Mortal Beauty

Paul Delany

  • Feminine Beauty by Kenneth Clark
    Weidenfeld, 199 pp, £10.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77677 0
  • Of Women and their Elegance by Norman Mailer
    Hodder, 288 pp, £12.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 340 23920 4
  • Nude Photographs 1850-1980 edited by Constance Sullivan
    Harper and Row, 204 pp, £19.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 06 012708 2

Nietzsche defined beauty as the highest type of power, because it had no need for violence. Here was a whole theory of beauty in a nutshell: but it is curious how little thought has been devoted to beauty since then, except as a rather anaemic branch of aesthetics. Unusual physical beauty, like unusual ugliness, is faintly scandalous: a product of chance rather than justice, it has typically been associated with stupidity, immorality and bad luck. This may be because beauty has been the only kind of social power monopolised by women; men have often felt resentment or mistrust towards it, but they have not been eager to examine their motives for doing so. A different way of dealing with beauty has been to praise it as the acceptable face of sex – a way of refining our animal urges, or displacing them upwards. But making beauty into a spiritual ideal often stems from uneasiness about its very concrete power to inspire action: an uneasiness that is pervasive in Kenneth Clark’s latest book.

Feminine Beauty insists on the ethereal or strictly formal qualities of beauty, continuing the same line of argument as Clark’s magisterial earlier work, The Nude. The introduction to Feminine Beauty takes us on a lightning tour of Western art; it is followed by 175 plates that progress from Ancient Egypt to a cheesecake photo of Marilyn Monroe at the beach. Clark first proposes that there have always been two kinds of feminine beauty, the ‘classic’ and the ‘characteristic’: he then sagely observes that they have so much in common that he will ignore the distinction. This is not a promising start. In fact, some such distinction is crucial for anyone who takes a formalist approach to beauty. The idea of ‘classic’ beauty sums up the quest (most intense in the art of Classical Greece and the Renaissance) for the perfectly proportioned face or body: lovers of the ‘characteristic’ answer that such perfection has more to do with geometry than with human charm. Their watchword is Bacon’s famous aphorism: ‘there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.’

The opposition of classic to characteristic also leads naturally to the connection between beauty and sex – which, for Clark, is perilous ground. Goya’s ‘Maja Desnuda’, he informs us, shows ‘one of the rare instances in which a great artist has recognised the sexual instinct: and yet she is painted so coolly that she awakens no feelings of desire.’ Pronouncements of this ilk seem mainly designed to leave one’s readers breathless and sputtering: so I can only respond by saying that the ‘Maja’ still seems, to me, a marvellously sexy painting. I think this sexiness has to do with the contrast between the shapeliness below the model’s waist and the awkwardness above it (the odd placement of the head and the anatomically implausible right breast). There is an intriguing dissonance, that is to say, between classic and characteristic features of the Maja’s body.

The categories of classic and characteristic have obvious affinities with sacred and profane, the icy Rowena and the sensuous Rebecca. Leafing through Clark’s plates, it seems to be Rebecca who gets the upper hand as we approach the modern era – though with notable exceptions, like the superb movie still of Greta Garbo in The Kiss. The major turning-point is Romney’s ‘Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe’. His sexual infatuation with his model is so intense and palpable as to define a tradition that continues unbroken down to the latest Playboy centrefold: the loosened hair, the eyes set in a lustful stare, the half-open rosebud mouth. Here, profane beauty is based on the disordering of an underlying proportion – an awkwardness and dishevelment that alludes to the indignities of sexuality.

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