Umberto Eco - On Ugliness (4 stars)

Entertaining collection of art history essays edited by the Italian author

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Umberto Eco - On Ugliness

(MacLehose Press)

Just as notions of beauty are very much in the eye of the beholder, what constitutes ‘ugly’ can be viewed differently across centuries and continents. Football teams who ‘play ugly’ might still end up as winners, while being told by your teacher (when such things could be said in the 80s) that you were ‘big enough and ugly enough’ was a tacit acknowledgment of a person’s ongoing personal growth. In the introduction to Umberto Eco’s lavish new art history book, he notes that reactions to an African ritual mask range from hair-raising terror to an assumption of ‘benevolent divinity’ depending on your origins.

On Ugliness may feature some off-putting chapter headings such as ‘The Ugliness of Woman Between Antiquity and the Baroque Period’ and ‘Physica curiosa’ but within are incisive and entertaining commentaries by Eco (as well as everyone from Shakespeare to DeLillo) about fairytales, surrealism and architecture. Not that it’s all sweetness and light. Sam, officially the World’s Ugliest Dog (2003-05), and Rubens’ ‘The Head of the Medusa’ will very likely be popping up in someone’s nightmares later.

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