Defining the Strange and the Ugly (final assignment)

How would you define the concept of the ‘strange’ and the ‘ugly’ within your subject specialism?

What is the difference?  How can it inform your practice?
How did the Mannerist apply it in their works?

A short essay by Sara Christova


“If I was strange and strange were my figures,
Such strangeness is a source of both grace and art;
And whoever adds strangeness here and there to his style,
Gives life, force and spirit to his paintings.”
Piero di Cosimo, 1521

In this short essay I will be questioning what exactly is ‘strange’ and what is ‘ugly’ in order to find their ‘true’ meaning. I will be focusing on understanding the definitions and social implications of ‘strange’ and ‘ugly’. With the concepts in question I will look for relations to Mannerist art and my own Illustration practice. Personally, I simply can’t call anything ‘strange’ or ‘ugly’. Everything (that could be considered such by the ‘public opinion’) has its own unique properties, its own imperfections and attributes. Anything can become genuinely interesting and magically curious and wonderful for its own reason. The ability to allow yourself to be positively impressed by what you’d normally judge or overlook in a negative manner is one of the most essential skills an illustration student can acquire.

To know what is ‘strange’ or ‘ugly’ one should already have a defined idea of what is ‘normal’ or ‘beautiful’, as they are opposite. However the components of the two pairs correlate with each other as well. If we look at ‘strange’ and ‘ugly’ from a different perspective, the term ‘ugly’ would represent something so intensely unfamiliar and mystifyingly different, that it can morph the ‘strange’ into ‘ugly’, in which case we can agree that the two embody the same impression with a different degree of intensity.

When thinking about the Mannerist, we inevitably address their incredibly extensive and vast knowledge and awareness, and how everything they put into their works is backed by an army of ideas, meanings and associations. In making their paintings the artists had the chance to explore and question the properties, characteristics and qualities of what we see (as both ‘look at’ and ‘understand’) when we view a given artwork. Their consideration of the difference in people’s perception allowed them to engage all possible interpretations and lead the viewer on to the key message and meaning. The ‘liquidation’ of the conventional form, a principal characteristic of Mannerist art, could easily be seen as an experiment, a probation of how far a deformity can go unnoticed by the viewer. A test of the mass perception and the social boundaries of ‘strangeness’, ‘ugliness’, ‘beauty’, ‘monstrosity’, ‘divinity’…

In a way, the Mannerist have presented us with an incredibly intricate exploration of the human body and all of its unpredictability, its structure, form and curvature, and their variations between each  individual, same as snowflakes and trees, which may look similar, but upon closer inspection each one proves to be undoubtedly unique. Why do we, humans, put what’s around us  into little categories of grades of positives and negatives when everything is essentially exactly the same – different, extraordinary and unique, despite the similarities. This leads us to a meaning, a statement, a conclusion, incorporated into Mannerist art, amongst everything else: what is strange, ugly or beautiful is only subject to our own perception.

Through their work, the Mannerist question the revered strive for perfection for they know there is no such thing – we are all perfectly imperfect. Illustration can capture those flaws and bring them forward to prove to the world how even the most dull piece of earth can become a valuable source of inspiration. It’s about showing how beautiful the ugly can be and how normal the strange really is. Our world is beautifully diverse and unpredictable, and terms like ‘strange’ and ‘ugly’ are no more than mere illusions of the clouded mind.


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