A very short history of ugliness (2)

June 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

Nineteenth-century’s adventure with ugliness may have begun with Goya — not a terribly talented painter (a euphemism), but one who felicitously did in the end find a fit outlet for his “ungifts” — in the Horrors of War.

(Ugly is rather good for horror.  Goya wasn’t exactly inventing its use for the purpose:  Donatello already did that with his Mary Magdalene.  But spare a thought for poor artists:  it is difficult to do something truly original in any field of life:  it’s all mostly been done).

Although one wishes Goya had been more immediately successful in finding an appropriate employment for his skills — and had spared us his Mayas (equally ugly whether dressed or undressed); and all those portraits of frightened little people against threatening, dirty nondescript backgrounds; for all that, one is happy for him to have arrived home in the end.

And even, to a small degree, for himself:  can now walk into a room with the Horrors of War, spend three minutes there shuddering, and then promptly leave relieved that the experience is over.

It is difficult to be happy for Delacroix, however. He seems to have never found a home for his special “gifts” since even when he paints horrors of war (e.g. Chios) they aren’t especially horrific, just ugly. One can only conclude that ugliness suited his psyche; that he was — in terms of our simile — a little perverse. That he actually liked what he painted. And that those who liked his work were perverse also.  And why not.  I am a liberal fellow and people turned on by ugliness do not shock me anymore than gays do. De perversibus non est disputandum.

Incidentally, Delacroix worshiped Goya. (Figures).

He also promoted Courbet.

It was Courbet who raised ugliness to the status of aesthetic principle.  He did so consciously and, I believe, out of calculation. Courbet was a master of the technique of success de scandale; quite possibly its inventor. He realized that nothing scandalized people like ugliness and he painted with the intention to be ugly. There are paintings by him which suggest that the problem was not congenital — that he was in fact capable of perceiving and painting pretty things prettily — only chose not to. There was simply more fame and more money in ugly: this was his aesthetic catechism.

Why there should be money in it is in itself interesting: art historians note correctly that there was a socio-economic dimension to this strategy: the wholesale rise of the nouveaux riches — the Don Calogeros — that’s Don Calogero Sedara to you — who recognized themselves in Courbet’s paintings and who accepted that merely being painted — no matter how — elevated them to equality with Old Money. (“A painting is a painting is a painting.”)

Some philosophers today like to argue that this new aesthetic was not ugly, just differently-beautiful, and that the support given Courbet in effect an aesthetic claim that “we find this beautiful, no matter what you old snobs think”. I think the view is mistaken: a practical race, unaffected by useless notions of ought, the nouvris didn’t mind to be painted as they were.  Why, there probably was a pride in that: :I have made my way in the world by virtue of what I am; what I am therefore must be worth admiring. So what if I have short legs, bad breath, and my wife’s hands are red?”

There is a pride in the ugly body parts despite their ugliness; indeed, because of it. (“I have made it despite my disadvantages”).  This attitude denies neither the existence nor nature of ugliness, but takes pride, why, glories in it.

Next:  After Courbet, deluge

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