When Ugly People Make Beauty

Lucian Freud is amazing. Lucian Freud makes me sick. I wanted to wait until I finished reading the biography Breakfast with Lucian before writing this post, but I think I’ve had to give up on that dream. I started reading it in January and have since set it aside several times in frustration. He was an absolutely fascinating character whose passion for his work drove him wholly, and yet the way he conducted his friendships and love affairs was revolting. His treatment of women, in particular, makes my skin crawl.

A similar phenomenon happened when I tried to read Leni Riefenstahl’s autobiography. I’d always found it impressive that a woman in the 1930s had made such remarkable leaps in filmmaking; however, her light gossipy tone about which members of the Nazi Party had crushes on her was too much to take and I put the thing down (oh that flirty Goebbels!). The irony might be that a Jewish German escapee and a Nazi propagandist have elicited the very same reaction in me.

Reading Breakfast With Lucian by Geordie Greig (2013) – Woman in a Fur Coat is the painting reproduced here.

This issue was brought to light again recently with the revival of a sexual abuse accusation aimed at Woody Allen. Even more disappointing than the allegation itself was the social media reaction. Everyone went berserk: sides were chosen, insults were hurled. Though I stayed out of the conversation, as a fan of Allen, I did ask myself if this should affect my enjoyment of his oeuvre which includes some of my favourite films of all time. The answer? Absolutely not! Of course, in his case I can curl up with the comforting idea that nothing has been proven and he might be innocent, but many great artists are confirmed jerks and I still love their works. I mean, the infamous Roman Polanski himself made a movie called The Pianist that is of staggering beauty and which is about a man saved by art (hmmm). Even the Academy had to acknowledge it.

Maybe it’s just that artists do bad things with more flair than the rest of us and so we notice more, but it does seem that the masters were often engaged in morally reprehensible acts ranging from the “not nice,” as in the case of serial philanderers, to the outright criminal. If we stopped appreciating all art produced by nasty characters, there might not be much left for us to enjoy (goodbye Picasso, farewell James Brown). Is beauty less beautiful because the person who created it has a ugly side? I hope not.

And so, in the spirit of Bjütie, let’s look at some impressive baddies…

Coco Chanel

Continuing with this Nazi theme, designer Coco Chanel sailed through WWII by sleeping with the enemy. Though she closed up her Paris shop, she stayed on at the Ritz. And if having a German officer lover wasn’t bad enough, she’s also been accused of having been a full-on spy.

Regardless of her poor choice of men (or her treason), Coco Chanel invented modern dressing for women. Before Chanel, ladies’ dressing involved much overstuffing and plumage. Many of her creations are timeless – the Chanel suit, the little black dress. Though Dior, in the 1950s, temporarily squeezed women back into corsets (a girdle by any other name…) and yards of useless fabric, we owe our simple silhouettes and comfortable jersey outfits to Coco Chanel.

Coco Chanel in a simpe black dress with costume jewellery; anyone could put this on today and be elegant.

Coco Chanel in a simpe black dress with costume jewellery; anyone could put this on today and be elegant.

Stanford White

What’s worse than the fact that architect Stanford White was murdered in 1906 by his lover’s psychopathic husband? It’s that he probably deserved it! White was a seducer of young women; he preyed on the teenaged Evelyn Nesbit, then a model and chorus girl, and ruined a lot more than just her reputation. The story goes that the old guy (he had more than 30 years on her) essentially raped her (or “had his way,” as they said then) after getting her drunk on champagne in the plush apartment he kept for just this purpose (and where he had installed the famous creepy red velvet swing). This was the inauspicious beginning of a relationship that lasted years… that is, until Stanford was shot dead by the weird puritanical man Evelyn had married out of desperation. How’s that for a love story?

Nevertheless, without this icky character, New York City would look a lot different. As part of the firm McKim, Mead and White, Stanford White designed some of the most imposing neo-classical New York buildings, including the second Madison Square Garden (now demolished). The firm was also responsible for the original Penn Station, Columbia University’s library, the Municipal Building, and many private mansions. White is proof that total dicks can leave something wonderfully grand behind.

The original Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963), New York City.

The original Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963), New York City.

Woody Allen

Full disclosure: I love Woody Allen so much that I have a hard time being objective about him. But even assuming that he isn’t guilty of molesting anyone, the reality is that he did take up with the adopted [adult] daughter of his ex-girlfriend. Even though their relationship has stood the test of time and their love appears to be real, she is 37 years younger than he is and legally the half-sister of his son (ew).

What I’ve always admired about Woody Allen is that he fearlessly puts all of his neuroses out there. Anyone familiar with his work should not be surprised that he left the good competent woman behind in order to pursue the young and forbidden. (That he so often cast his girlfriends as the wronged woman really spells it out, I think.)

My favourite of his films is Hannah and her Sisters in which Michael Caine has an affair with the younger, wilder sister of his wife (played by Mia Farrow, ahem). I love everything about this movie starting with a sepia toned mid-1980s New York City and the signature jazz soundtrack. And, though you don’t expect Allen to understand female relationships, the dialogue between the 3 sisters is very satisfying (this movie, by the way, passes the Alison Bechdel test: it features at least 2 women who are named and who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man). Most wonderfully, this film accurately illustrates how it feels to really want someone. Badly. And it depicts human relationships in all their absurdity and drama.

How’s that for an internal monologue? (Hannah and Her Sister -1986)

I certainly don’t like all of Allen’s movies, some are just nervous energy spewed onto the screen, but a great many of them are fantastic. And I highly recommend some of the lesser known ones, like Interiors and September. It’s also amazing that he continues to surprise so late in his career with gems such as Vicky Christina Barcelona (my only critique of this one: not enough sex!), Midnight in Paris (whimsical and delightful beyond words), and Match Point (basically a Crimes and Misdemeanours for the social climbing tennis crowd). Oh Woody Allen, I love you but I so want to like you too.

Which great artists do you hate to love?


  1. I went through the same thing when the Orson Scott Card drama happened last year – I really loved Ender’s Game as a young lady and planned on sharing it with my kids. In general I think ugly people *can* make beautiful art, and I have no problem separating the two – but in the back of my mind there’s always a nigging little voice wondering if somehow their odd politics/theories/proclivities have snuck into their work somehow.

    I’m putting Hannah and her Sisters on my rental list – I love Woody too, but somehow have never seen that one!

    • Lynn, good question about whether or not a person’s politics sneaks into their creations. In Leni Reifenstahl’s case, she’s claimed that it was the opposite: she was just trying to make beautiful films (which happen to be propaganda for the Nazi Party) and she did not share Hitler’s views… Food for thought.

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