It has always puzzled me why horror flicks have such a huge following, but similarly horrific paintings normally make people flinch and turn their eyes away. Is static ugliness more repulsive than dynamic horror? Perhaps it is. Static ugliness makes viewers think about the continuation of the story of which a “moment in time” is frozen, and their minds start travelling the roads that can be more frightening than what is normally shown in a horror movie. A film is easy because you don’t have to imagine your own horror, you just watch how someone else’s hand is being sawn off.
The idea that art must have a shocking value to help the artist get recognised has been visibly in the air since the 15th century, when ugliness began appearing more and more often. I doubt Bosch was concerned with recognition though, when he painted his Last Judgement at the end of the 15th century, but this relay race continued through Lucas Chranach, Matsys, Goya’s Saturn and on to the Picasso’s ladies from Avignon.
But. Always a but.
A great artist painting an ugly picture does not seek to just shock the public.
Bosch’s idea was to frighten the viewer into believing that Hell was not worth it, whatever benefits a sin today could provide.
Cranach’s series of ugly men fondling young women, or, in this rare case, of an ugly old woman making advances towards a handsome young man was meant to criticise the use of financial power to meddle in the matters of the heart, the God’s domain (here’s a post about them, the mesalliance in life and art)
Quentin Matsys wanted to magnify the inappropriateness of youthful behaviour at the twilight of one’s life. Cosmetic surgery today made it possible to discount 30 years, of course, but this painting, dated back to 1513, still does send a relevant message!
Goya’s horror was painting on his own wall. Saturn eating his kids. A wild Roman story, still highly relevant today. Just look up the news: civil war in Syria, Islamists attacking citizens of their own countries… Goya’s work was exactly about that, and contemporary viewer – while being shocked – might think again of the horrible causes and consequences of today’s strife.
Let’s skip Edward Munch with his shriekingly expensive Scream. It has been getting too much attention anyway.
Let’s get down to Picasso. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s not an art critic and who’d love this painting.
A man can’t love these broken bodies: they are not sexy. Picasso himself might have hated them, painting this reflection of his teenage nightmares and an occasional abuse. A woman? No, the broken bodies (which are made pretty healthy, by the way) reflect a collection of spirits so much broken you can only feel sorry for them. People say a lot of love comes from being sorry, of course, but they just say it with a smirk when they see someone desperate.
Yes, it was, in fact, Picasso, who established a new trend in showing ugliness. He wanted to splash out own his anger, pain, and sorrow; and he did it spectacularly well. He did not want the decent folk to start thinking deeply on the fate of prostitutes. He was just sharing his pain.
I feel abused looking at his painting, even though I’ve never been used or abused. Never wanted to either. This painting does not make me any better, but it makes me feel his pain.
From then on, artist went the way of shocking people with their own phobias and paranoias.
Take Tracey Emin with her unmade bed or tent with all the names of her lovers.
Why should I get immersed in her dirty panties? I don’t care what message she says she wants to send across. I think that message is complete waste of my time!
Alas, most “shocking” art showing ugliness today is a collection of mad minds. Don’t let it go into yours.
For some years, I have been wandering galleries hoping to find ugliness in contemporary art that would not be just a good or bad representation of someone’s darkness, but would give a glimpse of hope to the viewer. A whisper that a malady can be cured. I failed to see a single example of it.
If you know about ugly art that is not just about ugliness, let me know. Drop me a link, give me a hope.
PS The painting at the top was done by Bernard Buffet, a very good artist who’d driven Picasso crazy with jealousy. The artist is undervalued, and can still be bought from small galleries across France. Isn’t it amazing?