Sanctifying the Ugly

Instead of accepting that we exist as mere “mistakes” of nature, we choose to continue our being as a wonderful piece, or a unique reflection of it. So much that we build uncountable rules and enforcements around it, secretly integrating them to our lives both in written and unwritten form, mostly unconsciously. Because we do not want to be stained, spoilt or rotten. We want to see and remember ourselves wrapped up in colorful, nice fabrics, with our “clean” and pink bodies – we do not want to remember ourselves covered in wen. This obsession with beauty and to be remembered does not go too far back, either. Distorted body forms, unusually proportioned bodies, if we take it in a linear time frame, first found their place as mythological characters in the ancient period among vases or sculptures, as an outcome of the desire of storytelling. Thus, before being left out of the story completely and being forced to write a story for themselves, dwarves were paying their dues as history contributors immensely.

As time progressed to 15th and 16th centuries, this time in Europe, dwarves got out of mythology and were accepted in daily life, being seen (and painted) in celebrations and other events where socializing was dominant. Thankfully there was an artist, Velázquez, who declined painting historical or religious paintings – thus the dwarves found themselves in the “hands” of a talented artist who could portray them in a whole new light. To their luck, he did not suffer from disorders like other painters such as Picasso, Matisse, Rembrant, and could focus solely on his art – and he had no desire to devote his time to anything else, either.

Their existence reduced to only supporting rules, with time, hierarchy brought the dwarves to the lowest step above the animals. Now they could only provide entertainment for the royalty and the people. And they were keen on preserving this hierarchy among themselves, too. Velázquez, going beyond his good will, with the help of curiosity too, painted Las Maninas, identified as the artist’s first modern work – making an introduction to the subject. Then again, the Italian artist Agnolo di Cosimo had already made an introduction of his own.

On top of their entertaining duties, dwarves were also attributed the duty of sanctifying the royals – their ugliness made the royals look even more beautiful. This had not only fixed their position, but they had figuratively drawn the chalk around their dead bodies with their own hands. As you can clearly see in the painting, Velázquez has decided to focus on the dwarves themselves. This time, far from glorification, picturing them as God’s reflection like other people, he focused on the opposite form of “being human”. Because at those times, contrary to “normal” people, the odds and chances of dwarves clothing, eating, making a living instead of entertaining others was very slim. By doing this, instead of categorizing them, Velázquez gave them a chance to “exist” just as they were; even though they were not seen worthy of history books, he scribbled them to the corners as side notes. In time many people would come back to read these notes as artists like Bacon and Picasso would also cruise among these pages.

Taking this one step ahead, the artist reflected his radical take on dwarves when he painted El Primo, where the dwarf subject whom gave the painting its name was in front of books and an ink bottle. As he was glorified by the objects surrounding him, the viewers could also see the real proportions, not escaping from reality. Even if the viewers could not even begin to accept this reflected reality in “real” life…

As we leave Velázquez’s indecisive transitions between glorifying and belittling, abiding by God’s creating and unifying power and move on to our day; we see that even with the changing qualifications and social classes, ugly is still where it was left off, cast out. We are again in between glorifying and belittling; however this time there is the competence to discover ours among these unusual routes, lengths and lines; and this does not put it too far from empathy. Now as we see it most likely in TV series and the internet, “The Ugliest Woman in the World” and all these productions around them, push us toward anti-hero missions. Image makers that used to push us toward beauty now preach us to be natural, while at the same time taking the beautiful side of that as well. In other words, while some are creating a ruckus out there, some are making notes on history, some are going back to read them, and others are bragging with their heavy libraries which are filled with these books filled with scribbled corners.

Dilan Ceylan Emektar