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A part of the beauty exhibition at the Hygiene Museum in Dresden
The exhibition provides a new perspective on beautyImage: AP

What is beauty?

April 16, 2010

The theme of beauty is all around us, confronting us in places as diverse as clothing stores and gyms. A new exhibition in Germany aims to expose the inner workings of this social phenomenon.


The entrance area of the "What is Beauty?" exhibition at the Museum of Hygiene in Dresden reflects the common habit of associating beauty with extravagance and glamour. The visitor is confronted with a room decorated in dark-red, ornate wallpaper decorated with floral patterns, and a large chandelier suspended from the high ceiling.

However, according to Sigrid Walther, one of the exhibition's curators, the objects displayed here seem to clash with the pleasant feel of the interiors that house them.

Some of these exhibits are the work of New-York-based photographer Martin Schoeller, who took photos of Hollywood stars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in such a mercilessly plain and direct manner that not a single ounce of glamour is preserved in them.

Martin Schoeller's photographs at the beauty exhibition at the Hygiene Museum in Dresden
Schoeller's celebrity photos are unusually plainImage: AP

There are also photos of young women, taken by German photographer Juergen Teller at the entrance to his London studio. These young women are aspiring models, but none of them are outstandingly beautiful.

Then there are the works of another German photographer, Herlinde Koelbl: close-ups of a wrinkled body belonging to an old woman. Not many would describe them as ugly.

"The question arises whether beauty is only limited to youth and smooth skin - or whether beauty also comes from within," said Walther.

Exploring modern beauty

Each of the exhibition's five sections raises such questions. At the same time, it surprises its visitors with very differently decorated rooms, each presenting new insights, challenges and breaks with stereotypes.

"Without constant sustenance from media - in other words, without pictures, models, stars and the power of advertising - the modern notion of beauty cannot be understood," said Klaus Vogel, director of the Hygiene Museum.

For this reason the exhibition gives an extensive insight into the sources of beauty. At the start of the 20th century, as wealth increased in Western society, a larger number of people got the chance to occupy themselves with their appearance.

The new consumer society featured department stores and readily available cosmetic and fashion products. A new medium, film, created style icons like Marlene Dietrich. Beauty contests became widely popular; lipstick and powder found their place in women's handbags.

A colorfully made-up eye
Make-up has become a popular means of self-beautificationImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

"And today we are a step further," said Doris Mueller-Toovey, another curator of the exhibition. "It's a development of the last two, maybe three, decades that additions are not necessarily the only possibility, but, rather, we see the body itself as a material that we can do all sorts of things with."

If someone wants to be beautiful today, they can get their skin tightened, their hair or even legs lengthened, their teeth straightened and their breasts enlarged. Up to 800,000 women undergo cosmetic surgery in Germany annually. And even men praise hormone and botox treatments. After all, the concept of beauty is dictated by the tastes of the current age.

"There are short films that show - and we have ones like that in the exhibition - how a young, average-looking woman can be made to look like a model," said Mueller-Toovey. "This doesn't end with the work of the stylists - there is also Photoshop and digital enhancement. After that, you look at advertisements and models in glossy magazines in a different way."

The exhibition includes around 240 exhibits, and they provoke thought. The visitor sees themselves, again and again, while walking down the mirrored corridor that connects all the rooms. It makes one think: "Am I beautiful?" Luckily, as the exhibition shows, beauty is a complicated and multifaceted concept.

Author: Silke Bartlick (ew)

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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