Reflections on Ugly

When I first found out that the summer 2013 Teaching Gallery exhibition was called “Ugly,” I was a little bit confused.  Dresses can be ugly, hairdos from the 80s are often ugly, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame was ugly.  Is this the kind of ugly this exhibition was espousing?

At the start of her gallery talk on Wednesday, June 19, Elissa Weichbrodt, PhD ’13, Department of Art History and Archaeology, and curator of Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art, asked the audience to define “ugly.”  We shouted out words like “unappealing,” “grotesque,” “unpleasant,” “disfigured.”   I looked around the gallery space, assessing the ugliness of each object, still uncertain of how to handle this word: ugly.  “I don’t actually think that any of these objects are ugly,” Dr. Weichbrodt admitted as she began to explain the concept behind the exhibition.  In Introduction to Western Art classes, students learn a narrative of Western art with protagonists like Aphrodite of unknowable beauty and David of superhuman strength.  Dr. Weichbrodt seeks to revisit beauty in Western Art, exposing the underbelly of this history.  “None of these artists created something ugly just to make something ugly,” Dr. Weichbrodt clarifies. “There was always a purpose for the ugliness.”

Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt speaks about Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art

Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt speaks about Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art

Traditionally, beauty indicates truth, high culture, and other virtuous qualities, while ugliness suggests disorder, evil, social marginalization, and the like.  Käthe Kollwitz’s Erwerslos (Unemployed) (1925), a wood-cut print in the exhibition, depicts the poor – gaunt faces, large, staring eyes, tired bodies fading into opaque blackness.  Kollwitz exploits their physical ugliness to emphasize the ugliness of their situation and inspire a call to action.

In El Greco’s The Resurrection (c. 1600-5), elongated bodies twist into impossible poses, appearing to float (except Christ who is actually floating).  El Greco originally moved to Italy from Greece (El Greco means “the Greek”), then to Spain in search of acceptance for his dark, dramatic paintings.  While admired during his lifetime in Spain, late 17th century scholars and 19th century classicists decried his “distorted fancies of a morbid brain” and shunned his artwork.[1]  Yet his expressive style regained recognition among Romanticists and modern artists in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The ugliness, then, in part, derives from perception and cultural context – a harsh reality for anyone dealing in culture and taste.

El Greco's The Resurrection (c.1600-5)

El Greco’s The Resurrection (c.1600-5)

Robert Rauschenberg's Ally (1975)

Robert Rauschenberg’s Ally (1975)

I had been curious about Robert Rauschenberg’s Ally (1975), a hanging object made of cast paper, string, and a bamboo pole.  The brown, lumpy, formless paper and the bizarre presence of the bamboo stick are a compelling argument for ugliness on any front.  But as Dr. Weichbrodt pointed out, this ugliness has a purpose.  Ally poses a threat to stability and order, destabilizing traditional ideas about beauty, refinement, and finish.

Ugliness is uncomfortable.  It is subjective and undefinable.  It is complicated.  At least in the case of the artworks in Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art, there is much more than meets the eye.  What I love about Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art is how ugliness is not used as a value judgment necessarily and exclusively, but as a useful tool and a means to a purposeful end.

By Allison Fricke (June 21, 2013)

[1] Weichbrodt, Elissa. Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art. St. Louis, MO: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2013. Print.

2 responses to “Reflections on Ugly

  1. I like the idea that ‘ugliness’ has an aesthetic value. I wonder if all forms of art are underpinned by a type of ‘ugliness’ – something unsettling, affecting and different. Really interesting post, it certainly has me thinking.


  2. Thanks for your comment! I agree – a very thought-provoking exhibition. The difficulty with ugliness (for me) is its subjective and culturally specific nature. Perhaps any artwork could be ugly if someone found it to be so?
    – Allison

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