roman wall paintings discovered in the 16th century. They were sold "not to collectors but to fellow artists... who plundered them for ideas". But in the 19th century the "great tradition of the grotesque fell into neglect". However, "through surrealism, grotesques have continued to exert their fascination".

While this may be the literal history of an art form, it is not the full story. The grotesque is much more than the "unnatural or unorderly composition for delight's sake" suggested by Henry Peacham in 1602. It is a vital part of a tradition that traverses European art from the middle ages to the present.

Look for instance at Goya's images of witches farting in his 1799 series of "Capprichos". These were hardly made for "delight's sake", yet in essence they differ little from Van Bolten's vulgarities. Both capture the eye with ribaldry, but both too derive from a deeper purpose, first manifested in the "babooneries" that decorate the margins of 13th-century manuscripts. If the plant forms of the grotesque were inspired by Roman wall paintings, the creatures that inhabit them are entirely the creations of the same northern European Gothic imagination that gave us the gargoyle and Bosch's great anti-altarpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights. While Christ might inhabit centre stage, there were always, in the wings, lesser beings: the ugly peasant and the hideous, deformed mistake of real life. Such figures provided a necessary leavening of the magisterial, and similar creatures inhabit the borders of the 18th-century Gobelins, tapestries whose primary focus is that earthly demigod Louis XIV. Many of the creatures on show in Manchester might have come straight from Bosch, who had discovered two essential surrealist commonplaces: that "ugliness" is closer to truth than "beauty" and that there is no such thing as the everyday. Everything is extraordinary; the concept of "normality" a mere invention of man to explain the chaos that is reality.

A similar view was held by Odilon Redon, whose fearful mutations are currently on view at the Royal Academy. In contemporary art, evidence of a similar motive might be seen in the work of artists as diverse as Helen Chadwick, Maggi Hambling and Gilbert & George.

But, although this interesting show acknowledges the surrealist connection and that of contemporary science-fiction, and nods to the tangibly horrific possibilities of modern genetic engineering, it is a missed opportunity. A modest display, it sadly fails to consider the essential raison d'tre of its subject. Given a little more thought (and a little more funding) it just might have opened the eyes of the viewer to one of the most important, enduring, fundamental impulses in Western art: the need to confront our darkest, secret fears.

n Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Rd, Manchester (061-273 4865), to 8 April then touring

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