Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Legion and the Art of Ugly

Facade, San Francisco's Legion of Honor
Today I visited the city with the family to see the Impressionists on the Water gallery at the Legion of Honor, whose regular collection is impressive for variety, and includes masters like Rubens, Monet, and Picasso.  One can see Egyptian gold works, a Roman sarcophagus, a bass relief from the palace of Xerxes, and Hellenic pottery, all within a few feet of each other.  Of course, San Francisco's Legion is famous for having the most robust collection of Rodin originals outside of France (as well as a bronze cast of that perennial Rodin favorite "The Thinker" in the courtyard entrance.) Perhaps as enchanting as the pieces it houses is the building itself with it classical sensibilities.

Detail from The Russian Bride's Attire
While I'm certainly no connoisseur of fine arts in a normal sense, my interests in history and aesthetics make me a frequent patron of museums and galleries. On this trip I got the unique chance  to talk art with the family: a quite lively debate over a Rubens with my mom and gammy.  We also sat together on a bench and collectively speculated about possible narratives for the figures shown in Konstantin Makovsky's massive painting The Russian Bride's Attire (1889).   Museums are not just for the quiet, contemplative spectator, and beauty (and as we shall see, ugliness) is always best when shared with friends and loved ones.  
Museums can tax your energy.  It takes time and a bit of effort to get acquainted with a piece, and often a shift from intense focus on details like brushstrokes to a relaxed distance is neccessary to get the full effect of a painting.  Approaching fine art in this was can be rewarding, though it's hardly necessary to do this to enjoy yourself.  Nonetheless, when you are later admiring a particular work elsewhere (say, in a book), your interaction with the actual paining adds dimension and breadth to your relationship with a specific piece and art in general.  If you are fortunate enough to live near a collection such as the Legion's, repeat viewings allow you to follow the dictates of your whims and moods as you ebulliently skip though the gallery; different pieces that you might have overlooked will perhaps catch you eyes on future trips.  

        Why bother to to pursue such an endeavor at all?  I can only give you a personal account.  The perspective with which I view this aspect of culture stems from my interest in exploring the shifting aesthetics of human beings throughout history, as well as the desire to cultivate development of my own artistic sensibilities.  For a godless heathen like myself, interaction with the art of the ages is one of the many ways I negotiate and develop answers to the perennial and amorphous questions: "What does it mean to be human and, if such a thing exists, what is human nature?"   

This was the state of my mind when after a refreshing lunch we headed down the pedestrian-ridden hell-strip that is Clement Street in San Francisco's Richmond District to Green Apple Books, and I found a copy of Umberto Eco's On Ugliness, from the publisher Rizzoli, for the bargain price of $14.98.  In the same vein as Eco's History of Beauty and The Vertigo of Lists,  On Ugliness is simultaneously an art collection, philosophical treatise, literary sampler, and historical excursion,centered on the concept of intangible concept of  ugliness throughout human history.  From antiquity to the modern day, Eco traces the concept through visual art, literature, film, and philosophy to try and formulate an understanding on the origins of this concept (Is ugliness simply the opposite of what we call beauty?).  On almost every page we see visual depictions of the repulsive, including many entrancing closeups from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and many lesser-known artists like Giacomo Grosso, as well as sharing passages from sources as diverse as Kant, Aeschylus, and H.P. Lovecraft.  Eco also tries to understand exactly why the horror and the grotesque has such a pull on the human psyche; even when we are repulsed or terrified by, we are drawn to it.

Giacomo Grosso, A study for The Supreme Meeting (1894)
While I plan on doing a full post on Umberto Eco at some point in the future, it will suffice for now to say that the Milanese professor of Semiotics brings his unparalleled erudition and  to the examination of ugliness and the result so far has been illuminating.  On Ugliness is a garden of earthly delight that I have often revisited, and hope you, dear reader, take a look at yourself.

This book may also give us at least some insight into the nightmare kingdom of horror cinema that is The Overlook Theatre, of which I am now an official citizen!  

Also, here is, randomly, some great music I came across composed by Corelli:

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