It seems perfectly clear at first glance: beautiful and ugly are straightforward opposites. Beautiful Cinders, ugly sisters. Beauty, the Beast. Dorian, his portrait. So it's not surprising, having commissioned Umberto Eco to write an essay and compile a book of pictures and quotations called On Beauty in 2004, that by 2007 the publishers thought it was time for On Ugliness. (Don't tell me that publishing isn't as easy as falling off a log.) Eco made the beauty book look grand, beginning it with a triumphal line-up of comparative tables picturing thumbnails of Western beauty along a historical timeline. Venus Nude (from Venus of Willendorf 13 BC to Monica Belucci in the Pirelli calendar, 1997); Venus Clothed (Auxerre Lady from Crete, seventh century BC, to Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, 1960); Adonis Nude (a sixth-century Greek statue to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, 1985); Adonis Clothed (2000 BC silver statuette from Aleppo to George Clooney, 2002); Portraits of Adonis (bronze head of Sargon from Akkad 2500-2000 BC to Denis Rodman c.1998 - no, I don't know who he is either). In the pages that followed, Eco found an array of pictures to please, excite and rest the eye, and gave a fairly elementary run through of aesthetic theory, chronicling the changing assumptions about what has constituted the beautiful over time. It was a personal take, but there wasn't much to argue with. Schwarzenegger may not be your cup of tea, but you see what Eco means - and I suppose Arnie's better than Steven Seagal if a hunk is a must.
LRB 24 January 2008 | PDF Download