The Feminine Ideal
Exhibition review of Being Beauteous at White Space Gallery, London
Published in Source
Summer 2007, Issue 51
Photography and beauty have always been slippery bedfellows. When William Henry Fox Talbot christened his invention the ‘calotype’ after ‘kalos’, the Greek word for beauty, he prophetically pointed to the symbiotic entanglement that would endure between the two. Photographs aestheticise the world and, in turn, shape our very experience in it. Regardless of what they represent, photographs tell us what is beautiful.
Curated by Anya Stonelake, Being Beauteous at White Space Gallery presents selected works by eight photographers alongside images from the Archive of Russian Beauties – a cache of previously unseen vernacular photographs from Soviet Russia, acquired by Timothy Prus of the Archive of Modern Conflict. This exhibition deals with the construction and representation of feminine beauty through notions of display and judgment, and the phenomenon of the beauty contest.
The photographs in the Archive of Russian Beauties were created by an unknown photographer in Leningrad at the end of the Soviet era. The collection of images chart a group of swim-suited women at home preparing for the Miss Leningrad Beauty Competition. In these photographs the women demonstrate their quest for beautification on an assorted range of clunky exercise contraptions, under the guidance of a plaid-trousered beauty trainer. They call to mind comments made by the Soviet social critic Natalia Zacharova on the impact of Western influence and the pending dissolution of the Soviet Union: ‘Glasnost and perestroika will bring Soviet women contradictory freedoms. Glamour will be one of them.’
The construction of feminine beauty is all pervasive. It filters down to the parochial and the pre-pubescent. A sardonic contrast to the Archive of Russian Beauties is in Martin Parr’s photograph of the Miss Rosebud Beauty Competition, taken from his series The Last Resort. In this photograph a row of rouge cheeked little girls in thigh revealing taffeta meringue dresses line up to parade an unwitting mimicry of adult sexuality and idealized feminine beauty. In the centre of the image contestant number seven is caught with her head thrown back in a classic pose of sexual seduction for the ginger bouffant adjudicators. The garishness of the event is amplified by Parr’s trademark heightened colour saturation. While surely the little girl acts out the posture innocently, the spectacle is alarming. The image draws our attention to the absurdity of the child beauty contest and the machinations of beauty staged in a provincial public swimming pool enclosure.
Created in an international arena, Juergen Teller’s enormous Tracht portraits of Miss Guatemala and Miss Poland loom large at either end of the gallery space. Tracht, the German word for national costume, is the title of the portrait series Teller created backstage at the 1999 Miss World competition. Teller photographed all 88 contestants at the event, excluding their sashes and glamorous outfits by tightly zooming in on each woman’s head and shoulders. What is left of the individuals are dyed hairdos, inane orthodontic grins, makeup sodden faces and mismatched day-glo fake tan necks. The contestant’s facades belie any sense of individuality, let alone cultural origin. Teller’s piercing flashlight illuminates the identikit global homogenization of the feminine ideal advocated by the Miss World event.
The Dutch photographer Jacqueline Hassink documented a different sort of parade of women. For her series Car Girls (2002-2006), Hassink travelled across Europe, the USA, China and Japan, to photograph the women employed at auto industry tradeshows. Hassink’s beautifully assembled pieces on the gallery wall are as slick and glossy as the models (cars and girls). The women are cast and styled as accessories to complement the cars they adorn. Hassink’s lens coolly fractures the surface of the auto tradeshow tableaux by catching the car girls in moments of boredom, uncomfortable body posture or hyper animation as if they’re begging to be taken away. See the Alfa Romeo Girl standing in a red strappy dress bound behind a black barrier ribbon, backed up against a red sports car with her hands crossed defensively over her pubic area and her gaze fixed firmly at the floor.
Smoking has been seen in the West as a pastime of beauty since long before the invention of fashion photography. However it could be argued that fashion photography has been responsible for elevating the cigarette as a glamour tool par excellence. Cigarettes, like red lipstick, are worn as a fashion accessory signaling independence, glamour, sophistication and cool. Smoking is used as a slimming method in vain pursuit of an idealized feminine body shape. Russian Women Smokers, Stephen Gill’s series of photographs of lipstick stained cigarette butts found on the streets of St Petersburg is an oblique conceptual investigation of the Western influence of idealized feminine beauty on Russian women in the post-Soviet era. As Germaine Greer perceptively observed: ‘After the implosion of the USSR the first western shops to open in the old Soviet cities were cosmetic franchises; before a Russian women could buy an orange or a banana she could buy a lipstick by Dior or Revlon.’ Gill’s beautiful and repulsive still life studies of form, colour and texture transform ashtray detritus into a momento mori for the transience of the beauty worn by the Russian women who left their lipstick traces behind.
Martin Parr’s photograph of a prize-winning melon Egton Show 2006 provides the double-entendre punch line for the show. Typical Parr-esque visual vaudeville, the image of the melon acts as a succulent metaphor for the beauty contestant breast. The photograph of a large vegetable replete with a First Prize rosette and a pre-decision judging note still attached – ‘This one just about wins’ – smirks at the absurdity of the beauty contest and reminds us that although this contestant might win, the winner will only ever just about win.