Last week I wrote about chintz. Many people think chintz is ugly which led me to ponder what the meaning of ugliness is. “On Ugliness,” a book by Umberto Eco, naturally came to mind. Eco’s thesis examines how much has been written about beauty throughout history and very little about ugliness, though it regularly plays a part in art and literature. The book also seeks to define the forms ugliness takes. If ugly is most often described as the opposite of beauty, what exactly does that mean?
The book is, as the jacket reads, “an exploration of the dark, the grotesque, the monstrous, and repellent in the world,” and asks “where does this magnetic appeal of the sordid and the scandalous come from?” As we all know, we are frequently drawn subliminally to what we try to shield ourselves from.
The book is complete with erudite prose on the subject, drawing on ancient and modern texts for examples. However, for the designer and visual folks like me, it is the illustrations that are most telling about what can be defined as ugly. And, ugly is not chintz.
From top: Walter Crane, illustration from “The Beauty and The Beast,” 1874. An example of what Eco calls “uncanny” ugliness, which can be described as “situational” ugliness—meaning unusual circumstances that make us feel uncomfortable or ill at ease; the cover of “On Ugliness” showing Quentin Massys’ painting, “Ill-Matched Lovers,” circa 1520-25; Bernardo Strozzi’s “Vanitas,”1630, which considers the passing of surface beauty; Salvador Dali’s “Gala and Millet’s Angelus precedes the imminent arrival of the Conical Anamorphosis,” 1933, another example of the uncanny, which can veer toward the surreal, strange and nightmarish; Henry Fuseli’s “Titania Caressing Bottom with the head of a Donkey,” 1793-4, an example of the unnatural and “grotesque”; a room at the Madonna Inn in California from the “Kitsch” chapter of the book.