Big biceps, narrow waist: What is beauty? | Arts | DW | 21.03.2013
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Arts

Big biceps, narrow waist: What is beauty?

We may think we've freed ourselves from the quest for unattainable perfection. But have we? A Frankfurt art exhibition reveals just how much our ideals of beauty are rooted in the past.

Try Googling "beauty" and you'll find a long list of cosmetic salons. That's symptomatic of a society where beauty is an omnipresent topic. It dominates the worlds of television, Internet and advertising. It not only consumes our minds, but also our bodies - quite literally, in many cases. More and more people around the world are going under the knife in order to come as close as possible to the current ideal.

Answers from art

But what is beauty anyways, and where does it come from? The current exhibition "Beauty and Revolution" at Frankfurt's Städel Museum traces the Classical and Romantic ideals of beauty. The exhibition makes it clear that art has, over the years, always concerned itself with a definition of beauty that is constantly in flux.

Indeed, art not only portrays ideals, it also sets them. "For centuries, art was beauty's authority," wrote critic Hanno Rauterberg in response to a previous exhibition in Karlsruhe on the cult of beauty in contemporary art. Art, said Rauterberg, "was considered to be beauty in and of itself. It influenced our images of chaste but well-endowed femininity and of proud but fragile masculinity."

View of the Beauty and Revolution exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt

Images of femininity have shifted, but the quest for the unattainable has not

Striving for an ideal

The Frankfurt exhibition focuses on the Classical and Romantic periods in Germany, representing the time between 1785 and 1835. "It's still about the search for the ideal - the word itself is problematic. It represents the tiny bit - or larger bit - more than what nature brings," Eva Mongi-Vollmer, curator of "Beauty and Revolution," told DW. "Satisfaction with the natural condition still hasn't become the norm; the quest for the ideal continues."

Striving for an optimal, yet unattainable condition has defined not just our own society, but was present also in Ancient Greece and Rome, in the Classical and Romantic eras, and every century in between.

The palette of possibilities for representing beauty in art is, of course, very large and diverse. In the ancient world, an athletic figure became the ultimate measure of beauty, evident in the nude sculptures from the Greek and Roman Empires. You only have to switch on the TV or scan a magazine to see just how influential this ideal has been on modern society.

'The Three Graces,' c.1638/40, by Peter Paul Rubens

Beauty is opulent in Peter Paul Rubens' "The Three Graces"

Fictional idea of beauty

The Middle Ages were quite different, however, when the trend oscillated between thin and pudgy. The ideal body type shifted yet again in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Then, in the Classical and Romantic periods presented in the Frankfurt exhibition, artists returned to ideals from antiquity.

It was German author Johann Joachim Winckelmann who firmly planted the antique image of beauty on a pedestal in his definitive volume, "The History of Art in the Antiquity." His influence not only played a role in the German art scene, but his book was translated into many languages and read all over Europe.

"The ancient world was considered unattainably beautiful," explained Mongi-Vollmer. "According to the understanding of art at the time, beauty was the ultimate goal in creating art. Beauty was not just what you perceived with your own eyes in the environment around you - whether people, landscapes or buildings - but it was an ideal that in its highest form didn't actually exist in nature. It was more an idea of art, and artworks were created according to this idea."

David Beckham in an ad for Armani, Februar 2008

Not much has changed since antiquity

Beauty = kitsch?

In the 20th century, ideals of beauty became increasingly differentiated - so much so that an overarching standard was dissolved. Pablo Picasso and other artists passionately destroyed the unity of body, soul and beauty that had been sacred in art. These days, the Classical ideal of beauty is now considered suspect, kitschy, verging more on decoration than art.

Nevertheless, despite modern efforts to value inner traits above a size zero waist, some old, unattainable ideals have persisted. "As much as we would like to pretend that we are free and self-determining, in reality we still follow our primeval beauty instincts," wrote Hanno Rauterberg.

It's often forgotten that the modern beauty industry, from wrinkle cream manufacturers to plastic surgeons, is based on the idealized antique image of beauty. So perhaps we need exhibitions like "Beauty and Revolution," which runs through May 26, to remind us that the ads for mascara that multiplies your lashes or an exercise toy that flattens your belly - and especially the longing that they evoke in us - are closely linked to millennia of art history.

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