When Adam Cullen was a child, he visited the Prado Museum in Spain with his parents. Of all the masterpieces in their collection, he found himself transfixed most by Goya’s infamous ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ (1819–1823), a grotesque and disturbing painting of the Roman God cannibalising his own child. Cullen sat before it for an hour, overcome with emotion. Reflecting upon this years later, the grotesque then a core impulse in his own work, he remarked “It’s incredible how uplifting and inspiring artworks can be, even if they’re repulsive, demonic or black – they still inspire you.”

Why do museums take monsters so seriously? In art, the grotesque holds a slippery yet compelling status. Excesses of form, unnatural combinations of body parts and monstrous creatures have appeared in serious art since 1500 as expressions of religious beliefs, cultural anxieties and psychological insights. The grotesque can be at once uproarious and threatening, irrational and revealing, defined by a fluidity that disquietens because it resists categorisation. Like a fly in a spider’s web, we’re hopelessly pinned by its gaze.

For feminist artists, the grotesque reveals how women are perceived by society, their bodies simultaneously seen as a threat and object of desire. In his work, Cullen uses the grotesque to express the subconscious of Australian culture – intestines entwine with the corporate ladder, men fuse with bulldogs. George Gittoes too employed the grotesque to communicate the cruelty of humans in times of conflict. Like all monsters, the grotesque frightens because it reveals a harsh truth in its viewer. As art historian Francis S. Connelly has remarked, this truth is terribly – and freeingly – human: 

“Life is constant change; we’re eating the world, the world eats us. We’re all mortal… We’re all meat”.