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Journal of No. 118

February 1st, 2011

History of Beauty edited by Umberto Eco @ 03:47 pm

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A very peculiar work, hard to epitomize. It is a history of the theory of beauty, illustrated not only by artworks, but by extensive quotes from important and unimportant figures in the history of that theorizing. Roughly chronological in format, Eco provides short meditations on the aspect at hand, and 'hyperlinked' phrases in bold lead one to the quotes from the original sources. So, in the classical period, beauty is proportion and symmetry to the Platonists, while to Sappho: "Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot and some men say an army of ships is the more beautiful thing on the black earth. But I say it is what you love." Later, beauty is an expression of light and color, or a physical analogue to the divine. Or the sublime. Or form and function.
It's an interesting way to trace the development of art, and many of the artworks and quotes are interesting and/or surprising. But, particularly as the modern era approaches, I think the narrative loses its way (or maybe Art did), and Eco's words get more rambling and devoid of content (to me anyway, art ignoramus that I am). It's also sad, though pragmatic, that (apart from sources in English) the quotes are retranslated into English from the Italian edition, and some of the passages suffer a bit from being shuttled from language to language. Or maybe they started as gibberish, for all I know.
The book itself is a thing of beauty from Rizzoli, with oodles of nicely reproduced artwork, although the rare double page spreads suffer from being stuck in the gutter.

Anyway, here's a few more images that struck me as being A) interesting and B) not-so-well-known (again for an art tyro like myself).
Let's begin with what the Goth Gardener called "the most homoerotic piece of fine art I've ever seen."

First, consider Rapahel's School of Athens, with Plato and Aristotle hanging out with their other philosopher friends.
Now consider Jean Delville's Plato's Academy from 1898. (possibly a better image) If it got any gayer it would be yaoi.

This inevitably reminds me of Blake.

Venus never goes anywhere without this year's in hat.
This is what you see when you're an epileptic nun.
A little-known sign of the Apocalypse: An army of Paris Hiltons.

Hayez, The Kiss.
Ingres, Countess Haussonville.
Boldini, Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac
Dudovich, Fiat poster (the sketch reproduced in the book is nicer, without the ad copy)

As for the various quoted philosophies of beauty, some hit nearer, some further the mark, but I think Hume gets closest to my own ideas...
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek in the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes. It is very natural, and even quite necessary to extend this axiom to mental, as well as bodily taste; and thus common sense, which is so often at variance with philosophy, especially with the skeptical kind, is found, in one instance at least, to agree in pronouncing the same decision.

Indeed I would extend that analysis to the realm of morality, but that's a fish of a different color.
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Journal of No. 118