Feminine beauty: defining an enigma

Female beauty is an enigma that has exercised philosphers, poets, and coututiers from classical times to the present. The fact that its definition has inspired so much confusion and controversy is perhaps more interesting than the phenomenon itself, because it raises the key question: Why is beauty so important?

The simplest answer is the anthropological one -- that beauty ultimately serves by assisting the female in attracting the male of the species. Moral philosophers have interpreted beauty as the manifestation of an ideal, the sublime made visible. On this level physical beauty is contingent upon inner beauty, or the possession of virtue.

Yet the head of beauty is Janus-faced, and the counterpart of its celestial visage is a carnal one. Connotations of superficiality as well as sensuality attend this aspect, with beauty regarded as not only "skin deep" but downright dangerous. Summing up its power to bewitch, Pascal observed, "It the nose of cleopatra had been a little shorter, it would have changed the history of the world."

But that beauty which is in the eye of the beholder was deemed no less dangerous to its possessor by Shakespeare, who lamented its evanescence in his sonnets, and elsewhere wrote this bitter indictment: "Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good,/A shining gloss that vadeth suddenly,/A flower that dies when it gins to bud,/A brittle glass that's broken presently:/A doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower,/Lost, vaded, broken, dead within an hour."

Against this background, two provocative books have recently appeared which attempt to put the wavering features of beauty into focus. As one of the world's great art historians, Lord Kenneth Clark is eminently qualified to speak to the question, and in "Feminine Beauty" (New York: Rizzoli, $25) he traces the changing concept of beauty throughout the history of Western art and interprets it as a mirror not only of the vicissitudes of fashion but of timeless values.

In "Allure" (Doubleday & Co., $35) Diana Vreeland, who is the former fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, former editor in chief of Vogue, and currently special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests from her own experience and sensibility a contemporary theory of beauty.

The two books are complementary, the former scholarly but thin, the latter trendy but perceptive. Lord Clark's visual history of beauty (175 plates, 40 in color) begins with a relief of two stately ancient Egyptian goddesses and ends with a photograph of Marilyn Monroe doing a high kick on a beach. What, one marvels, can the two possibly have in common?

Lord Clark admittedly only scratches the surface of this "great theme," and urges a fuller treatment from "someone younger, more learned, and more energetic than I am." But he does go so far as to posit the existence of two categories of beauty that have served as touchstones throughout our civilization, the classic and the characteristic. He writes: "Classic beauty, which reached its climax in ancient Greece, depends on symmetry, established proportion, and regular features. Characteristic beauty treats the features with greater freedom and will allow a retroussem nose and small, sparkling eyes, provided that they give the face greater animation. Nevertheless these two kinds of beauty have much in common. Some degree of symmetry is essential, and transitions must be smooth and logical. And then, on the whole, physical beauty must reflect a peaceful or integrated frame of mind. There have been furious beauties and sulky beauties, but they exist in the margin of a calm integrity."

In other words, he relates beauty to a neoplatonic ideal of serenity, harmony , and transcendence. Antique sculpture epitomizes this ideal, with its idolatry of perfectly balanced features which are the corporealization of a perfectly balanced mind. Illustrated in the book are beauties from other periods who conform closely to this ideal of classic repose, such as ancient Egypt's Nefertiti, the madonnas of Botticelli, della Robbia, and Raphael, and the neoclassical portraits of David and Ingres.

But with the Renaissance the ethereal quality that dominated the concept of female beauty in classical and medieval art began to give way to a secularization that broadened the parameters of the definition to include different types of female beauty -- the erotic in Bronzino's Venus, Goya's "Naked Maja," and Rubens's lusty nudes; the aristocratic in El Greco's "Lady in a Fur Wrap," Van Dyck's "Queen Henrietta Maria," and Gainsborough's society portraits; the frivolous in Watteau and Fragonard; and the earthy maternal in Rembrandt and Renoir.

This expansion of types prepared the way for the appreciation of the individualm beauty, not a goddess, a symbol, or a type but a unique human being with attributes of the strange and exotic. Lord Clark credits Manet with introducing her and cites as contemporary examples women as various as Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bernhardt, and Marilyn Monroe. He concludes with the unsettling hypothesis that "perhaps by rolling into one Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich , and Greta Garbo . . . one might discover something a little different from any type of feminine beauty that has gone before -- a certain withdrawn melancholy and lack of animal spirits."

Certainly the surplus of etiolated, emaciated "beauties" on the contemporary scene lends credence to his theory, and it is confounding that neither he nor Mrs. Vreeland treats the subject of weight -- the fanatical commitment of the American woman to staying thin. There is a class distinction latent here -- that it is "low class" to be voluptuous whereas "thin is in." On a deeper level one cannot help speculating whether the slender, boyish figure so admired today does not represent an unconscious rejection of maternal functions. Or perhaps today's rarefield beauty is a distant descendant of the madonna, now become more cerebral than celestial.

In any case, although Lord Clark's book has obvious visual appeal, he raises more questions than he answers and leaves the reader somewhat at a loss as to how to interpret the variegated constellation of contemporary beauties that our culture has emblazoned on the heavens. It is at this juncture that Mrs. Vreeland's book attempts to bring order to the chaos with her philosophy of "stars." As she stated to Christopher Hemphill, the photography historian who compiled the text from a series of interviews with her: "Performance is all I cared about as a child and it's all I care about now. I don't go to a play to see a great play, I go to see a great imterpreter.m Everything is interpretation. I think stars are the only thing we have.We have a star, we follow a star . . . we may throw that star out tomorrow, but today,m without a star, we wouldn't move at all. Group formation's not for me!"

Mrs. Vreeland's adoration of stars suggests that she's no more than a gussied-up groupie. As the text reveals, her outrageousness is redeemed by her cutting perceptions and her irresistible wit. The underlying significance of her preoccupation with stars is that it reflects her attitude toward life as theater. If one had to characterize with a single adjective the pictures of models, socialites, and artistes who populate this book, it would have to be "dramatic." Her approach to life is that of a theater critic, and onstage it is incumbent upon the performers to shine; to emanate "splendeur" (to borrow one of her Gallicisms that lace the text and reveals as much about her affectations as her Parisian origins); and above all to conjure up a glittering world of fantasy that transcends the mundane.

It is no coincidence that Mrs. Vreeland, during her reign at harper's Bazaar and vogue, shocked her colleagues by piecing together limbs from different models to form a whole that met her ideal of perfection. it is the picturem that matters, not the photograph. She explains: "It's all trompe L'oeil,m but we're talking fashion now, not art. That was my business. I adore artifice, but I also adore perfection. And as you know, the most perfect body in the world will take on something you don't want when it assumes a certain position. Therefore, it's got to be retouched.

Despite her apparent superficiality and arch tone, which at times verges on self- parody. Mrs. Vreeland's message is serious and not all that different from Lord Clark's. In her ideal of beauty, as applied to a real woman rather than a picture, character, too, plays a central role. For example, she draws a distinction between vanity and narcissism, condoning the former and condemning the latter. She declares: "There's nothing more boring than narcissism -- the tragedy of being totally . . . me. We're all capable of it. And we all know examples of it -- these beautiful tragedies. Many of them, of course, are mannequins. Mannequins are either divine -- or they're the most boring girls in the world."

Moreover, the "beauties" whom Mrs. Vreeland celebrates on these pages range from the predictable to the dismaying. Sharing space with Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Maria Callas, Eva Pero, Audrey Hepburn, Raquel Welch, Maya Plisetskaya, the Duchess of Windsor, and a medley of ravishing models are Elsa Maxwell, Anna Magnani, Gertrude Stein, Greta Garbo (when old!), Isak Dinesen, Andre Gide, and a Turkish princess whose nose is of revolutionary proportions.

It is apparent from these examples that Mrs. Vreeland reserves her greatest appreciation for character and that to her character is beauty. All these photographs evoke an impression of the extraordinary, whether because of the mystery in the picture or the incandescence of the woman's personality. They possess the qualities not only of dream but also of epithany, and collectively they make clear Mrs. Vreeland's cryptic pronouncement at the end of that book that "elegance is refusal." Of what? is one's immediate response, but upon reflection it is obvious that elegance is the refusal of convention, of taste, and even of fashion in favor of the most flagrant expression of one's own uniqueness. Without excuses. Without apologies. But with lots of artifice and style. It's rather like discerning the part in the play for which one is best suited and playing it to the hilt. Now that'sm character. And that'sm allure.

But one woman's beauty is another woman's poison, and a definition remains as elusive and subjective as ever.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Feminine beauty: defining an enigma
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today