The Ugly Truth


in Archive


The funny thing about Umberto Eco’s new book On Ugliness is that it is so pretty. It’s a beautiful collection of color reproductions of some of the great paintings, sculptures, and photographs from the last 2,000 years of Western art. It is also a collection of quotes from various smart and clever people over the last couple thousand years of Western civilization. The theme is ugliness and Eco gives us the following as both an explanation and a warning as to why he is interested in ugliness:

In every century, philosophers and artists have supplied definitions of beauty, and thanks to their works it is possible to reconstruct a history of aesthetic ideas over time. But this did not happen with ugliness. Most of the time it was defined as the opposite of beauty but almost no one ever devoted a treatise of any length to ugliness, which was relegated to passing mention in marginal works.

On Ugliness was meant to redress this imbalance. It fails. It’s an OK failure in the history of failures because there is quite a lot of excellent material in the book. The book simply never gets organized around any coherent ideas, even though the ideas also exist, if in nascent form. Basically, the history of ugliness in art is the history of its repression and subsequent rehabilitation. One side of the aesthetic mind (which we will roughly label classicism) wants to explain ugliness away in the name of harmonious form. The other side of the aesthetic mind (which we don’t have a satisfying label for) wants to hold ugliness up as the fundamental proof of the disunity and contingency of all things. Thus the battle has been joined across the aesthetic field for many an age.

On Ugliness is most compelling when it stumbles across this age-old struggle. The first occasion comes from the Late Middle Ages and Eco includes a quote, properly enough, from Hegel, who wrote in his Aesthetics, “you cannot use the forms of Greek beauty to portray Christ scourged, crowned with thorns, dying on the cross.” Images from Master Theodoric (“Imago pietatis”), Aelbrecht Bouts (“Christ Suffering”), and Hans Memling (“Christ at the Pillar”), prove the point. Christ is in bad shape. But it is more than that. As Hegel alludes, the central rules of classical composition are being violated. Ugliness, in this case, is more than skin deep. Ugliness has become a tool with which to blast apart the normal relationship of viewing and being viewed. It would be absurd, the artists assume, to convey the absolute metaphysical trauma of Christ’s destruction as a human being with classical tools. Classicism has at its foundation the basic mood of moderation and harmony. The Passion of Christ is the story of man’s fundamentally fallen and degraded state. There’s no harmony in it. Ugliness is thus the core message.

And then ugliness recedes from the picture again for the next hundred or so pages. It reemerges with Mannerism and the Baroque. This comes after a period of the renewed reign of classicism. This time, it’s the classicism of the Renaissance. Eco writes:

Mannerists tended to render their vision subjectively and while Renaissance artists aimed at reconstructing a scene as if it were seen by a mathematically objective eye, Mannerists dissolved the structure of classical space in the crowded scenes devoid of a centre favored by Bruegel, in the distorted and ‘astigmatic’ figures of El Greco, and in the restless and unrealistically stylized faces of Parmigiano.

Again, the real kicker here comes with “dissolving the structure of classical space.” Certainly Mannerism and the Baroque took pleasure in depicting strange and disturbing subject matter. But so does classicism, if for different purposes. The ugliness of Mannerism is in its deepest intentions, which are to produce disorderly visual scenes and thereby to produce disorderly thoughts and ideas. There is a defiance in Mannerism, a stubborn streak of pouty subjectivism that says, “I’ll have it my way and no other.” Ugliness becomes a weapon of intentionality. Mannerism is the sullen child who colors outside the lines and looks at you glaringly while doing so. That’s ugliness to make a goddamn point.

And then ugliness gets banished from the room again. The Enlightenment has its way with things. Classicism lives its third life. Until the Romantics burst upon the scene in what Eco calls the Redemption of Ugliness. This section is regrettably marred by the fact that Eco is shamefully ignorant of Friedrich Schlegel’s intellectual development and seems unaware that Schlegel discarded his earlier classicism for an outright enthusiasm for Romantic poetry. But no matter. Eco provides the crucial Schlegel quote in which Schlegel speaks of ugliness as revealing “the immense richness of the real at the height of its disorder.” That is Romanticism at its essence. The great foe of abstraction. Ugliness, for the Romantics, is simply another way of saying “us.” The section is well illustrated in particular by Théodore Géricault’s masterpiece of Romantic realism, “A Study of Severed Limbs.” It is the painting of a small pile of severed limbs. Terrifying. Romanticism is here displayed as Mannerism all grown up and ready to rebel, with no particular cause in sight.

The volume ends with a mish-mash of contemporary forms of ugliness, and with a dissatisfying account of Modernism and the Avant-Garde as nothing more than ugliness as provocation. The final chapter, “Ugliness Today,” plucks a moralistic cord, telling us that the book “invited us to understand deformity as a human tragedy.” This is an unintentional reminder of a what the book could have been: an invitation to understand that the human tragicomedy is not to be understood and that ugliness is our guttural cry to the heavens, a punishment and weapon all in one. It would have shown us the classical attempt, again and again, to reabsorb ugliness into the fold and it would have shown us how that attempt is variously and brilliantly resisted. It would have been a book about ideas that matter as much today as they ever did. • 8 January 2008