If not for the fact there is already a J. K. Rowling movie bearing the name, the National Gallery of Canada’s newest art exhibition could well have been titled, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For it’s at the gallery that a mystical menagerie of monsters has suddenly taken up residence, invading the genteel exhibition spaces, scrambling across the walls, all wild-eyed and ravenous, ready to pounce, claw, dismember and devour anyone who stands in their way.
Beautiful Monsters, with its deliberately ironic title, is an exhibition of some 70 works on paper depicting supernatural, mythical, biblical and just plain creepy creatures created by 45 German, Flemish, French, Dutch and Italian artists from 1450-1700, essentially the Renaissance and Baroque periods. All of the works, remarkably pristine given they are on paper that is, in some cases, more than 500 years old, are either owned or have been promised to the Gallery. Some are as small as a postage stamp yet are packed with enough intricacies to require a magnifying glass to truly appreciate them. In this case, it’s the details that are in the devil.
“They’re ‘beautiful’ because they’re so well executed,” says exhibition curator Sonia Del Re. “There’s such detail. There’s so much talent devoted to creating these monsters and that’s sort of the paradox this exhibition presents. That’s why it’s titled Beautiful Monsters.”
Demons to Sea Monsters
Del Re decided on this theme after noticing how frequently monsters appeared in the Renaissance and Baroque works in the gallery’s collection of prints and drawings, of which she is the Senior Curator. After more study, she discerned the creatures tend to fall into four main categories and organized the exhibition accordingly: demons, Greco-Roman mythological creatures, sea monsters, and beasts used as ornamentation for such things as silverware or armour.
The period covered by Beautiful Monsters wasn’t the first to depict such beings. Earlier medieval artists had already done so, though to a lesser extent, giving shape to creatures that were mostly known through oral or written descriptions. The significance of this exhibition is it captures a period when monsters, for the first time, became part of what might generously be called the pop culture of the times. That’s because never before could such images be disseminated widely.
“So if you would have seen a dragon in the medieval ages, it would have been hand drawn into a manuscript, a manuscript made by hand,” explains Del Re.
“A manuscript is a very rare and precious object that only those who can read and are potentially rich can own. These prints can be multiplied and circulated. You engrave your composition into a plate and then you can pull impressions. So it’s only at the time they developed printmaking in the 15th century that they then start circulating almost massively these images.”
The growing business of beasts
Call it Monsters, Ink. The growing business of the new printing medium spawned a no-holds-barred approach to portraying the ferocity and grotesqueness of demons, dragons and a host of other supernatural beings. The result were dense, action-packed prints and drawings brimming with violence and chaos.
“This poor man is being roasted on a spit. I mean that’s pretty horrifying.”
“Just view something like this,” says Del Re during a tour of the exhibition. “It’s a representation of hell with a huge flesh-eating monster. He’s got a human in his mouth and then some of the other figures are having their heads cut off. This poor man is being roasted on a spit. I mean that’s pretty horrifying.”
It gets better, or perhaps worse. Not to be outdone is the gallery’s newly-purchased The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, a 1588 engraving by Dutch virtuoso Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). It’s the exhibition’s signature work and depicts the killings of two companions of Cadmus, the mythological founder of Thebes. The picture shows an extravagantly burly man, naked and torn up, enduring some serious face time inside the razor-toothed mouth of an inflamed dragon. As bad as that is, the riled-up beast seems to consider the head between its jaws little more than an appetizer. Oh, and for good measure, the severed head of the other victim, mouth agape, rolls around in the foreground.
In a way, these bone-chilling pictures were the horror movies of their time. German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was perhaps the most prominent of many who did their best to shock and terrify using the new medium at their disposal. In time, their images would form the template for generations of monsters that even centuries later still pay homage to the past, whether in movies such as The Lord of the Rings or on the small screen in Game of Thrones.
“That image was produced in 1588,” says Del Re pointing to the dragon in the Companions of Cadmus print. “And that dragon is very similar to the dragons we see in the movies today. A reptilian-like figure with almost like a horse face, wings and a serpent tail. So this typology is really sort of developed at this time.”
And remains with us today. Whether it’s fantasy, science fiction or horror, our fascination with bizarre, grotesque and terrifying creatures keeps morphing into even… stranger things. But the roots and creativity behind them rest deep in our past, a point Beautiful Monsters makes, beautifully.
Beautiful Monsters in Early European Prints and Drawings (1450-1700) runs until March 29, 2020 at the National Gallery of Canada. Visit gallery.ca for hours and information.