Freaks to the Front
Freaks to the Front

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Freaks to the Front

Sometimes I don't thrill you
Sometimes I think I'll kill you
Just don't let me fuck up will you
'cause when I need a friend it's still you
— Dinosaur Junior, Freak Scene

It would be pretty foolish to argue that Flemish master Quentin Matsys’ overtly and scathingly misogynist painting An Old Woman, better known as The Ugly Duchess, was really about friendship. Yes, it would. But sounds fun.

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Quinten Massys, An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess'), about 1513 © Photo: The National Gallery, London

"There is a kind of cathartic joy in beholding this woman trampling gender hierarchies"

‘It’s about poking fun at a woman who is behaving and dressing in a way considered unbefitting of her age,’ says curator of The National Gallery’s new exhibition The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance Emma Capron. ‘She's showing this very scandalous cleavage; she's wearing this monumental head piece, which would have been actually deeply old-fashioned at the time – it had become an iconographic shorthand for female vanity by the early 16th century.’ For horned headdress, read: devilish; bad.

Reunited with her pendant, An Old Man, it’s clear the duchess is trying to seduce him, proffering a withered flower, while ‘he raises his hand as a gesture that has been interpreted variously as rebuke or salutation’, Capron says. What’s more, the old woman hangs on the left (his right), traditionally where the male figure should be, as if she’s budged him over to the side. ‘There is a kind of cathartic joy in beholding this woman trampling gender hierarchies, social conventions, canons of beauty’, in an image ‘both satirical and celebratory’.

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Quinten Massys, An Old Man, about 1513, Photo © Evan Read, Department of Paintings Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Certainly, Massys’ old woman is more fun to look at than his placid Madonnas, which seem copy-paste even for a time when that was pretty much all you could paint. As Umberto Eco once wrote, ‘beauty is detachment, absence of passion. Ugliness, by contrast, is passion.’ It’s a sentiment that rings true in The Age of Instagram Face, beauty homogenised by like-counts, mediated by airbrush and filters, with ‘absence of passion’ literalised by Botox, which squeezes out expressiveness and flattens emotion. Against such a backdrop, there is something perversely inviting – traversable, even – about the old woman’s wrinkles and bones, formed as if by some complex volcanic event. ‘As a viewer, this image allows you to partake in the transgression’, Capron says. ‘We’re laughing with her’.

"absence of passion literalised by Botox"

But how? ‘It's all about her ruddiness, the highlights on her breasts, the hair on her mole – she even has a white hair on it – and she has hair sprouting out of her ears. It's really a riot.’ Yes, it’s all about the details in the devil. By fully fleshing out the source image, a grotesque by Leonardo da Vinci, which hangs nearby in The National Gallery’s exhibition (‘a momentous reunion for us because they have never been shown together’) Massys attracts the viewer to the outwardly repellent and invites her to get up close and personal. As does Capron, pointing out the ‘sgraffito; the wet-in-wet; the feathering; it’s so carefully executed. The tension between form and subject is the joke.’

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Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, The bust of a grotesque old woman, 1510-20 (?). Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Bringing da Vinci’s sketch into the gilded frame and ‘lavishing so much care and attention on something so invective’ was a radical move. Even so, it seems like Massys is going to some lengths just for a laugh. ‘I suspect a commission context for this’, says Capron. Ultimately, we don’t know, ‘but there is circumstantial evidence to think that a work like this would have likely originated within the humanistic context that he was part of – he was acquainted with Erasmus, who he depicted twice – I think, actually, it's probably a kind of joke within the circle.’

"It's really a riot"

Whether or not this is the case, An Old Woman has the razzmatazz Erasmus would have liked. The humanist philosopher’s In Praise of Folly is a work that shares a similarly satirical and celebratory spirit, arguing that foolishness is necessary to look past people’s faults and it acts like a sort of social glue. Folly ‘both makes friends and keeps them so’, and that goes double for marriage. ‘Good God! What frequent divorces, or worse mischief, would oft sadly happen’ without the anti-reason of loving people in spite of and for their shortcomings.

Indeed, parts of the essay sound like Erasmus is writing the catalogue essay for The Ugly Duchess: ‘When one looking stedfastly in his mistress's face, admires a mole as much as a beauty spot; when another swears his lady's stinking breath is a most redolent perfume […] what is all this but the very height of Folly?’ Ah, I can almost smell it now. There’s clearly an art to recklessness, looking and loving, even if it’s irrational.

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Quentin Matsys, The Marriage Contract, 1525-30

For better or worse, our imagination can deceive us, but so can money. While ‘the poor divine’, Folly says, ‘shall have the lice crawl upon his thread-bare gown’, the rich ‘can get money enough to purchase a new one’. Marx puts it more directly: ‘I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money’. The immaculate care Massys applies to the jewel in the old woman’s headdress seems to insist as much, and the power of money was a theme he seemed hung up on, returning to it in The Money Changer and His Wife, The Ill-matched Lovers and The Marriage Contract.

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Quentin Massys, c. 1520-25, Ill-Matched Lovers,

"I will not spare you any wrinkle any mole. Any white hair. And I'll create a very disturbing likeness"

What’s more, Massys is ‘constantly painting portraits of people trying to look very serious, very dignified, and An Old Woman is, in a way, telling them, this is what you actually look like,’ says Capron. ‘He's almost saying to the sitter: you want a verisimilitude, you want a likeness as close as possible to real life? I'll give you that. I will not spare you any wrinkle, any mole. Any white hair. And I'll create a very disturbing likeness.’ Of course, it’s not a portrait of an actual sitter, more a parody of painting as a status symbol. For the people who have enough money to commission artworks and thus shape what reality looks like, it’s as if Massys is deleting the rich-person filter to reveal the gross, silly transaction underneath.

This is ugliness as a reaction against a world shaped by money – not dissimilar to Gen Z’s commitment to ‘ugly chic’ in 2023. Author Lucianne Tonti was reminded ‘of the excess after the Spanish flu.’ As we emerge from our own pandemic, ‘Post-crisis, we’re reminding each other that life can be a party, and we’re wearing that party how we want to. Whether that be bright hues, pants suits or hyper-individual chaos. Weird girl aesthetic is another expression of this.’ There is Julia Fox, who says her bleached brow look was designed to repel men. Starface pimple patches that draw more attention to your spots. Ugly selfies. Urban Outfitters continuing to hate-dress the nation. Portia from The White Lotus. Surely, it’s also a reaction to the glossy perfection that has dominated beauty standards over the past decade. Not only is it costly to chase a Kim Kardashian beauty ideal, it’s a bit boring, just as Umberto Eco said. To quote Dry Cleaning, If you’re rich you look good / that’s not news.

Mad meg

Dulle Griet, 1563, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Of course, Massys, Bosch and Breughel were also living through ‘a moment of deep unsettlement in Europe,’ when the Reformation was driving ‘deep anxieties about the right way to salvation’, says Capron. Medieval grotesques are ways ‘to think carefully about a well-ordered society at a time of profound disruption.’ However, as much ‘the grotesque and the farcical is everywhere in mediaeval imagery’ it is usually confined to the margins of representation: the margins of manuscripts, capital letters or little details, and architectural details – but they never enter the front and centre of visual representation, and this only takes place with Bosch, with Massys and later with Breughel.’ The latter’s Dulle Griet a.k.a. Mad Meg (‘dulle’ had two meanings in the sixteenth century, ‘mad’ and ‘foolish’) picks up where Massys left off with its gender-bending and carnivalesque upturning of norms, as the titular Adam’s-appled femme figure leads an army of women into Hell for a cheeky pillage, while a little guy with a teaspoon in its asshole-mouth Breughels along next to her.

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"freakiness is likewise making its way out of the margins and into the mainstream"

Now, as we soldier on into our own hell mouth comprised of climate change
growing wealth disparity and political instability, freakiness is likewise making its way out of the margins and into the mainstream. At least, when ‘policy sits above conscience’, it’s time to give reason a rest and try something else. We’re embracing ugly as a symptom of ugly times. But as foolishness takes centre stage – à la Massys, Bosch and Breughel – something else begins to happen, too:

The weirdness flows between us
Anyone can tell to see us
Freak scene just can't believe us
Why can't it just be cool and free us?

My local club night as a teenager was named after this song by grunge band Dinosaur Jr, and it’s from this context I started to see The Ugly Duchess as a humanist talking piece, a glue for social cohesion, the first freak on the scene. If you think The Ugly Duchess is vulgar, you’re right, but also, fuck you. After all, as Adam Phillips says, ‘the vulgar are those… who pretend to be something we would like to be’. I’m not sure if I’d like to be the duchess, but I’d like to be her pal. She looks like she’s lived; she’s living. She might be imaginary, but at least she’s real. I’ll defend her to hell – and I’ll even say hi to Mad Meg while I’m there. Let the weirdness flow between us.

By Sammi Gale


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