“There is in me something that is often stronger than my body, which is often enlivened by it. In some people the inner spark scarcely exists. I find it dominant in me. Without it, I should die, but it will consume me (doubtless I speak of imagination, which masters and leads me.)” Eugene Delacroix, Journal, 1822
There is strength in answering the call from the soul’s depths to give imagination form and presence. Humanity has followed this path for a long, long time – giving form to things that brought pleasure and satisfaction to the viewer… in the form of women.
Some ancient artist imagined a woman’s form into rock – and the Venus of Willendorf was born. Artists through the ages have used Venus (or Aphrodite) as their muse. She is a mythological goddess who surfaced from the foam of the Aegean Sea, the Goddess of Love, sculpted, etched and painted throughout antiquity to modern times. She is the embodiment of love, desire, sex and lust and beauty.
The concept of beauty was the center of attention for the Ancients, who believed it was God given in the form of man and existed in all natural things. The early philosopher Plotinus said that: “Beauty is that which has real being, but ugliness is the nature opposite to this. It is this that is the first evil; just as beauty is likewise the first of things beautiful and good. Or it may be that goodness and beauty are one in the same. Therefore, we must investigate the beautiful and good, and the ugly and evil, by the same process.” According to this classic principal, great art must be beautiful, and ugliness should be constrained and suppressed.
Because of this need to investigate the world, to balance beauty against ugliness, dark against light, good against evil – we find that there must be one to have the other. Knowing that opposition creates balance, we must “look at this world as it really is … find that what is most ugly within it has the sparks of life and is therefore moving and worthy of our attention… it’s because we’re looking for a light in a very dark world.” Art will move from beauty to beauty; but it’s also driven toward the unsightly, awkward and ugly. Perhaps it’s circumstance – an artist deliberately chooses to depict ugliness over beauty; in turn, the preference of the public follows an artist who chooses to artistically express that which only they understand. This is the pattern of generational taste; things that were once believed to be ugly are soon accepted as beautiful. This cycle of opinion has a cult following; the cult of beauty and the cult of ugliness.
In the 19th Century, artists and their critics saw a shift in art that was being produced. This new deviation wasn’t by accident, it was a worthy campaign devoted to bucking the system to show that beauty wasn’t exclusive. The cult of ugliness joined together based on mutual admiration – some claiming superiority due to the courage of their conviction, devotion and willingness to revel in their non-conformity. Their goals moved art forward and found beauty in a deliberate repudiation of society’s standardization and need to categorize – soon surpassing art to become a societal movement, changing fashion, music and prose.
A founding member of the cult was Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, a highly talented draftsman whose prolific works number at over 3,000 drawings and 400 paintings, his work challenged perceived order by illustrating what he thought was the essence of his subject and Parisian culture. His work portrayed the unconventional, the underbelly of society with sympathy and realism. He elevated actors, dancers and whores to a whole new status and “strove to capture the inner soul rather than the surface detail of his subjects, a focus which set him apart [from his contemporaries].”
Toulouse Lautrec was a doformed man, marginalized by society – his defect, judged as ugliness – was considered to be a character flaw. He is quoted as saying, “Everywhere and always ugliness has its beautiful aspects; it is thrilling to discover them where nobody else has noticed them.” His imperfect body was possibly his greatest strength as an artist, it helped him see beauty at the circus and at cabarets of the Montmartre district of Paris. As a commissioned artist for the establishment, the Moulin Rouge dance hall reserved a table for him every night. There, prostitutes befriended, supported, and modeled for the Lautrec. Among those models was La grosse Maria, who became the Venus of Montmartre. “Desiring to paint a nude, Lautrec asked a decayed prostitute to sit for him. He painted her blighted body, her ravages and almost dolorous face, with a sympathy that must, had they seen it, have been seriously disquieting to his family. But had he not felt a profound fellowship with Grosse Maria’s decadence, would he have been able to give the nude he painted her such an emotional quality? Like himself, she had no illusions.”
Also called Voluptuous Mary, The Venus of Montmartre is a painting of a visibly older woman. She does not demure, look away or play the coquette. She boldly looks from the canvas and challenges the viewer to judge her existence as a person – not as a whore or an old woman – but as a being with intrinsic value, crafted with beauty and perfection.
In using Plotinus’ advice to challenge the way we estimate beauty and ugliness, we can look through Lautrec’s lens: he honestly represented these women, cataloging their everyday lives – bathing, sleeping, loving, receiving medical exams, recovering after work, doing laundry – they were not glamorous moments. “He saw them as people and regardless of whether he thought them to be women of ill repute or paragons of virtue fallen upon hard times, he painted them as they were. Not always in a bright light and not always in darkness.”
Therefore, we must investigate the beautiful and good, and the ugly and evil, by the same process. Victor Hugo, a romantic member of the cult of ugliness, is quoted as saying, “The beautiful has but one type, the ugly has a thousand.”
Beck, Julian. “Thoughts on Theater from Jail.” New York Times, 21 Feb. 1965, p. 3.
Class of 2004, Student Cohort. “Toulouse-Lautrec: Painting Prostitution as It Was.” Edited by Robert Schwartz, France in the Age of Les Miserables, Mount Holyoke College – History 255, May 2001,.
Perruchot, Henri. La Vie De Toulouse-Lautrec. Translated by Humphrey Hare, Hachette, 1958.
Ross, Elizabeth. Belle Epoque. Scholastic, Inc., 2015.
Stern, Isidore. “The cult of Ugliness.” The North American Review, Nov., 1965.
Taylor, Thomas, and Plotinus. Plotinus on the Beautiful: Ennead I.6 ; On Intelligible Beauty: Ennead V.8. Shrine of Wisdom, 1955.