History of Beauty edited by Umberto Eco and On Ugliness

beautyHistory of Beauty is a heavy lift by many standards. Filled with sumptuous color plates (it is a Rizzoli book, enough said), and writing by Alastair McEwen, so maybe that’s why the edited by….never mind, argh.

Beauty is dissected and poked and rotated and placed in context and related contexts under your head will explode. It is a fantastic read if you only read one sentence at a time and mull it over, maybe reading it three times while you think about what was said. If the room you are in is very quiet, you might venture a paragraph, but not while hungry or tired or with an upcoming appointment.

The book begins with a lovely survey of various classifications of beauty through time, nude men and women of course were an easy find, plus Venus, Madonnas; I should have expected it after the male beauty included George Clooney under the “Clothed Adonis” category, but I did not and laughed out loud at the appropriate inclusion of a 1991 photograph of Madonna.

Very obscure bits are gathered to build an exacting and wide range of the concepts of beauty. My favorite find was on p. 332 in the section “From Art Nouveau to Art Deco.”

Fascist Female Beauty
Press Office of the Prime Minister
Drawing and Photographs of Women’s Fashions, 1931

The Fascist woman must be physically healthy, to be able to become the mother of healthy children, according to the “rule of life” pointed out by the Duce [El Duce, Mussolini] in his memorable speech to the medical profession. Drawings of female figures who have been artificiously [sic, artifically] slimmed down and rendered masculine, representative of the barren woman of decadent Western civilization , must therefore be eliminated absolutely.

Mussolini would froth at the mouth to see Heroin Chic ads or the everyday Photoshopping to make sure no muffin tops are part of an ad for jeans. Probably would not mind the breast implants though. The transition od NouV is described (warning here comes a paragraph) as follows:

The colorful exuberance of Art Nouveau was replaced by a Beauty that was no longer aesthetic but functional, a refined synthesis of quality and mass production. The characteristic feature of the Beauty is the reconciliation of art and industry: this explains, at least in part, the extraordinary popularity of Deco objects in the 1920s and 1930s even in Italy, where the official canons of Fascist Female Beauty  were decidedly against the slender and willowy women of Deco production. Its lack of emphasis on the decorative element made Art Deco a participant in a widespread sentiment that pervaded early twentieth-century European design. The common features of this functionalist Beauty were the decided acceptance of metallic and glass materials as well as exaggerated geometrical linearity and rational elements (drawn from the late nineteenth-century Austrian Secession movement). From everyday objects (sewing machines and tea pots) designed by Peter Behrens to the products of the Munich Werbund (founded in 1907), from the German Bauhaus (later closed down by the Nazis) to the glass houses foreshadowed by Paul Scheerbart, right down to Adolf Loo’s building, there emerged a Beauty that was a reaction against the decorative stylization of technical elements as found in Jugendstil (which did not see technology as a threat, and could therefore come to a compromise with it). The struggle against this decorative element — the “dragon ornament” as Walter Benjamin defined it — was the most pronouncedly political trait of this Beauty.”

Okay, take a deep breath.  maybe write down all the names or words you don’t know, or Google them. Though I know most of the artists and craftsmen named, and all of the art movements described so can follow what he means, it takes multiple readings and looking up of his references to fully see what he is talking about. And even then it requires a somewhat wider range of background in art history to follow, such as the Nazis and degenerate art in reference to the closing of the German Bauhaus. But one worth exploring. In fact, days could be spent on just this paragraph to research to fully appreciate all of it phrase by phrase. But I have to return the book to the library, so I will stop here. But this book covers Greek to media today and similar packed detail.

on uglinessChapter heading include “Beauty as Proportion and Harmony” and “The Beauty of Monsters.” The latter leads nicely into another of his books from the previous year, 2007, On Ugliness (though GoodReads makes it sound like Beauty came first and I am too much in a hurry to check). No one who knows any wide range of art will be surprised that the cover image features a Lucas Cranach painting. And to my dismay but not surprise, there is a chapter on “The Ugliness of Woman from Antiquity to the Baroque Period” without a comparable chapter on men. However, I guess he thought that the rest of the chapters all covered men so by default the ugliness of men (in all the possible layers) is not described in the detail and at a philosophical level that it would warrant based on the text in the Beauty book. This one includes a better bibliography. The pictures are not for the sensitive or faint hearted, and since the text requires so much work, you might have to cover the images just to be able to concentrate on the text!

name of the roseAnd if you haven’t figured out where you have heard this author’s name before, it is probably because you read his famous The Name of the Rose, which alas, was made into a terrible movie.




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