Facing up to our ideals of beauty
This moment, as you read this, are you beautiful? Is your beauty something you can change... and would you want to? These questions are both culturally important and achingly personal. As an artist I explore female beauty through my work, but as a woman I face up to its expectations every day.
Over ten thousand of us googled ‘how to be beautiful’ last month. We care. But our ideals of female beauty remain a cloudy mix of subjective experience, media marketing and relics from our evolutionary past. Beauty is not an objective ‘universal’. It’s something we collude with our culture and fashion to create.
Questioning the authority of our ideals
Images of women shape our ideals of beauty. These are the images sold to us through cinema, fashion and social media. Are you beautiful? Am I? The images tell us no, but we must question their authority to say. By painting them I unpick and take ownership of their influence, while accepting that they are an indelible part of who we are.
Our images of Audrey Hepburn are largely created by two men, photographer Bob Willoughby and artist Robert McGinnis. McGinnis designed the Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster, as well as the heaving-bosom book covers for James Bond. He recalls he gave Audrey “a little more through the hips and bust, to idealise her just a little more. But the art director wanted more leg showing”.
This is my take on iconic Audrey. The beautiful flowers are hellebores, painted after a friend advised me to handle them with gloves (they burn).
Frida Kahlo was a painter who was the author of her own image in her lifetime. Over the last ten years we’ve appropriated this image through photoshop, student posters and pinterest memes. Yes, she influences our perception of beauty - she’s the pin-up girl for monobrows and flowers in our hair. We’ve conspired to reduce her to another ideal.
My painting uses five different photographic sources for her face, and I entirely imagined her eyes (on my source they were closed). And yet I still call it ‘Frida’ and add my image to the digital hoard.
Gene Tierney was a Film Noir actress, photographed in the ‘40s by George Hurrell. Hurrell developed the iconic, high-contrast portraiture that turned women into Hollywood Stars. He’d shoot them with dark eyes and lipstick but entirely bare skin, preferring to remove their every blemish from his negatives with powdered graphite and a blending stick.
Gene suffered from depression, and in 1957 stepped onto a 14th floor balcony intending to kill herself. But what saved her “was vanity. I thought of what I’d look like when I hit the ground—like a scrambled egg. That didn’t appeal to me.”
Hedy Lamarr was another actress photographed by Hurrell. She was billed as ‘The Most Beautiful Women in Films’. She also co-developed a radio technology for WWII torpedoes, now used in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. She said of her first marriage, ”I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own”.
In later life, Hedy turned to plastic surgery with shattering results. She locked herself away until the end, talking up to six hours a day on the telephone rather than seeing her family or friends.
Louise Brooks was a silent actress and the original 1920s 'It Girl'. She made short hair and a boy-like figure desirable after three centuries of corsets and waist-length hair. Louise married millionaires, slept with Greta Garbo, and eventually became a noted film writer but “found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six, was that of a call girl”. She began to “flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills”.
“What did she do to her face? Bella Hadid is almost unrecognisable from six years ago as it's claimed she 'went to town with her father's credit card'” - Daily Mail, March 2016
In the 17th century, blue veins were a sign of youth so women painted them on. Today, Bella Hadid is a social media star creating fashions of beauty that will be just as unfathomable in the future. But I love her face as a triumph of global marketing and a determined act of self-creation. The birds are lilac-breasted roller birds, which “perch conspicuously at the tops of trees... to spot lizards at ground level”.
I painted Kate Moss after seeing her Vogue cover in April 2017. Vogue-Kate in April 2017 looks exactly like Vogue-Kate in 1997. The audacity of the photoshopped image was almost a political act. Here was Vogue preserving marketable female beauty like jam in a jar, re-spreading her for new generations.
My painting of Kate is the Kate I absorbed as a teenager, based on a still from a Galliano show. The flower is a tree peony, used in Japanese art to symbolise female beauty.
Further reading on the ideals of female beauty
You'll find some useful reading on the historical context of beauty, and the creation of its ideals, below. Do share any additional links with me via twitter or email. I'll share a more comprehensive source list shortly.
Great first reads: