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Medieval De-humanization and its Place in Contemporary Art



My work is centred on the methods adopted by Medieval artists and craftsmen in their depictions of de-humanization, and how such de-humanization is represented in contemporary art. The Middle Ages became the focal point for my studio practice, as it is clearly evident that it was an early instance where Western Europeans began to explore and record the boundaries of their known world. The interactions which followed between people of different ethnicities led to the birth of racial stereotyping as we know it today – a phenomenon which has survived despite moral-driven efforts to dispel it. The Medieval period also stands as an example of where deliberate steps were taken by sections of society to separate themselves not only from members of the same society, and different ethnicities, but from different countries too, often using paint as the tool for images that foster the division. Specific ethnic groups, notably those originating from Africa and Asia, were often portrayed as malformed and grotesque, for example, and they have since been dubbed, collectively, by historians, as ‘The Monstrous Races’. My enquiry into this subject led me to the essays contained within, The Monstrous Middle Ages, where it is argued that the function of the monster was to act as ‘a vehicle for a range of intellectual and spiritual inquiries, from questions of language and representation to issues of moral, theological, and cultural value’ (Bildhauer and Mills, 2003: p. 14). Further research proved to support this opinion and I began to draw parallels with modern-day society, noting that the concept of using monstrous and grotesque figures as a tool to reflect perceived immorality is still flourishing. My studio practice explores the ways in which we can reverse the process of de-humanization by means of ‘reflection’ – that is, portraying the perpetrator, not the victim, as monstrous – thus providing a judicious sense of balance, without taking an obvious high moral stance.


The Monstrous Races and their Place in Modern-Day Culture


‘Monstrosity shaped the construction of gender and sexual identity, religious symbolism, and social prejudice in the Middle Ages’ (Bildhauer and Mills, 2003: p. 2). My interest lies in the depiction of people from different ethnicities, created by medieval painters and craftsmen based in the West, and how they used monstrosity as a tool to construct racial stereotypes (that adhere to this day) to install fear and suspicion. One medieval work that has heavily influenced my studio practice is the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a late 13th/early 14th century, 64 x 52inch map, drawn on a single sheet of vellum. Medieval maps have also been a muse for Grayson Perry, who used the Ebstorf Map as inspiration for his 2008 piece, Map of Nowhere. Reddleman has suggested that Map of Nowhere ‘posits a radical skepticism about what constitutes the artist’s self’ (Reddleman, 2011), and, undoubtedly, we have to consider that the ‘self’ is not always ‘authentic’, as it remains governed by societal values. With this in mind, I began to view medieval cartography not as a series of individual craftsmen’s responses to newly discovered races but, rather, as a reflection of the collective view on the ethnically different. In the medieval period, the Church influenced every facet of an individual’s life, its omnipresence proving inescapable. However, although posing as virtuous, many clergymen responsible for delivering God’s message often fell far short of this ideal themselves, promoting intolerance, inequality and reinforcing racism, discrimination and hatred. Further, it was often clergymen who were responsible for the creation of the artworks which promoted such prejudice.


                                     Fig. 1                              Fig. 2


Examples of this include, The Bird’s Head Haggadar (Fig.1) and, The Wonders of the East (Fig.2) where we see different races portrayed as monstrous and grotesque. 


When examining medieval catalogues, maps and manuscripts, it becomes apparent that medieval artists took drastic steps to de-humanize their subjects. This was achieved by distorting figures in three main ways. Firstly, by replacing a human limb with that of an animal’s. Secondly, by exaggerating a certain limb (most notably the foot). Thirdly, by removing limbs altogether. Richard Fahey has argued that white supremacist organizations have appropriated the ‘rhetoric of hatred’ of such images, and the literature which accompanies them, to fuel racial stereotyping today (Fahey, 2018). Further, Fahey attributes, in at least some capacity, Hitler’s Nazi rhetoric of racial superiority to the long-standing tradition of intellectual thought towards race and ethnicity. 


There are, undoubtedly, clear parallels to be drawn between Medieval de-humanization images and the 1930s German anti-Semitic cover cartoons found in Streicher’s, Der Stürmer (Bytwork, 2018). In the Nazi caricatures, Jewish figures are portrayed as monstrous, often transformed into an animal-human hybrid, with a snake appearing most frequently in Der Stürmer, undoubtedly due to the negative, if not repulsive connotations which precede it. Examples of this are found in one cartoon entitled, Don’t Let Go! (Fig.3) and a second, The Jewish Beast (Fig.4). By commissioning the cartoons, Streicher was deliberately appropriating the de-humanization of the Jewish community, transforming them from humans into monsters, making it easier for the German people to rally under a common, image-driven cause.


                                         Fig. 3                     Fig. 4

By continually portraying the Jewish community in this fashion, a new identity becomes formed. I am interested in how art is integral to this process and through my own practice I have explored its utility when painting such perpetrators. 


Upon viewing such de-humanized depictions of the 20th century, one is immediately reminded of Hieronymus Bosch, and, in particular, his early 16th century works, Christ Carrying the Cross (Fig.5) and, Christ Before Pilate (Fig.6).










                                     Fig. 5                       Fig. 6


In these paintings, the Jewish figures are portrayed as grotesque, with extended noses, contorted faces, and demonic expressions, and the Romans are pictured no better. 


Fig. 7


But then, that which takes the eye has always been a source of curiosity to artists. Ernst Gombrich, in a 1952 lecture on Leonardo da Vinci’s late 15th century, Study of Five Grotesque Heads (Fig.7), for example, noted the appalling nature of the drawings, commenting that they were the product of an inhumane and ‘pre-humanitarian era’. He commented further that those with physical ‘malformations and monstrosities’ functioned only as ‘curiosities to be gaped at’ (Jones, 2002; p.3) and were unable to serve any other purpose in society. 


A more recent example of de-humanization can be found in the treatment of African-Americans in the latter 19th/early 20th centuries. Paintings and drawings, as well as scientific illustrations, all supported and encouraged the notion that those of African descent were fundamentally different in their biological structure to people of Caucasian decent. Polygenism was supported by academics and scientists alike, with notable adherents including Samuel George Morton, Josiah Clark Nott and Louis Agassiz. Agassiz went so far as to suggest that ‘the differences between different races are often greater than those distinguishing species of animals from one another’ (Sharp, 2012). Embracing the same line of thought, Nott, alongside George Gliddon, wrote, Types of Mankind, a book which claimed humanity originated from different lineages. ‘The text argued for the supremacy of the ‘Caucasian races’ over the other ‘inferior’ races of mankind, asserting that history had proved the superiority of Caucasian racial characteristics’ (Sharp, 2012: p. 26). In, Types of Mankind, Nott claimed that those of Caucasian descent have superior intellect to other races due to their larger brains, whereas those belonging to other (i.e. non-white) races were incapable of reaching the same intellectual level. Nott concluded that these findings justify slavery, believing that being under the care of the Caucasian race, American slaves were ‘better off than free Northern Negroes’(Erickson, 1986: p. 117) and that only an unforeseen circumstance would make slaves in the South ‘happier than they were in servitude’ (Erickson, 1986: p. 116).













Fig. 8


Gliddon and Nott commissioned a set of annotations to accompany their work (Fig.8) which reinforced the idea that people of African descent were primitive and inferior, belonging one branch down the evolutionary tree, towards our primate ancestors.


By distorting certain facial features, such as rounding the nose and lips in order to create the effect of a muzzle, and increasing the angle of the lower jaw bone, the artist is creating similarities between the African-American and his simian past. This action aims to de-humanize the black man, deeming him unworthy of basic rights, such as freedom; it also enhances the superiority and purity of the white community, removing them a step further from any primate connection. ‘Generally, Blacks were depicted in such a way as to blur the line between audience identification of them as humans and as monkeys’ (, 2012). 













Fig. 9


The exaggeration of certain facial features and limbs enabled this concept to evolve into cartoons and aided white supremacist narratives, such as, Types of Mankind, turning the USA into a breeding ground for racist artworks, continuing well after the USA’s abolition of slavery in 1865. My research led me to the Coon Caricature (Fig. 9), as this particular cartoon seemed to be one of the most degrading of the Black stereotypes which were circulating around early 20th century America.


The last century has seen Western academics and politicians attempt to disassociate themselves from the ‘pre-humanitarian’ era. However, as Professor Alan Lester has suggested, although Britain did play a leading role in dubbing slavery inhumane, ‘British policy also laid the foundations for the more troubling aspects of our modern humanitarian scene - an often patronizing endeavor to meddle with the customs and belief of others, to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’’ (Independent, 2017). As Lester proposes, it is indeed ironic that scholars in the 20th century were supporting the concept of an established humanitarian society when homosexuality was still illegal. In 1952, the year 1,069 gay men were imprisoned in England and Wales (Aaron Day, 2018), code-breaker Alan Turing was also convicted of ‘gross indecency’, resulting in him undergoing chemical castration (in preference to incarceration). The hormone treatment which was administered caused catastrophic physical side-effects for men, including growing breasts and depression. Turing’s suicide in 1954 is a stark reminder that the United Kingdom was still embracing pre-humanitarianism, and, as Geraldine Bedell describes it in her article, Coming Out of the Dark Ages, the Fifties and Sixties had an ‘appallingly repressive atmosphere’ (Bedell, 2007). It is indeed true that even sixty years after Turing’s death and fifty years after the de-criminalization of homosexuality, a degree of intolerance still resides in society, especially amongst the older generations. Black and the transgender communities are still being ostracized and discriminated against. This is often rejected by a society which has been lulled into a false sense of morality. Artists have, however, for many years, been addressing such latent inequality through their work, and I believe this proves invaluable when stimulating awareness. ‘Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action’ (Eliasson, 2016).


Art as Activism


Through my research, it became apparent that artists were using three methods to combat inequality. Firstly, by the use of the same method of de-humanization usually targeted on victims but instead projected on to the persecutor. Secondly, the reclamation of either derogatory works or black imagery in order to raise awareness of contemporary issues. Thirdly, the attempt to deconstruct the concept itself, forcing the observer to re-examine their own personhood and response to societal norms.




One artist who has endorsed the de-humanization method and sparked my interest is Philip Guston. Having borne witness to the tumultuous political climate of the 1960s – Guston had seen, first-hand, the social unrest which had engulfed America after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, and had witnessed the brutal nature of the Vietnam War – he ‘found in Nixon the perfect embodiment of world-historical perfidy, and in satire a way out of his hopelessness regarding the corrupt state of art and politics’ (, 2017). In his work, Guston distorted his figures in order to humiliate and reflect inner immorality and corruption. Guston’s 1980 exhibition, Laughter in the Dark: Drawings from 1971 & 1975, contained sketches of this nature, often de-figuring both Nixon and his associates’ faces, in order to make them resemble male genitalia (Fig.10). 
















                                     Fig. 10                          Fig. 11


I found this technique particularly interesting for, as is the case with earlier, medieval depictions, removing limbs and placing them in anatomically incorrect places, often at right-angles, was a common method used to humiliate and disgust. Guston chose to exaggerate certain limbs, often the hands and the feet, which is a method clearly evident in the medieval period, such as with Sciapods (Fig.11). 


Mark Bryan is another artist to use a similar thematic framework. Bryan notes that ‘the human story seems to go on like always but with new scenery and better gadgets’ and that politicians, such as Donald Trump, are manipulating the peoples’ fears and prejudices, persuading them that acts of cruelty are necessary (Dreux, 2018). In light of this, Bryan states that he feels he must ‘push back with his art’ (Dreux, 2018). His most recent project, a series of oils on canvas, portray Trump and his political allies in a variety of scenarios. For example, in The Nightmare (Fig.12), Trump is transformed into a human-animal hybrid, where only his head has remained intact, whilst his body has been replaced with the tentacles of an octopus. 


Fig. 12


Bryan notes that the use of animals in his paintings, most commonly, monkeys, pigs and sheep, do ‘play well in political satire’ (Dreux, 2018). Like Guston, Bryan has also adopted medieval methods of de-humanization in order to question the morality of certain political figures. However, unlike Guston, Bryan replaces human limbs with those of animals, instead of mix-matching human limbs to create deformities. Dreux has noted that there are some artists ‘whose works do not merely reflect, but propagate and pose questions of immense cultural impact’, and it is clear that Bryan and Guston are fine examples of this. Their work transcends the visual and becomes a form of activism. 













Fig. 13


I felt there was no clearer example of where art and activism unite to serve a common purpose than when the 20-foot tall, Matt Bonner designed, ‘Trump Baby’ (Fig.13), loomed over the heads of protesters in London (13th July, 2018). By portraying Trump as a spoilt infant, Bonner was suggesting that he thought the President was not mature enough to reason rationality. 


What I found equally interesting was that on the day, ‘Trump Baby’ was launched, there were, in the crowd, many artists who had brought their own creations, each of which portrayed Trump in a grotesque way – one example being Somerset based Annie Jeffs, who brought with her a puppet of Trump (Fig.14).













Fig. 14

Taking inspiration from Guston and Bryan, alongside other contemporary artists and activists, and both silent film (e.g. Carl Dryer’s, The Passion of Joan of Arc) and more recent works (e.g. Robert Bresson’s, Diary of a Country Priest, and, Basil Dearden’s, Sapphire, and, Victim), my studio practice aims to trigger discussion about underlying prejudice, especially by representatives of historical institutions which form the foundations of modern-day thinking.









                                  Fig. 15                              Fig. 16


In my work, I often distort significant parts of the body of a stand-alone discriminator, for example, using methods honed by medieval artists, but employing different, ‘decompositional’ imagery extrapolated from momento mori (Figs.15 & 16). To date, I have reserved this method for clergy who have so often fallen short of the idealized virtues they purport to foster. I explore transgender and homosexual clergy and how they have been known to be less than sympathetic to those historically seen as sexually deviant whilst they themselves are queer. My studio practice is informed by these hypocrisies and aims to unravel and expose such institutions. 


Re-defining and Re-circulating Black Imagery


In contrast to Bryan and Guston, Michael Ray Charles, an African-American artist, has chosen to focus on the victim instead of the persecutor and his politically charged paintings excite controversy amongst both the white and black communities. Charles’s work explores the legacies surrounding racial stereotypes and institutional racism in the context of today’s society (, 2018). Whilst often bordering on the satirical, Charles’s work also serves as a haunting reminder of the past.


                                         Fig. 17                     Fig. 18


The paintings regularly feature well-known black caricatures such as Mammy, Aunt Jemima and Sambo (Figs.17 & 18), though Charles recasts the characters as heroes and heroines rather than as lower-order humans or monsters.


It is, perhaps, inevitable that, as Cazares has said, Charles’s work would meet criticism in America, where the resurrected images were ‘long ago hidden from view and ignored by historians as a sad chapter in the continuum of a burgeoning nation’ (Cazares, 2012). Only this year (2018), we saw ASU Art Museum come under fire for approving Charles’s painting featuring a black face. Irrespective of the controversy engendered by his work, Charles continues to argue that raising awareness about racism through the use of these images is crucial. After all, it would seem unnecessary to re-circulate the caricatures if the message they carried had died along with them. It is clear that the prejudice the black community face is far from confined to the history books. Charles argues that the issues that were raised by 19th and 20th century images are still relevant, ‘albeit through different, contemporary stereotypes of ganstas, rappers, even characters on black-oriented TV sitcoms’ (Heller, 2012). Following this, Charles also emphasizes that the criticism his work has faced does not perturb him, noting that although the black community often find it painful to see the images, ‘‘out of sight, out of mind’ doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist... It happened, and I feel it has not been dealt with’ (Heller, 2012). Charles also notes that his work has created a surge of embarrassment amongst his white audience, though he stresses that ‘a lot of people have died and many are dying under the weight of these images’ (Cazares, 2012) and therefore not to bring the images back into society would be doing a disservice to those who are still suffering. Further, as Heller (2012) points out, ‘Subjugation through imagery is something that is never totally expunged’ and it is clear that Charles wants to expose the power that these caricatures have over peoples’ subconscious thoughts. Charles’s paintings therefore become activism and the politically charged messages they carry urge social and political change.


















Fig. 19


Whilst researching the work of Charles, I also came under the influence of Titus Kaphar. Kaphar’s work focuses around perceptions of race in society and how black men in particular are subjected to police intimidation and brutality and are often let down by the criminal justice system. This can be seen clearly in one of his most recent series entitled, The Jerome Project (Fig.19). 


The images used in this project were all of imprisoned black men and who bore the same name as Kaphar’s father - Jerome. I felt the work in this project was reminiscent of Byzantine holy portraits, with their gold leaf backgrounds and single, central features. Kaphar used this method in order to show the irony and contrast between those named after Saint Jerome and the holy figure himself. The tar represents the amount of time each subject has spent incarcerated as a function of their age, whilst also hiding their identity, and the mouths are often covered in order to show the rights and freedoms that have been stripped away (, 2015). I found Kaphar’s approach particularly noteworthy and used gold leaf in a contradictory fashion to its traditional use – to honour saints – in Medieval art.













Fig. 20


In one particular example (Fig.20), I employed gold-leaf entirely to define a clergyman, using a medieval memorial shroud brass motif to portray the hypocrisy of the individual who was, supposedly, defining benevolence and the word of God on Earth, whilst in reality representing a rich, manipulative and corrupt institution.

Coming from a family which had endured slavery, Kaphar questions the morality of the American Presidents who endorsed or rejected the practice. One figure who sparked his interest was George Washington who, despite claiming to be an abolitionist, kept slaves. In an interview with Eloise Blondiau in 2016, Kaphar professed his rejection of the notion that we cannot judge historical figures because our contemporary morals do not align with those of the time. Indeed, it is true that suggesting that the human race is morally superior now is problematic, especially when there are practices in contemporary society, such as the mutilation of female genitalia, which is nothing short of barbaric. ‘My point is that it’s not so different now. I’m not saying that things aren’t better... ‘Better’ is not good enough - it’s not, especially when ‘better’ still means my life is still at risk’ (Blondiau, 2016). Although Kaphar leaves it up to viewers to take whatever stance they wish, the impetus is to respond to the injustice you have been shown with action.




Massachusetts based painter, Laylah Ali, is an example of the final method. Best known for her series of Greenheads (Fig.21), Ali’s use of genderless and racially ambiguous figures has initiated conversations about where and how we draw lines between us and the ‘other’. 












Fig. 21


Noting that she ‘wanted to make a figure that acts like a question mark’ (Lieberman et al., 2007), Ali asks the viewer to make a decision about whether or not they can identify in any way with the green figures. In an interview with Artblog, she explained that the enigmatic situations that her characters are in represent ‘the uncomfortable undertones of mistrust and conflict that often characterize social experience,’ (Lieberman et al., 2007) and this can be seen in many instances. Upon viewing Ali’s work, I was instantly reminded of the theories that Judith Butler proposed in her, Undoing Gender, where those who deviate from gender norms are not ‘thought of as human at all’ as they do not practice the ‘norms and practices’ that society has deemed essential for personhood to be allocated’ (Butler, 2009: p. 58). Although the subject is not discussed in the same depth, Butler posed the question, ‘What qualifies as a citizen?’, and instantly one considers the parallels between society’s rejection of certain sexual preferences and its refusal to recognize some races as equal. Another notion that Butler suggested was that those who are not deemed worthy of personhood will not receive justice either, as it is considered a right for those who qualify as ‘fully human’. Until the mid 20th century, homosexuality was considered an aberration of the mind, which could be cured through treatment; it was thought that this temporary mental infallibility made an individual ‘less human’ when compared to their heterosexual peers. As mentioned earlier, until the latter half of the 20th century, the black community also did not enjoy the privileges of personhood, due to their race being considered inferior. As Butler argues, personhood and justice go hand-in-hand and de-humanization facilitates someone’s identity to be deconstructed.  


In conclusion, although all are different in the way they present their dislike for aspects of the current socio-political climate, the artists mentioned above have sought to initiate change in how society views those who are somehow perceived as different. Some, such as Bryan and Guston, have de-humanized the aggressor, whereas others, such as Charles and Kaphar have reclaimed or re-modeled pre-existing racial stereotypes which initially encouraged racial inferiority, whilst Ali makes us question our own personhood. My research has led me to conclude, in particular, that Medieval de-humanization elements are to be found in their various guises in contemporary art. Art is a powerful tool in forming and shaping social identities and my work focuses on re-interpreting the identities of the prosecutors, stripping position, influence and riches away, to reveal them in a way not seen before. 






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