The influence of Auricular art on art of the 20th century, or Putting an ear to the ground

by The Frame Blog

Steve Shriver reviews the persistence of Auricular forms and imagery in the work of contemporary artists and Modern Masters. A surprising number speak in the language of the Auricular, whether they are aware of it or not.

Johannes Lutma (1584-1669), Cartouche with the coat of arms of Amsterdam, etching on paper, c.1654-78, Rijksmuseum

Here, as an example of classic Auricular style, is a cartouche by Lutma, with characteristically pelvic shape and suggestive folds…

Charles-Cornelisz. de Hooch (1600-1638), A monument to Augustus, o/c, Private collection

… and here is a 17th century painting of a grotto by Charles de Hooch, who specialized in this genre.

Salvador Dali painting The face of war, 1940-41; photo: Eric Schaal

I will start by introducing the modern artists who seem to me associated with the Auricular, and then fleshing out these examples later. When, a few years ago, I first discovered the pleasures of Auricular ornament in Alain Gruber’s book, The Renaissance and Mannerism in Europe, I was immediately struck by the similarities of the work of the Van Vianens et al to the work of Salvador Dali and the biomorphic surrealists. This is apparent not only in the swooping curves and drooping forms of the figures and landscapes described, but also in the malleability of their meaning, where forms never quite coalesce into that which they seem to imply, instead forming an hallucinatory and often times erotic series of folds, bumps and extrusions.

Jerzy Skarzinski (1924-2004), Abelard & Heloise, 1987, gouache, watercolour & ink on canvas, 20.1 x 35.6 ins (51 x 90.3 cm.), art market

This painting is by Jerzy Skarzinski, a 20th century Polish set designer and painter who lived mostly in Krakow. He specialized in theatre design, and was also interested in comic books, an element that plays into the style of several of these artists. He employs a similar use of melting and morphing forms to Dalí, as well as his own Baroque, dramatic style.

Interior of the Domus Aurea (64-68 AD), Nero’s palace in Rome; the hole in the ceiling possibly made by Renaissance explorers

The theatrical and marine elements in both these modern works and in those of the 17th century Auricular, and the transformational aspects of the motifs they both employ, are connected to the long history of the grottesca. This relates to the cave-like grottoes installed in Italian Mannerist gardens and to the unnatural creatures which decorated them, and which eventually gave us our modern understanding of ‘grotesque’, meaning hideous or deformed.

Furthering the horrific aspect of the Auricular vernacular is the use of forms that mimic splayed skin and exposed bone, and one might find an interesting avenue to explore in the modern horror film genre, though it will not be me investigating that!

Hans Rudolph Giger (1940-2014), Alien,  1978

However, an interesting crossover to film is found in the work of H.R. Giger, the Swiss surrealist who designed some sets and creatures for the Alien movies, taking the Auricular style to a new level of both fright and eroticism. This is his original concept drawing for the Alien creature, which made it to film in 1979. Here we can see elements of the Mannerist mascarons, skulls and snarling sea monsters which are all so important in the ornament of Auricular frames.

Arent Van Bolten (after; 1573-1633), Two grotesque figures, engraving, Rijksmuseum

There is also a good deal of earthy humor to be found in the Auricular style, as exemplified by a series of prints with bawdy themes by Arent van Bolten (1573-1633), which bear a passing resemblance to Hieronymus Bosch, but without the moralizing aspect of the latter. This thread of humour can be found in many artists who are lumped together in a current movement known as “Lowbrow art”, where many parallel aspects (such as caricature, fantasy, eroticism and impish humour) can be found.

Takashi Murakami, Assignation of a spirit, 2014

Murakami’s art comes more from Japanese traditions, but it does incorporate a number of Auricular concepts, such as figural and facial distortion, mythical storytelling and creatures, and asymmetrical masks; and it conjures a sense of the humorous grotesque found in Van Bolten’s prints.

Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo Puking: aka Gero-Tan, 2002, acrylic on canvas on board, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin

This use of distorted faces and features leads us directly to the mask as ornament, which, seen throughout the history of art from the Romans onward, can be tied quite directly to the Auricular style in the work of several contemporary artists.

Roman mosaic decoration in shape of a stage mask, 1st century A.D., Museo Nazionale Romano

In the Roman theatrical mask, however, the intention is more to portray emotion or to evoke a stereotypical character.

Frans Huys after Cornelis Floris (1514-75), from Pourtraicture ingenieuse de plusieurs façon de Masques. Fort utile aulx painctres, orseures, Taillieurs de pierres, voirriers et Taillieurs d’images, a suite of 22 prints published in Antwerp in 1555

The Auricular mask is a much more bizarre and ludic motif – look at this example by Frans Huys from the early 17th century, with its meltingly fleshy folds sprouting reptiles, fruit and flowers.

Travis Louie (b. 1968), It grew from the brambles, 2012

Now consider the work of Travis Louie, a younger contemporary artist who creates many works with distorted faces – mostly derived from film sources.

Such images supply a good sample of the characteristics of the Auricular style. Many of these same characteristics form the basis of Surrealist style art, which was formalized in the 1920s, but has deeper roots throughout the history of art.

Salvador Dalí, The great masturbator, 1929, o/c, 43.3 x 59.1 ins (110 x 150 cm.), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

This image of Dalí’s, for instance, exemplifies a dream-like image, containing unreal, stretched, and sexually charged imagery within its metamorphosing, fluid shapes.

According to Rachel Barnes, writing for The 20th-Century Art Book, in 2001, to ‘resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality’ was one of the main objectives of the Surrealist art movement. The same definition could pretty easily be applied to the Auricular style, though it was never quite so formally a movement at the time of its creation. But it did have many elements of contradiction included in its visual vocabulary, including things that were not as they appeared to be. Forms suggestive of human physiognomy, decorative faces that reveal as falsities on closer inspection, and other suggestive elements are all equally part of Surrealism and of the Auricular. From Futurism to fantasy art, the artists of the 20th century have delved into the dreamscape more thoroughly than any century before. They have (consciously or not) turned to the language of the past to express their ideas, and what stylistic movement gives them such a satisfactory and fitting vocabulary for their dreams and nightmares as the Auricular, with the anatomical riffs which seem to carry such shadowy significance?

Salvador Dalí, The persistence of memory, 1931, o/c, 9.5 x 13 ins (24.1 x 33 cm.), MOMA, New York

I will now present in more detail a number of 20th century artists whose work has Auricular style elements. At the present time we are seeing a resurgence of artists using (or at least, interested in) traditional methods of learning art. In contradiction to the laissez-faire attitude of art departments of most universities and schools, there are atelier programs around the world that are teaching traditionally.

So let’s go back to the roots of 20th century art.

Beginning around 1920, Surrealism became an Art Movement, and in many ways the figurehead was Salvador Dalí. Dalí’s surreal figures and landscapes have many Auricular aspects, including their malleable forms and distorted figures. Dalí’s work has a distinct element of world criticism and cynicism that is far more accentuated than that during the period of the17th century Auricular.

In the 1940s and later, many artists followed the tenets of abstract expressionism, which occasionally ventured into figurative work, often disguised amid obscuring geometric forms.

Henry Moore, Standing figures, c.1948, pencil, crayon & watercolour, Hauser & Wirth

Henry Moore’s figures, for instance, often stand on the cusp of Auricular forms, with almost purely abstract forms used to imply their physiognomy.

Roberto Matta (1911-2002), The red sun, coloured crayon & pencil, 19 5/8 x 25 5/8 ins (50 x 65 cm.), Christie’s, 4 February 2015, Lot 101

This is also true of the Chilean artist, Roberto Matta, whose abstractions bear a strongly fleshy overtone. Matta was in Paris with the Surrealists early on, and knew many of them personally. His work often verges on pure abstraction, but usually maintains a semblance of nature and bodies held within.

Lee Bontecou (1931- ), untitled, no date

Later, these abstracted human forms came even closer to Auricular shapes, such as in the work of Lee Bontecou, which often appears more Surrealist than anything, merged with the use of modern industrial shapes. Bontecou dealt frequently with the theme of fear, both physical and psychological.

Lee Bontecou (1931- ), untitled, 1961, welded steel, canvas, velvet, rawhide, copper wire, & soot,  56 x 39.5 x 21.125 ins, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Lee Bontecou, untitled, 1961, detail

Bontecou conjures a mood from her work that is both playful and menacing.

Basil Wolverton (1909-78), illustration, c. 1950

Since the 1960s many artists have produced Pop Art, frequently cheekily playing with the ideals implied by advertising slogans and imagery. Amid a great diversification of media in the 1960s came an interest in the visual methods of popular culture, some of which, again, has distinctly Auricular overtones to it.

Basil Wolverton, who became famous as an illustrator for numerous younger magazines (including MAD) stretched human anatomy to totally ridiculous forms, in a way similar to the caricature produced in the Auricular period of the 17th century. Here we can see features exaggerated, twisted, and morphing into other forms, recalling the grotesque figures of Van Bolten and the masks of Frans Huys.

H.R. Giger (1940-2014), Passage X

This is equally true of H.R. Giger, who was at school in Zurich during this period; his illustration work caught the eyes of filmmakers, leading to his fame as the artist of the Alien movies.

H.R. Giger (1940-2014), Science fiction

Giger’s surrealism combined beings with machines, a style he called ‘biomechanical’, which has become very popular over the last 20 or 30 years.

H.R. Giger (1940-2014), Biomechanoid

His work often has a very blatant sexual aspect, making it a tough pull as ‘fine art’, though it must be considered as such in the longer view.

In some ways, fine art has become a very specialized field over the past century, with most average people either rejecting the gallery offerings altogether, or embracing the absurdity of it all and revelling in it. This has also prompted a serious movement in the popular arts: illustration, graffiti art, fashion, all of which have grown considerably in scale as well as discussion. The arts of architectural ornament, hit hard by the deterioration of traditional art studies, have been another refuge for the strength and repetition of ornamental work, much of which has been taken over in the 20th century by machine production.

Mario Martinez (‘Mars 1’), Tulpa #5, ink & acrylic, 48 x 52 ins, 2009, Richard Heller Gallery

One artist I’ve discovered from street art goes by the name Mars-1, (Mario Martinez) whose work has much in common with Auricular art, as you can see here. It has the same folding fleshiness, morphing forms and sense of grotesque anatomical detail.

Mario Martinez (‘Mars 1’), Strange cargo, 2008

Using the tools of descriptive art, he creates images that imply creatures and faces, but are created of plant, marine, and even mineral forms.

Mario Martinez (‘Mars-1’), Nuclear mystics, 2009

Like 17th century Auricular art, these images suggest masks and mascarons, although when inspected closely their features are abstract and unrelated to any physiognomy, animal or human.

Greg Simkins (1975- ), The artefact, 2013

Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins is an artist from Southern California, who plays with his imagery in ways related to the Auricular; his work can be found both on the streets and in the studio.

Greg Simkins (1975- ), It floats

Here are a few pieces that fit in the Auricular category in an odd, playful way.

Greg Simkins (1975- ), In with the tide, 2012

If we look back into the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we can find artists such as Joris Hoefnagel, who was employed to add pictorial decorations to manuscripts, including creatures and masks which very much anticipate the work of Simkins.

Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601), Guide to drawing an ‘s’ and a ‘t’, with grottesca decorations, from The model book of calligraphy, 1591-96

Hoefnagel’s flourishes tend to be more symmetrical, perhaps, but they employ exactly the same methods as these 20th and 21st century artists.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Portrait of Fernande Olivier, 1909, o/c, 65 x 54.5 cm., Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Of course, one of the first modernists to play extensively with facial shapes is Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Head of a woman, 1909, bronze, 16 x 10.25 x 10 ins (40.6 x 26 x 25.4 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art

While his work has been dissected countless times, very few would mention numerous similarities with the Auricular – however, breakdown of form, abstraction of the human shape, and deliberate confusion are among elements in common with the earlier style.

Roberto Matta (1911-2002), Cabeza, 1938, 23 18 cm., art market

The Chilean artist, Roberto Matta, to whom I’ve already referred, represents abstraction to many people, but his work often incorporates recognizably human elements. Matta was in Europe in the 1930s and met Dalí and a number of other Surrealists.

Roberto Matta (1911-2002), Untitled, 1938/39, crayon & graphite, 40 x 65 cm., Art Institute of Chicago

He worked with what he labelled the ‘inscape’ [following Gerard Manley Hopkins], meaning the human psyche given physical form.

Roberto Matta (1911-2002), Untitled, 1937, 19.7 x 24.5 cm.

In this image in particular we are conscious of the skull-like or organ-like forms in which Matta clothes the evocation of mood and emotion.

Jason Limon (1973- ), The skies will miss you, 2010, acrylic on panel, 15 x 19 ins

A more contemporary artist, Jason Limon, has taken up the tradition of the grotesque mask and brought it into the modern era.

Jason Limon (1973- ), Invasive, 2011, acrylic on wood, 9.5 x 17 ins

As in many of the works from the 17th century, the features are more suggestions than real faces, though he does use eyes that have implied transparency and depth to them in most of his work.

Travis Louie (1964- ), Marsh floater, 2015

In this context I should mention Travis Louie again, a young artist who has been inspired by numerous films, including the work of the animator Ray Harryhausen (famous for Jason & the Argonauts, amongst others).

Travis Louie (1964- ), Strange stones, 2015

Much of Louie’s work is fairly realistic in its depiction of human faces and features, but some – where it becomes particularly fanciful – is very reminiscent of Auricular imagery.

A. J.  Fosik, Reason is the oracle, 2011, polychrome wooden sculpture

We can also find creators of actual masks – for instance A.J. Fosik, from the Detroit area. Fosik creates masks out of wood and paint.

A. J.  Fosik, Materkas witness, c.2011, polychrome wooden sculpture

Most of them are fairly conventional, but in some – where the source seems to lie in the faces and masks of Chinese figures (monsters and gods) – the features are distorted and stretched to the absurdity of Auricular dimensions.

Aaron Horkey, Capricorn blues, 2015, wall painting, Long Beach Museum of Art, & detail

I should also mention the paintings of Aaron Horkey, whose graphic work I have long admired. Horkey works with a variety of ornamental modes, which verge on the Auricular when he is in his more abstract mode.

Walton Ford, Falling bough, 2002, watercolour, gouache & pencil, 60.5 x 119.5 ins, private collection

Like Horkey, Walton Ford has a beautiful decorative style, which effortlessly combines the fluid power of sinewy and cartilaginous forms with a lyrical use of rhythm and colour.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz (1975- ), Metr@donis, 2010

Another artist who definitely seems aware of the traditions of Auricular art, especially the case of his picture frames, is Patrick McGrath Muñiz, an artist who grew up in Puerto Rico, and received a master’s degree from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2006.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz (1975- ), Supersized Holy Happy Meal

He is mostly interested in the traditions of consumerism and mythology, but he frequently employs traditional framing with his pieces, some of which verge on Auricular designs.

Decorative head on the Million Dollar Theater, Los Angeles, 1917

We should not forget the influence of the Auricular in contemporary sculpture and architecture, either. Here, for example, is an image of an architectural decoration I recently noticed on the side of the Million Dollar Theater building in Los Angeles, built in 1917 in the Spanish Churrigueresque Baroque style, but which also bears a passing resemblance to the Auricular.

Bertram Goodhue, Casa del Prado Theater, San Diego, 1915

The style was used on a number of Southern California buildings, including Balboa Park in San Diego.

The elements of the Auricular have thus never been too far from Western design since their invention in the 1600s. Sculpture and paintings suggestive of other objects than they superficially represent, motifs which are not quite as they appear, confusing imagery and zoömorphic ornaments, have all been present within the flow of Western Art for many years, perhaps particularly during the 20th century. They are central today, though they are not always expressed exactly as they might have been in the Auricular style of the 17th century. But the imaginative force out there is in many ways very closely akin to earlier manifestations of the Auricular, as can be seen by the examples collected in this paper.


Steve Shriver is a visual artist and art historian who has spoken and exhibited worldwide. He has taught at the Palos Verdes Art Center, The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, American Society of Interior Designers, The Representational Arts Conference, and the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina. He has public murals in Hermosa Beach and San Pedro, California, and numerous private murals around the world. You can see more of his work at