June 12, 2015

Comical Dreams

        Les Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel (The Comical Dreams of Pantagruel) is a series of woodcuts of grotesques published in 1565 by Richard Breton and François Desprez.  As far as I can tell, this has no plot or story to it, but consists only of the pictures without explanation.  It also has little to do with Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantaguel, except, I suppose, in being an attempt to ride the coattails of that giant duo.  What it does most assuredly have in common with the work of Rabelais, however, is that it’s clearly intended satirically, and its humor is crude, often scatalogical, employing much absurdity and topsy-turvidom.  The figures include deformed humanoids, and also hybrids of humans, animals, and objects such as weapons, cooking utensils, musical instruments, and more.  They definitely share the vibe of Heironymus Bosch, whose paintings were roughly 50 years previous.
        In my opinion they’re neither great art nor great fantasy, but I thought I’d share them because they represent an interesting period in the history of fantasy when the chief object in making up things that no one believed was social satire, and the strategy was to exaggerate the impossibility to the crudest, most absurd possible extent, just to make sure no one could possibly misunderstand.  Fantasy is still often used to make a point about the way the world is, and the way it could be, for good or ill, although many authors nowadays are able to weave their social messages a little more subtly, leaving the reader space to consider issues for herself.  I maintain, as always, that this is an important and noble role for fantasy to have.  (Though our modern attempts are not always as subtle as I might wish!  Our last read-aloud, The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt, was painfully, insultingly heavy-handed and preachy with its message.  We were groaning with irritation through most of the book and I, who had been 
enticed by all the comparisons to The Phantom Tollbooth, was sorely disappointed.)  I’m not sure these grotesques of les songes de Pantagruel are intended to make any particular point, or just be generally sly and disrespectful in tone.  Four hundred and fifty years after their creation I have no idea what half the objects in the images are meant to be, let alone what they might have symbolized to original viewers.
        Anyway, I picked out a handful of Pantagruel’s dream-creatures that I found whimsical and rather charming.  Not knowing their meaning (if any) I’ve simply picked figures I liked the look of.  I like the doodley Renaissance decorations.  I like the birds incorporated in several pictures.  I like the expressions on the figure’s faces - except the one whose face is a violinish thing.  He has a terrible 
expression, but who cares!  He’s playing his face!  I thought these guys were delightfully weird, and they manage to span tastes all the way from Mad Magazine to High Art.  That’s just part of the genius of the Renaissance, I guess: not only did scholars aspire to all knowledge, but artists aspired to all levels of taste and humor.

[Pictures: Plate 21;
Plate 18;
Plate 19, woodcuts by Jean Porcher and/or François Desprez from Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel, 1565 (Images from Les Bibliothéques Virtuelles Humanistes).]

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