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Posted November 28, 2007
'One man's trash is another man's treasure' might be a apt conclusion after spending the significant amount of time required to digest Umberto Eco's semiotic approach to 'ugly'. Eco's brilliance as an author is well accepted, yet his informed academic investigation (upon which many of his own novels are based) is only now being appreciated. It is difficult to read ON UGLINESS as a treatise, so lush and provocative is his prose style. Rizzoli International spared no expense on supplying Eco with images and design of this art treasure, and the result is a volume about art history and our manifold perceptions of the signs and symbols that through time have defined 'ugly' versus 'beauty.' Eco wisely uses the chronological approach to his discourse on the semiotics of ugliness. After a superb Introduction in which he suggests the response of an alien visiting our planet, trying to determine what our civilization labeled beautiful (!), Eco launches into his presentation with gusto. He presents chapters on ugliness in the Classical World, religious use of ugliness (passion, death, martyrdom, apocalypse, hell), monsters, witchcraft, sadism, 'obscene pornography', the appearance of ugliness in architecture and industrial buildings, and finally the transition of the 'ugly' in the popular kitsch and camp. Coupled with the fascinating written words by the author are copious reproductions of paintings, details of images (some of the details of Bosch's complex canvases are amazingly clear), by both well known painters and unknown painters, displayed with short excerpts from writers who wrote on the subject of the ugly versus the beautiful. Eco brings us to the absolute present (punk art, Cindy Sherman, current film, etc) and as his images emerge from the book's pages, so does his commentary quicken. And so we are left with a book on the subject of Ugliness, which as an art volume is quite the opposite: this is a very beautiful and informed new art book. Highly recommended reading and viewing. Grady Harp
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