Ugliness as a Requirement for Beauty

Inferno, c. 1410, Giovanni da Modena in the Church of San Petronio (Bologna, Italy). My picture is unsatisfactory so here is the photo credit:

“Since ugliness is a relative concept, it may only be understood in relation to another concept.  This other concept is that of Beauty:  ugliness exists only because of Beauty, which is its positive premise.  If there were not Beauty, there would be no ugliness, because the latter exists only as the negation of the former.”–The Aesthetics of Ugliness, 1852, Karl Rosenkranz

The title of this post is taken from a title in the book “On Beauty” by Umberto Eco who is a native of Bologna, Italy.

The majority of the book accounts the historical development of what is considered to encompass Beauty.  In the short life of this blog, this is the second time the subject is about beauty.   Why am I so selfish in my conquests in beauty?  Is it because my work causes me to deal with the ugly parts of life such as loss, grief, and sickness?  Perhaps, my pursuit of beauty through books, travels, and relationships is my pursuit to harmony?

“On Beauty” is a rather heavy book that employs philosophical writings (such as Socrates, Philolaus, and Plato) to explain what is considered beautiful during different time periods.  Such beauty is reflected in paintings, sculptures, architecture, musical compositions, biological illustrations, and mathematics of the current society.  If it were not for the multitude of pictures of sculptures and paintings that made me yearn to re-visit the homes of remarkable art such as Rome’s Museo Nazionale Romano, Musei Vaticani, and Galeria Borghese… then I would have probably been bored with the book due to the density of excerpts that are of ancient writing my contemporary mind can only take in small spurts.

Photo courtesy: … because I do not have this photo with me at the moment. Yet, no photo does the sculpture justice because no matter how many times I visit it at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (Rome), Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Theresa” always takes my breath away with it’s dramatic intensity.

What is more beautiful than the light, although colorless in itself, that none the less brings out the color in all things, by illuminating them?

Color as the Cause of Beauty by Hugh of Saint Victor – 12th century.

Adding some touches of beauty myself

As a female traveler, I cannot help but observe the differences in perspective of beauty that span various cultures of today.

When I was in Japan 4 months ago, I not only had a bit of fun seeing things like this on vending machines:

Tommy Lee Jones is Boss

or this in a Shibuya bookstore:

But I got a kick out of visiting Tokyu Hands to see what trends in beauty were being sold.  Here are some pictures of masks to keep the skin young or tape to put on eyelids to give eyes a more “Western” look:

Visiting friends here in Southern California, I have noticed certain ideas on what is considered feminine beauty.  Recently, one of my friends underwent an expensive facial procedure to tuck her eyelids in order to look more “awake”.  I hope this is not a trend my friends are following due to popular tele shows such as “The Real Wives of Orange County”.

Once, I was talking to some of my Korean friends while admiring the pictures (because I cannot read Korean) of one of their magazines full of Korean celebrities and models.  It was then I was informed that in Korea it is very popular to get plastic surgery and that the country benefits from medical tourism because the talents of plastic surgeons in Korea surpass those in the United States.

Tanning is a dissimilarity between cultures.  I grew up in California and Hawaii where tanning in the beaches (or tanning salons or via airbrushing) remains to be popular.  Whereas, during travels to certain parts of Asia, I am bombarded with media and beauty products promoting the whitening of skin.

Lastly, in Europe, I find it nice that women who do not possess the “model-type” of body are confident enough to walk the shore in a tiny bikini.  Perhaps because people are more intent in enjoying a day out instead of criticizing other people’s bodies?

The book “On Beauty” included writings by Plotinus (3rd century) in Enneads, Volume 8, in which inner beauty was described:

  • “In truth there is no beauty more authentic than the wisdom we find and love in some individual.  We should leave aside his face, which may be ugly, nor should we pay any heed to his appearance, but look for his inner beauty.”
  • “How much nicer it is to see a woman who obviously has nothing on her face, neither white nor red, but just her natural color…white teeth are good to see in a woman, for since they are not in plain view as the face is, but are most often concealed, one may think she spends less time making them white…for all men presume that cleanliness and a close fit, in such a secret place and one so seldom seen, must be natural and proper to that woman and shows that she is not seeking any kind of approval. “

David Hume wrote it best in 1757,  Of the Standard of Taste:  “Beauty is no quality in things themselves:  It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty…Every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.”

Vladimir Nabokov and Véra Nabokov hunting for butterflies. Photo credit:

For my next blog post I will write of another Beauty of life—L O V E.  When in a bookstore called “Fahrenheit 451” (Ray Bradbury passed away recently), I found a book called “Véra”.  Truthfully, I committed the “sin” of judging a book by its cover.  At first glance, the name “Véra” caught my eye because I thought it was an elegant name for a woman.  What sealed the purchase was to read the synopsis of the biography of  the wife, and ultimate inspiration, of Vladimir Nabokov, author of the book Lolita, which is still sitting unread on my desk.