Beautiful Monsters: Look Away if You Can

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods (left side) [c. 1485‑88], engraving on laid paper, 28 x 42.7 cm. NGC

They are often the “misshapen pearls” of society, folklore and fancy. They warn of doom, Hell and lost souls. As much as they terrify or repel, however, we cannot look away from these beautiful monsters.

“I went back to the original meaning of ‘baroque’, which refers to misshapen pearls. That led me to thinking about other deformed objects,” says Sonia Del Re, curator of Beautiful Monsters: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures in Early European Prints. The exhibition opened at the Art Gallery of Alberta in October, and is on loan from the National Gallery until March 3, 2013.

“I realized that the National Gallery has numerous representations of fantastical creatures, whether they are mythological or part of apocalyptic narratives. That’s how it all started.”

The exhibition brings together approximately 50 European prints from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all drawn from the National Gallery’s collection of etchings, engravings and woodcuts. The creatures, beasts and human forms range from handsome to hideous, real to fictitious, strange to surprising.

Del Re also delved into the Latin root of the word “monster” for inspiration and insight. “It’s from the Latin verb monstro, which means to show itself. I thought that was interesting, because it suggests that something bad is about to happen. So it’s not only about legends and things that exist in our minds alone, but also about reality, the world in which we live, and how we conceive of that world.”

The exhibition is divided into five themes: religious chimeras, mythological creatures, sea monsters, war horses and decorative motifs.

“A few of these prints feature designs for tableware: motifs that would be engraved on everyday objects,” she says. “Other prints were collected by the upper classes. The Albrecht Dürer prints, for example, were not all accessible to everyday folks. It depends on the function of the object.”

The themes and images are frequently violent, yet are beautifully rendered with the utmost skill. “The ‘beautiful' in the exhibition’s title is partly about the aesthetic experience of looking at these master prints. It is also about the artists demonstrating their ‘bravura’ and showing their talent, showcasing not only their imaginative power but also their technical prowess,” says Del Re. “They’re producing these often disgusting, vile figures, yet they do it in a beautiful way.”

Del Re says that some prints, such as Andrea Mantegna’s famous Battle of the Sea Gods, depict mythological or allegorical themes. Others, like The Whore of Babylon by Dürer have a more moralistic message. Regardless of the theme, tone or meaning, however, we find it hard to look away.

“It’s that push-pull relationship we have with the Other, with the unknown, that is the true subject of this show” adds Del Re. “Monsters embody certain anxieties and tensions. That’s why we’re fascinated by them.”

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