Drawing ugliness

A few days ago I was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with Stefan about stained glass win­dows, like those jew­els of my and Nelson’s friend Mehoffer in Fribourg or the less read­able ones in the Sainte-Chapelle. At one point we were both fum­bling for a word – what do you call the space between four columns, sev­er­al of which a church aisle con­sists of? Stefan, excep­tion­ally know­ledge­able about archi­tec­ture and the like, claimed to have later been think­ing of noth­ing else, as he thought him­self so very much sup­posed to know this spe­cif­ic term. The next day we saw each oth­er again and the first thing he shouted at me was: “Joch” (“bay”: the com­part­ment enclosed by four columns). I had, mean­while, com­pletely for­got­ten about that ques­tion.

More often, of course, this sort of inter­change occurs between dif­fer­ent lan­guage. Given the interest and leis­ure, you might actu­ally search for the word you’re not find­ing or not find­ing any­more … often enough, though, you’d just take refuge in the claim that “it’s untrans­lat­able”. Just as often I believe the claim is dubi­ous, espe­cially when I make it! To claim untrans­lat­ab­il­ity is the lazi­est solu­tion for Erklärungsnot (a German concept that’s com­pletely untrans­lat­able). Occasionally, of course, there are true lim­its. In that case, the best solu­tion may be to spend a long rant on explain­ing the term prop­erly and its entire wealth of asso­ci­ation and pro­fund­ity; then take it over into the tar­get lan­guage ver­batim without any fur­ther regard of ety­mo­logy. Hence, the Spanish “rebañar” made it into the latest edi­tion of the Duden dic­tion­ary as “revanier­en” (“to revanate” or “to revane” are still pending the Queen’s approv­al for inclu­sion into the Oxford dic­tion­ary. Rumour has it that the Palace frowns on the prac­tice itself).

In con­clu­sion, the prob­lem of what can be said in one lan­guage and what not is a deep and fruit­ful and also often tir­ing one that many illus­tri­ous people have pondered. But what about oth­er media? There are the nov­els con­sidered to be unfil­mable, there’s jokes that only work in print and so on … right now, I’m won­der­ing how to draw ugli­ness.

Look at the title pic­ture above. That was a dis­astrous day’s night (the one pre­ced­ing even big­ger dis­tress) and I can assure you that this expres­sion­ist mess was not a con­scious styl­ist­ic decision, but just a rep­res­ent­a­tion of the state of affairs. The small dam the fish­ers are stand­ing on is a badly placed con­crete cuboid, and everything was illu­min­ated by the blind­ing glare of a single, sickly bright flood­light. Lots of bad vibes around.

And yet I have the impres­sion that basic­ally any­thing I’m pro­du­cing in ink looks vaguely pretty. It’s like a fil­ter that makes everything appear as if seen through rose-col­oured spec­tacles, odd enough for some­thing black and white. Of course it’s pos­sible in graph­ic­al art to con­vey atmo­spheres and sub­ject mat­ter oth­er than bliss and idyll: dis­quiet­udegorepoverty … But for a long time, depic­tions of even the worst shit still had eleg­ant aes­thet­ics. Compare, for example, two very related works:

The_Hanging_by_Jacques_Callot Drawing ugliness
Jacques Callot: «Les pen­dus», “The Hanging”
Prado_-_Los_Desastres_de_la_Guerra_-_No._18_-_Enterrar_y_callar Drawing ugliness
Francisco Goya: Los desastres de la Guerra, № 18 – “Bury and Shut Up”

I think it’s only through the twis­ted limbs of the slain that Goya man­ages to actu­ally include and not just con­vey ugli­ness in his depic­tion of war. Looking from a dis­tance, pay­ing no atten­tion to the details of the print, you might still assume a calm and well-bal­anced com­pos­i­tion. Callot’s etch­ing from the Thirty Years“ War, almost 200 years older than Goya’s, could per­haps even be called “whim­sic­al” (or per­haps it’s just work­ing if you know enough French to read the cap­tion – trans­la­tion here. I find this thick tone of right­eous­ness drip­ping from those verses highly amus­ing. The cap­tions aren’t by Callot him­self, I didn’t find inform­a­tion on wheth­er his tex­ter, a cer­tain Michel de Marolles, col­lab­or­ated with him or texted inde­pend­ently).

Egon_Schiele_-_Nach_links_schreitender_Frauenakt_-_1914 Drawing ugliness
Egon Schiele – Striding female nude

And a quick glance at an artist asso­ci­ated with ugli­ness like few oth­ers may con­firm the hypo­thes­is: Truly ugly draw­ings have to fea­ture humans. It’s only the dis­tor­ted pro­por­tions of famil­i­ar bod­ies that have a really uneasy feel to them, while I can­not ima­gine such a feel­ing from a depic­tion of land­scape or of archi­tec­ture. The Uncanny Valley all over again. Is it so, then, that land­scapes and build­ings can­not really be drawn so as to look ugly? Does the medi­um of ink draw­ing just not provide this expres­sion?

I’d really like to see this con­jec­ture refuted. It seems weird and forced to me, but I haven’t suc­ceeded in find­ing a con­vin­cing counter-example. If you know one, please leave some com­ment below! I’m thank­ful for any find­ings and thoughts.

So long, I’ll leave you with my latest exper­i­ment. This is anoth­er travel memory: The assist­ance cemetery in København, vis­ited on a cloudy March day that made it look black and white even in natura. It’s note­worthy for being the first time I used the Fabriano paper Stefan gave me, a brand with inner and out­er siz­ing so stable that you can draw thin­ner lines than ever.

lfdrawing-kobenhavn Drawing ugliness

Leave a Reply