Written by Stephen Bayley, published in 2012 by Goodman Fiell, London. 272 pgs. 25.00 pounds.

While Kant's critique analysed the human experience of the beautiful, Stephen Bayley presents an intense historical narrative on ugliness and its engagement with our aesthetic sensibilities  

Does ugliness exist naturally?

“Beautiful art is a mode of representation which is purposive for itself, and which although devoid of definite purpose, yet furthers the culture of the mental powers in reference to social communication.” Immanuel Kant, Critique of judgement. (c.1790). While Kant’s critique analyzed the human experience of the beautiful, Stephen Bayley presents an intense historical narrative on ugliness and its engagement with our aesthetic sensibilities.

“Aesthetics is the science of beauty, but it’s an imprecise science.” (page 13).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Grotesque heads (c.1490). sketch

Leonardo da Vinci’s Grotesque heads (c.1490). sketch

Leonardo da Vinci’s Grotesque heads (c.1490). sketch[/caption]On the 24th of September 2012, this book was launched amidst an exhibition of what is culturally termed grotesque. The exhibition along with the book proposes a rethink on all that is termed ugly, different, grotesque and kitsch. The text, rich in vivid images is an in depth research into centuries of art, design and cultural history pertaining to all aspects of the ‘ugly’.

Thinking differently

Instead of seeing beauty and ugliness as two sides of a coin, (Umberto Eco, on ugliness.2007) in his ten chapters, Bayley questions and explains that all that is termed ‘ugly’ is but a cultural construct highly variable with time. He describes man’s changing attitudes towards mountains, tattoos and crime, exhibitions that celebrate the ‘ugly’, product design and political imagery. Quentin Massey’s portrait the ugly duchess was once considered to be grotesque and yet today it is one of the most popular postcards sold in London’s National Gallery shop.

Quentin Massy’s, A grotesque old woman (or the ugly                                Dutchess) (c.1513), oil on oak. London

Quentin Massy’s, A grotesque old woman (or the ugly
Dutchess) (c.1513), oil on oak. London

He further elaborates on the design of the Colt.45, “its ingenious modular construction…severely undecorated …very well proportioned became a symbol of the pioneer spirit on the American frontier; yet its purpose was to mutilate and kill.” Thus functionalism, beauty, efficiency and ugliness seem strangely linked together. He compares the emphasis on purity in the Shaker’s designs with the excesses of Baroque. The Shaker’s 6 rules of beauty contradict the highly organic deformations of the Baroque art. Both strived for a higher aesthetic consciousness but differently.

Pursuit of beauty

“Architects were more committed to the pursuit of beauty and the eradication of ugliness…” Le Corbusier and his modernist followers were identified as ‘apostles of ugliness’ as they constructed abstractions of perfect geometry. The modernist abstinence from tradition and expressive styles of architecture fueled popular opinion that, what was not natural becomes ugly. For instance, Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist building, Trellick Tower in north Kensington was condemned as ugly as it lacked mystery and romanticism.

“Beauty can be truth but so too is ugliness”. The text is punctuated with such maxims that answer questions proposed in each of the chapters. A well researched book that gives a beautiful account on the aesthetics of everything. Most of all, it stresses on the need to look at everything, to think and wonder at the meaning of it all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>