28 December 2015

The Portrayal of Beauty: Part 2

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe,” proclaimed Berger in his highly influential and liberatingly critical book, Ways of Seeing. At different stages throughout history, different body types have come to represent social status and wealth, while facial characteristics can often pinpoint an individual to a specific nationality. I've selected 5 artists whose similarities among their work are scarce, as like the fashion designers of Part 1. The timeframe from which these artists were active is incredibly vast so gives an accurate depiction of the evolving nature of beauty perceptions and bodily ideals. The selected artists also differ in the physical form and impact of their work: Caravaggio’s influence on Baroque painting, Klimt’s symbolist approach, Price’s figurative realist self portraits and Mueck’s hyperrealist sculptures all encapsulate individual techniques and stand the result of their distinct pioneering vision.

The gritty reality that Caravaggio works depicted enabled critiques and admirers alike to analyse and explore biblical tales from an eerie but unexplored angle. It was Caravaggio’s intention to deem the romanticised fables conjured by many an artist irrelevant and allow holy events to unfold before our eyes in a new way. Although the carnage and menial graft did make Caravaggio’s paintings look more realistic than his contemporary’s work, his harsh light forces his painting to depict the figures as stern and heartless with coarse skin and animalistic behaviour. Tymieniecka,'s Beauty's Appeal: Measure and Excess read: “In Caravaggio’s art we are regaled by an ontological argument for beauty that takes art into the bowels of truth, only to return it to us in its brutal sense, so that it could enlighten us with the horror of the same truth by which beauty relates to art”. Caravaggio’s emphasis in paintings of woman was on sexual fertility and appreciation of beauty as an evolutionary imperative to ensure survival and reproduction. For him, beauty was reality so imperfections and abnormalities were the fuel for his beauty ideals as well as the inspiration for his work.

American artist Lee Price explores the profound facets of feminine essence with a bizarre focus on food. Her concepts narrow in on how woman often instinctually look after the needs of others before their own. A woman’s relationship with food can have a great impact on her body shape, confidence and perception of her own beauty. Instead of categorising eating habits as good or bad, Price whimsically delves into the pressing reasons as to why women occasionally indulge in illogical eating habits, asking what it is they are truly seeking as our relationship with our own body image is so tightly linked to self-esteem, identity and confidence. An element that allows Price’s work to stand individual among the artists I've talked about is that the works are self-portraits. They are meticulously reproduced from photographs that she has assiduously composed and perfected. It is unsure as to whether Price’s feminist beliefs and intention to empower woman could encourage her to exaggerate flaws in protest to societal pressures and to create a more profound work of art. Price’s work is received as courageous, slightly disturbing, but beautiful due to its bitter honesty and absurd attention to detail. In her work, Price lays her biggest insecurities bare and invites the viewer to bear witness to her beauty in the form of fearless confidence and appreciation of self-worth. 

The Industrial Revolution made way for Art Nouveau to focus on new ideas and the true beauty of the world. As the movement began to flourish, technologies emerged, causing many artists to embrace these new ideas within their paintings. Gustav Klimt succeeded in creating a painting that effectively captured the beauty of women and nature, using new materials in attempt to make each piece of art an embellished masterpiece. In “The Kiss” for example, Klimt paints a man and woman enveloped in a golden cloak and sharing a tender embrace while petite flowers appear to crawl up their bodies. The abstract floral imagery, even shown in the women’s hair, further connects the humans with the natural world. The man is completely draped over the woman, as he is the dominant figure with both of his hands placed on the submissive woman’s face as he holds her head while kissing her cheek. The woman’s pale and slight face is contrived of flushing cheeks and minuscule delicate lips. The way she hangs from the man’s neck makes her seem exposed and reliant on her man, but also indicates that a woman has the capability to tempt a man with her sexuality. This can also present the opposing theory that the man has found his utopia in pursuit of the woman through the mystical dimension of Islam, known as Sufism. It is argued that his face is near-obscured because he is lost in love as opposed to being domineering and possessive over the frail woman. The woman’s slim stature arguably represent people’s definition of beauty in the twentieth century. Contrary to art prior to Art Nouveau, this work is said to depict beautiful women as thin, gentle, and inferior to men.

Despite their monumental proportions and meticulous detail, Ron Mueck's sculptures are of colossal measure and the most intricate detail. It is this that gives them their unsettling power through a unique form of realism and poignant use of scale and placement. ‘Woman with Sticks’ is a sculpture of a sturdy, middle-aged woman struggling to contain a bundle of sticks nearly twice her size. It's suggesting a woman tackling the near-impossible tasks set in fairy tales, legends and magical myths but with a haunting twist. This woman, in her nude form, represents the ‘eternal feminine’, a topic that fascinated artists such as Cezanne and Gauguin. Where these artists focused on the serene model, Mueck uses hair, skin and a physical build far from the norms of classical beauty. Elements of both life and death are thrust together and forced to produce something; the result takes the form of artificial wrinkles, perfectly places liver spots, excess fat, mottled coarse skin and matted hair. In opposition to the modernist passion for truth to materials, Mueck invites the viewer to forget that these sculptures are hollow, silicone shells and instead look at them as though they have a pulsating hearts and blood running through their veins.

Different perceptions of beauty over time make up the cultures of the world and are all based on their own values and history. While the globalisation and homogenisation of unrealistic tastes is not to be underestimated, we also need to question “anti-beauty” and the intentions of its instigators. I found that while many of the artists defied conventional beauty and proposed their work as “anti-beauty”, it in itself was too as inaccurate a representation of bodily proportions and beauty ideals as prettified Western views and current day over-edited, perfected photographs. Imperfections and flaws were too often exaggerated out of context and simply created out of thin air in protest to the need, desire and popularisation of perfection. From Caravaggio’s barbaric scenes injecting reality into apparently romanticised biblical tales to Mueck's individual 'eternal feminine’; so many artists went out of their way to form their own version of idiosyncratic beauty, making it anything but a traditionalist cliché.