Maciej Jarzewicz, The Modern Decline of Beauty

Fondness for ugliness, dreadfulness, themes that are marginal and opposed to classic beauty is at least as old as beauty itself and fondness for it. Yet, much has changed since the times of Phidias and Aristotle, as the formula of mainstream art has become extremely distant from classic beauty, whereas ugliness and monstrosity turned out to be a fixture of “fine arts,” probably more significant than beauty itself. It seems that the breakthrough – the shift in proportions – occurred around the mid-19th century. It may have been related to a plethora of phenomena taking place at that time. Beyond doubt, it was the first time that a radical critique of Classicism, classic beauty and Academic painting had emerged, motivated both by artistic and political causes.

            The loss of interest in the old “fine art” was described by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Demons. In the novel, the Governor’s wife Julia Mikhaylovna addresses Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina in reaction to the latter’s story that Verkhovensky senior intends to write something about Raphaels’ Sistine Madonna: “The Dresden Madonna? You mean the Sistine Madonna? Chère Varvara Petrovna, I sat for two hours in front of that painting and went away disappointed. I understood nothing, and was greatly surprised. (…) Not one now, Russian or English, finds anything in it. All this fame was just the old men shouting.”[1]

            In Demons, the mention of Raphael plays a limited yet significant role. It indicates an important change in the perception of art – a change that occurred alongside the emergence of a new generation: the young nihilistic “demons” who oppose their predecessors: democrats-Westernisers. The painting itself is mentioned a number of times, but – as Barbara Stempczyńska remarked – only briefly, without a description, and sometimes the artwork is indicated by a mere suggestion.[2] This was possible owing to Raphael’s immense popularity in Russia in the 19th century, both in the academic training of painters and amongst the educated spheres of the society. Raphael, and particularly his Dresden Madonna, was a visualisation of the timeless beauty and superiority of the West, both in the categories of politics and spiritual culture.[3] Dostoyevsky himself, against his stereotypically ascribed anti-Western stance, appreciated Raphael and spoke very highly of the Sistine Madonna; he also possessed a reproduction of the work, which kept him company for many years.[4] Nevertheless, the author made use of that painting, or rather the connotations that it evoked amongst the reading public of the time, in order to depict various attitudes of the protagonists towards absolute beauty, and those attitudes were also a manifestation of the approach to ideals in a broader sense. The generation of old democrats recognised them as their own, whereas the new generation, headed by the young Verkhovensky and Stavrogin, were defined as “nihilists” for a reason.

            The key moment of the spreading of “the ugly in fine arts” came with Realism propagated by Gustave Courbet, also called Naturalism by Emil Zola (the question whether Realism should be identified with Naturalism remains open; it was also under discussion in that era, yet from the point of view of the aesthetics of ugliness it is not necessary to resolve it). Turning attention to the negative aspects of reality, or actually the domination of the themes of poverty, illness and death, was justified by a pursuit of truth and an opposition to false ideals. In his biography written in third person, Courbet himself formulates it as follows: “Having considered the mistakes of Romanticism and Classicism, in 1846 (…) he raised a banner: it was Realist art. In his understanding, that human conclusion awakened the very forces of man against paganism, Greco-Roman art, the RenaissanceCatholicism, and the gods and demigods, in short against the conventional ideal.”[5]

            The ugliness of figures in Courbet’s paintings was justified by the actual ugliness of his models caused by their living conditions, and on a more profound level – by social relations in France at the time. The shortest recapitulation was offered by Champfleury, who wrote soon after Courbet’s thunderous appearance on the Paris artistic scene: “Is it the painter’s fault that material issues, town life, small-mindedness of the province dig their claws into the human face, they dim his gaze, make his forehead frown, give his lips a touch of dullness.”[6]

            The connection between physical ugliness and moral evil seems to be the most classic combination, an ordinary negative image of the antique vision of beauty and good. In itself, the relation between beauty and good as well as between ugliness and evil was not thrown into question here, yet it was recognised that it was evil and ugliness that constituted the essence of reality. It was this conclusion that sparked perhaps the most significant controversy between the representatives of nineteenth century Realism and their critics, among whom we should count the Positivist writer and critic Henryk Struve. Among other statements, Struve wrote:

Is that not a completely pathological symptom, a sign of the degradation of taste, if the contemporary naturalism seeks with particular delight the ugly sides of life and relishes the representation of the most dreadful figures and situations? After all, it never used to be the case before that the true world, the real world, was only a pile of dirt, and humanity a mob that wallows around it, comprising fallen women, filthy witches, starving proletariat and vile exploiters.[7]

The criticism of beauty pursued by Naturalists-Realists originated from several apparently contradictory phenomena. Those were: the pursuit of truth – whatever it was, a kind of perverse curiosity, the need to shock the philistine, and most importantly: social critique pursued by means of depicting ugliness/odiousness that resulted from economic and political conditions. Such a role of art and literature, and particularly the novel, was recognised as fundamental by Friedrich Engels, who stipulated his programme in a letter to Minna Kautsky (writer, mother of  the main ideologist of German Socialists Karol Kautsky): “Thus the socialist problem, novel in my opinion, fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.”[8] The matter of crucial importance that transpires from the letter is the aversion to the current reality, but above all to the illusions that – according to Engels – were used to embellish the uninteresting reality, hence the aversion of Marx and Engels to “Idealism” and “Idealistic” inclinations in the cultural world of the bourgeoisie.

            Novels esteemed by the classics of Socialism did not necessarily need to carry a distinctively Socialist message in terms of the vision of political development. What usually sufficed was an appropriately evocative image of the collapse of humanity in the industrial world. Serving as an example is the description of the inhabitants of the factory town of Coketown penned by Charles Dickens, which portrays the congruence of degraded landscape and deformed human figures:

in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown generically called ‘the Hands’ – a race who would have found mere favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs.[9]

The interest in ugliness did not decrease once the Naturalist formula of art was questioned. Departure from faithful imitation of reality or re-introduction of metaphysical elements did not usher in a return to the classic understanding of beauty. Questioning Naturalism, and particularly the social-critical role of art did not change much in the understanding of beauty and ugliness. What is more, the key Naturalistic identification of the ugly with truth retained its validity, as exemplified by a fragment of the leading work of late nineteenth century Decadentism, The Portrait of  Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:

Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real, became dear to him now for that very reason. Ugliness was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of art, the dreamy shadows of song.[10]

Nevertheless authenticity is merely one of the key characteristics of ugliness. The quoted fragment does not concern objective truth, but the impression that it makes on the experiencing subject. The expressive value is no less important, be it real or ascribed to the acting artist. In the latter context, a very interesting emotional weight was discovered by Joris-Karl Huysmans in works by Edgar Degas: “It would seem that having grown weary of the mediocrity of his surroundings he desired revenge, throwing the most extreme insult in the face of his century: he overthrows the deity under constant protection – the woman, whom he humiliates by depicting her simply in a large basin, in the debasing postures of intimate procedures. And to highlight his contempt even more, he chooses her to be fat, paunchy and stocky, thus drowning the grace of the contours under the folding masses of the flesh, losing all moderation, line, from the perspective of painterly vision; he turns her in life, regardless of the class she belongs to, into a butcher, slaughterer – a creature whose vulgar posture and vulgar features repulse, compel restraint, evoke disgust.”[11] From today’s perspective, the perception of Degas as an artist who taps into ugliness as an important means of expression appears rather strange, yet the context and viewers’ habits were different at the time.

            In the perception of artists from the turn of the twentieth century ugliness and monstrosity could also have a different meaning. Not only did they ruin false ideas (or ideas recognised as false), but they could also, in their opinion, lead to supra-natural reality. Such a role of expressive ugliness was discovered by Huysmans in Medieval art, particularly in the works of Matthias Grünewald. According to Agnieszka Rosales Rodriguez, “for Huysmans, spiritualism does not have to make use of idealisation, its tool is the very ugliness – more adequate to the state of sin, suffering, closer to life, more human, yet opening itself up to the mystical dimension.”[12]

            A similar phenomenon to the above described interest in the expressive qualities of Medieval art (not in the least beginning with Huysmans) was the discovery of the work of Francisco Goya for a wider European audience. Known primarily for his graphic works, the artist was more widely popularised in the mid-nineteenth century owing to new editions of Los caprichos (since 1850) and the first The Disasters of War (1863). An important matter in the reception of Goya was the emphasis on creative fantasy, which prevails over all other desired characteristics of the work of art, including beauty in its classical understanding. Charles Baudelaire, one of the main representatives of new aesthetics in literature and fine arts, characterised Los caprichos and other works by Goya as follows: “I shall content myself with adding a few words on the very rare element that Goya introduced into the comic; I mean the fantastic. (…) To the gaiety and joviality, to the Spanish satire of the good old days of Cervantes, he adds a much more modern attitude of mind, or at least one that has been much more sought-after in modern days: the love of the intangible, the feeling for violent contrasts, the love of the terrifying phenomena of nature and of human physiognomies strangely animalized by circumstances.”[13]

            However, unrestrained fantasy was not the basic factor of creative work in Goya’s epoch, also in the opinion of the painter of the Spanish court, who rather presented a moderate theoretical stance and believed that “imitation of nature”[14] was the most important.

            Fantasy and individual practice in the old artistic system (related to the institution of the court) was reserved for special circumstances, such as the formula of graphic “capriccios.” According to the meaning of the word consolidated at the turn of the seventeenth century, “capriccio” was a means of expression in which a superior role was attributed to the artist’s invention: it could pertain to the subject matter of the work or deem the theme and iconography unimportant, becoming a showpiece of the artist’s mastery. Thus understood, “capriccio” was an embodiment of artistic freedom. However, as Werner Busch remarked, it was rather a reservation – subjected to the exclusive reign of fantasy, while classic order was preserved beyond it, and therefore in this case we cannot speak of a world of creative freedom.[15] Busch sees it in the modern artistic system, which came into being already after the revolutionary transformation of European societies that took place at the turn of the nineteenth century.

            The great theory of beauty, as Władysław Tatarkiewicz called the main current of aesthetics based on harmony and proportions, was overthrown, at least in terms of high-brow art. In A History of Six Ideas, Tatarkiewicz describes the process of transformations in artistic theory and practice as follows: “It was left to the twentieth century to draw the conclusions suggested by the criticisms of the eighteenth century. And this was done – both by artists and by theorists. Beauty, it was now asserted, is such a faulty concept as to be an inadequate basis for any theory. It is not the most important objective of art. It is more important that a work of art should agitate people than that it should delight them with its beauty, and this shock effect can be achieved by other means than beauty, including even ugliness.”[16]

            The strange liaisons between truth, good and beauty as well as their negation also bore the fruit of paradoxical effects in the era of modern totalitarianisms. Insofar as “demons” – the nineteenth century rebels-nihilists simply opposed old ideals, including artistic ones, the totalitarian movements and regimes of the 20th century attempted to impose by force an aesthetics at least partly based on classic models. However, beauty that serves evident evil bears characteristics of falsehood or even a lie. As a deceitful substitute of higher aesthetic feelings, that is kitsch, totalitarian art was included in its entirety by Umberto Eco in his History of Ugliness: “But for whom is trash actually trash? ‘High’ culture uses kitsch to describe garden gnomes, devotional images, the fake Venetian canals in the casinos of Las Vegas (…) kitsch has unfailingly been used to define the celebratory art (intended to be popular) of Stalin’s, Hitler’s and Mussolini’s regimes, which described contemporary art as ‘degenerate’.”[17]

            In my opinion, a simple exclusion of creative work commissioned by totalitarian states from the category of “art” and defining it as “kitsch” deprives totalitarian art of its horror, in a similar way that it is wrong to define atrocious medical experiments on people as “pseudo-science.” Yet the problem does not lie in aesthetics or the methodology of sciences, but in morality. An interesting case is the artistic-political journey of Stanisław Szukalski, described recently by Kazimierz Piotrowski as a shift from Satanist to totalitarian modernity.[18] An argument that Piotrowski puts forward is the figure of Mussolini created by Szukalski using his trademark poetics of expressive ugliness. It seems that the distance between fictitious “demons” and utterly real dictators is far smaller than we think, also with regard to the questions of beauty and art.

[1]      Fyodor Dostoevski, Demons, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Vintage Books, 2006), p. 308 (orig. 1873).

[2]      Barbara Stempczyńska, Dostojewski a malarstwo (Katowice: University of Silesia, 1980), pp. 64–67.

[3]      Barbara Dąb-Kalinowska, “‘Mistrz życiodajnego pędzla.’ Rafael w Rosji XIX wieku,” Ikonotheka, vol. 8 (1994): 31–38.

[4]      Fiodor Dostojewski, Biesy, Polish trans. Tadeusz Zagórski, Zbigniew Podgórzec (London: Puls, 1992), s. 671 (footnote by Zbigniew Podgórzec).

[5]      Courbet w oczach własnych i w oczach przyjaciół, ed. Pierre Courthion, trans. and introduction Joanna Guze (Warsaw: PIW, 1963), s. 237 (orig. 1866).

[6]      Ibid., p. 55 (orig. 1851).

[7]      Henryk Struve, Sztuka i piękno (Warsaw: E. Wende i S-ka, 1892), pp. 131–132 (entire chapter titled Szpetne w sztukach pięknych, pp. 131–151).

[8]      Friedrich Engels to Minna Kautsky, 26 November 1885, quoted from: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, On Literature and Art (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 88.

[9]      Charles Dickens, Hard Times, quoted from Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, trans. Alastair McEwen (London: Harvill Secker, 2007), p. 337 (orig. 1854).

[10]    Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, quoted from Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, p. 341 (orig. 1891).

[11]    Joris-Karl Huysmans, Moreau – Degas, quoted in idem, O sztuce, selection, edition and introduction Elżbieta Grabska, trans. Halina Ostrowska-Grabska (Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1969), pp. 123–124 (orig. 1889).

[12]    Agnieszka Rosales Rodriguez, “Brzydota, mistycyzm i groza – Joris Karl Huysmans i sztuka nowoczesna,” in Szpetne w sztukach pięknych: Brzydota, deformacja i ekspresja w sztuce nowoczesnej, ed. Małgorzata Geron and Jerzy Malinowski (Krakow: LIBRON, 2011), p. 60.

[13]    Charles Baudelaire, “Some Foreign Caricaturists” in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P. E. Charvet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 235-236 (two versions of the original text from 1857, 1868).

[14]    Jutta Held, “Goyas Akademiekritik,” Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, vol. 17 (1966): 214–224.

[15]    Werner Busch, Die Graphische Gattung Capriccio – der letzlich vergebliche Versuch, die Phanthasie zu kontrollieren, Das Capriccio als Kunstprinzip. Zur Vorgeschichte der Moderne bis Tiepolo und Goya. Malerei – Zeichnung – Graphik, ed. Ekkehard Mai, exh. cat. Cologne, Wallraf-Richrtz Museum 8 Dec 1996–16 Feb 1997, Milan, 1996, p. 55.

[16]    Władysław Tatarkiewicz, A History of Six Ideas. An Essay in Aesthetics, trans. Christopher Kasparek (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1980), p. 145 (orig. 1975).

[17]    Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, p. 394.

[18]    Kazimierz Piotrowski, “Dialektyka i doskonałość brzydoty (od satanizmu do nowoczesności totalnej),” in Szpetne w sztukach pięknych, pp. 23–29.