Ugly: An Alternative Look at Western Art

June 5, 2013 - August 4, 2013
Teaching Gallery

For many people, the history of Western art exists as an imagined litany of beautiful artworks, a chronology of idealized figures and finished objects. Featuring a selection of paintings, prints, photographs, and sculpture that depict or embody the ugly, the plain, the vulgar, or the grotesque, this exhibition asks us to reconsider those assumptions.

Most simply, ugliness has been conceived as the inverse of beauty, but there has always been more at stake than mere aesthetic preference. Throughout history those notions have been imbued with moral values: beauty most frequently is equated with ideals of goodness, truth, and order, while the mundane, the irrational, the evil, the deformed, and the excessive are relegated to the realm of ugliness. Over time, just as moral values have shifted, both the appearance and usefulness of ugliness have taken on different meanings and different roles, often in surprisingly powerful ways.

As contemporary viewers, we may not find everything in this exhibition to be ugly, but we might find it useful to ask ourselves how notions of beauty and ugliness shape our impressions of works of art, and how these artworks might challenge or support these assumptions.

This Teaching Gallery exhibition is curated by Elissa Weichbrodt, PhD, in conjunction with the course "History of Western Art, Architecture & Design," offered by the Department of Art History & Archaeology in Washington University's School of Arts & Sciences in summer 2013.

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Image credit

James Ensor, Le Christ tourmenté (Christ Tormented), 1888. Oil on linen, 21 7/8 x 27 5/8". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Morton J. May, 1968. Artists Rights Society (ARS).