On Ugliness Hardcover – October 30, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“…visually dazzling and intellectually provocative…Eco’s choices are superb…” ~Publisher’s Weekly
“On Ugliness provides a wealth of information for more casual readers as well as for those hoping to delve further into this subject.” ~Choice Magazine
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Whilst this format is repeated from that of `On Beauty', there is nevertheless a change is one of emphasis; in this volume there is a subtle move away from a focus on art to a focus instead on literature. It took me awhile to notice this. Take, for example, the seventh chapter on `The Devil in the Modern World', where Dante, Tasso, Milton, and Goethe - and on to Ian Fleming - dominate discussion rather than Fuseli or Grunewald. The following chapter on `Witchcraft, Satanism, Sadism' features artworks by Goya, Rosa, Fuseli, Titian, Bosch, and Caravaggio, but there are no references to these in the accompanying text. Instead, we have Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Ovid, Sade, Poe, Conrad, Orwell, Kafka, even Eco himself. It should come as no surprise to learn that the two artists with the greatest number of illustrated works in this book (five each) are Fuseli and Bosch.
Eco commences his review in the classical world, where morality was more directly linked with physicality. Christianity to a certain extent opposed classical precepts by seeing beauty in all of God's creation, even in Christ's suffering. But if beauty is good, whence evil? Eco's exploration moves on in later chapters to explorations of the diabolic, of fantastical creatures, of the excesses of carnival and the obscene.
It is interesting how in modern secular times, the `evil one' "becomes more dangerous and worrying because he is no longer innocently ugly as he was once portrayed." Quoting Schiller, Eco suggests that today's `civilised' behaviour exists only because cinema has replaced public executions. I would also add football matches. He amply demonstrates that the taste for cruelty is well-rooted in human nature, "the devil no longer has any function regarding these practices": the `evil one' is within us all.
Our journey through the history of ugliness arrives in chapter ten with the Romantics and some revealing considerations for the thoughtful art-theorist. Lessing's view that "poetry, the art of time, describes an action, while sculpture (like painting, the art of space) can only portray an instant" is invoked. Thus the fixing of that instant requires that "the disfiguring violence of physical pain" be portrayed beautifully. Poetry has time to make that reconciliation in myriads of ways. And Eco's book epitomises that distinction between literary description and artistic portrayal. (One can also mention here how poetry relies on imagination whereas art negates it.)
What Lessing actually wrote is that, "Painting, as an imitative faculty, can express ugliness: painting, as a fine art, cannot ..." The former is truth, nature's truth; the latter is what? Convention? Nobility? Lessing says `Pleasure', but we would still prefer the latter on our walls, and not be constantly reminded of the former. To a large extent, Lessing's view was superseded by that of the Sublime, whose ugliness is also explored by Eco through, for instance, the form of the gothic novel.
Eco follows the route from Romanticism to industrial ugliness ("the squalor of progress") and on to the avant-garde, where beautiful things are painted in an ugly way, and ugliness is painted beautifully. "Today, everyone recognise [sic] as beautiful all those works that had horrified their fathers." This includes such modern conceptions of ugliness as kitsch and camp.
Eco's exploration comes right up to the new millennium. He concludes that ugliness, like beauty, is a relative term - relative to time and to culture - and that ugliness can contribute to beauty. And yet the physiological reaction to ugliness, whether it be a painted representation, a literary description, a piece of heavy metal music, or an excerpt from a horror movie "leads us to correct the relativist perspective". Pictures of the persecutions portrayed by Bosch are set side-by-side with that of a punk rocker. Auschwitz, 9/11, child-abuse, torture, famine: "No knowledge of the relativity of aesthetic values can eliminate the fact that in such cases we unhesitatingly recognise ugliness and we cannot transform it into an object of pleasure."
There are some surprising typographical errors, and we have `Clusone' on page 64 but `Glusone' on page 67; and the illustration on page 93 is not credited. But these are minor quibbles. The book is replete with illustrations. There are some marvellous reproductions of artistic works, many of which were quite new to my eyes, such as Fuseli's `Macbeth', Waterhouse's `Ulysses & the Sirens', and Memlings's `Last Judgement'.
The book ends with an essential bibliography, references, and indices of authors/sources and artists.
But is signed by the author for some reason, so that's nice.
As inúmeras reproduções de textos ilustrativos em letra muito miúda é muito chato de ler.
Do ponto de vista histórico e artístico o livro traz boas reflexões.
Noch mehr Eco BIld bände erwünscht!
About the book itself, I can only say it it worth having, especially as part of the collection. So, if you buy it, also buy 'On Beauty'. There are some really well explained matters in there, so clear and succinct that it makes you understand why Eco is one of the greatest thinkers of this century. Brilliant!!!