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.

Clark mistrusts desire because he wants beauty to be rather than do: to create a ‘luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure’, if we may borrow a phrase from another arch-formalist, Stephen Dedalus. Such a view ignores the special status of feminine beauty in Western culture. There is no intrinsic reason why woman, naked or clothed, should be the supreme aesthetic subject of art: she has held that place because an appropriative male desire has sought to capture and display her image. Homosexually-oriented cultures, like Classical Greece, have substituted male beauty for female as their ideal. This is not to say, however, that beauty is nothing but an off-shoot of desire. The sociobiologists take such a position, arguing that a man’s liking for female beauty only expresses, in a refined manner, an underlying reproductive drive. Though they start at the opposite end of the spectrum from Clark, they arrive at a similarly barren conclusion: that all beautiful women are essentially the same (because they fall into a category that is defined by a single criterion – biological in the one case, aesthetic in the other). Neither party recognises that when we are attracted to a woman we immediately endow her with a personal history (real or imagined), or that feminine appeal is determined by social forces rather than by some formal combination of features. If this seems unfair, let Clark’s egregious concluding sentence speak for itself: ‘Although almost everything else in the world has changed, feminine beauty has remained constant. Praxiteles would have knelt in homage to his countrywoman the Duchess of Kent.’

Norman Mailer’s Of Women and their Elegance focuses on sex appeal as it was defined in the American fifties, largely by the Hollywood queen of that era: Marilyn Monroe. Mailer’s long-standing fascination with Monroe has already been expressed in a full biography (in 1973). He sees the parabola of her career – from an orphanage to the blaze of fame in the Eisenhower years, then death by overdose at 36 – as a crucial chapter in the moral history of America. Having thus told her story analytically, and from outside, Mailer now attempts to dispose of his obsession once and for all by becoming Marilyn Monroe: by trying to see the world with her eyes, speak with her voice, show what it meant to inhabit that mythic face and body. To flesh out his fantasy, Mailer has been able to draw on a valuable archive: the photographs and reminiscences of Milton Greene, a New York fashion photographer who was an intimate of Monroe’s during 1955 and 1956.

Mailer is well-known for depicting sexual relations in the form of a contest: this book puts on display what he has learned about his opponents’ psychology. His fabrication of ‘the real Marilyn’ purports to give us the inside dope, but he is so ‘knowing’ as to be offensive and unconvincing: we are treated to women’s secrets of the kind revealed by the gynaecologist, the hairdresser or the casual pick-up. Many of the ‘secrets’, furthermore, are, as he admits, of Mailer’s own invention; and these novelettish scandals of Hollywood nights consort awkwardly with mundane details of Marilyn’s days as a house-guest of Greene and his wife. Greene persuaded her to go into seclusion in order to break her studio contract and have a better choice of scripts – a strategy that paid off handsomely, though Greene ended up with little profit when he was squeezed out by Arthur Miller. It was a time of crisis for Marilyn, when her marriage to Joe DiMaggio was breaking up and her affair with Miller beginning. In 1956 she converted to Judaism, married Miller, and went to England to make a film she financed herself: The Prince and the Showgirl, with Laurence Olivier.

The problem with telling these events is that even Mailer’s probing and speculative mind finds it hard to make them into much of a story. Marilyn at this point was given to shifting identities as capriciously as a child flipping channels on a TV set: from day to day she might be a sex symbol, a country housewife, a Dostoevsky heroine, or whatever else was there for the taking. She was first damaged by early failures – as a backward and unwanted child – then utterly wrecked by success. Once ‘created’ by the Hollywood publicity machine, she could never regain control of either her career or her personal life; nor, bewildered and suspicious as she was, could she trust anyone else to control it for her. Racked by insomnia, psychosomatic ailments and addiction to barbiturates, Marilyn spent the last sad years of her life in a haze of depression and indecision – a state that yields little for either biographer or novelist to build on. Her splendours and miseries were all inscribed on her visible image: there was no more to say, whether by her or about her. Marilyn’s status is the exact opposite of Mailer’s last ‘factional’ hero, the murderer Gary Gilmore of The Executioner’s Song. Kept invisible by the state, until his masked execution, Gilmore produced a seething torrent of discourse, directed to his girlfriend, his lawyers, his judges or anyone who would listen. Mailer skilfully shaped this record into a massive and brilliant treatise on crime and punishment, a folk masterpiece of common American speech. But as the invented voice of Marilyn he fails to convince.

The contribution of Greene to the book is more straightforward and positive. Mailer speaks of him as ‘the only man who never took advantage of Marilyn’; though he also had other commitments, and seems to have realised that he could not, in any case, save her from her host of psychic demons. What Greene could do was capture some classic images of Marilyn’s incarnation as sexual myth and – more poignantly – as a private woman of fresh and unstudied charm. This book reminds us that she began her career as a photographer’s model, and that she may have been more compelling in that role than as an actress. There was always something gauche and strained about her film roles – she was like a high-wire artist who made you nervous about whether she would make it safely to the other side – but the photographs gave you the whole person in instantaneous, endlessly reproducible images of America’s dream blonde. That the blonde came out of a bottle did nothing to spoil the effect: perhaps it was part of the effect, showing that Marilyn was no mere natural phenomenon – like the round-heeled Swedish girls of contemporary folklore – but another miracle of American technology.

When writing his earlier book on Monroe, Mailer had access to no fewer than 16,000 photographs of her. This time he uses only Greene’s pictures, whether of Marilyn or of other women whose look set the standards of glamour in that decade: Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Anita Ekberg, and models such as Lisa Fonssagrives or Suzy Parker. It is a look now coming back into fashion, probably because it owes more to art than nature. These faces are the most perfect of masks, using make-up to achieve a glittering factitiousness that recalls the wonder substances of the decade: plastic and nylon. In the Forties, stars like Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour had proffered a more direct and accessible sex appeal. The Sixties brought yet another style of beauty, seen in Greene’s provocative portraits of Faye Dunaway, Pat McGuire and Jane Fonda: here female sexuality is no longer enclosed in a conventional pose or hairstyle, but thrusts itself at the observer in the form of an explicit challenge.

To go from such contemporary images to Constance Sullivan’s collection of nude photographs is a startling reminder of how far photographic technique has evolved since its beginnings around 1830. The evolution is not merely technical, of course: nude photography has also passed through several different eras of sensibility, with a history that until recently was quite separate from the parallel traditions of glamour or portrait photography. We can give Marilyn Monroe credit for changing this state of affairs, albeit unintentionally. In the early Fifties, she posed nude for a calendar: this became known a few years later when she was a budding starlet, and threatened to cut short her movie career. But her studio, Twentieth-Century Fox, decided to brazen out the scandal, and got away with it: moral standards were being relaxed, and before long even the most famous stars could be seen naked and unashamed on the screen. This liberalisation brought with it a radical change in the status of the nude photograph. Until then, it had been of the essence of the nude that it be anonymous: prints were given titles like ‘Two Sisters’, ‘Fille de Joie’, or, irreducibly, ‘Femme’. Such impersonality was the rule for all three genres of nude photography that were established in the 19th century: the openly erotic (often sold as postcards), the artistic and the scientific. Each type had a similar ambition: to strip away the vestiges of culture, personality and history, in order to lay bare the thing itself: the human body (especially the female one) retrieved from secrecy, now arrested and offered anonymously for our unhindered inspection. Nowadays, however, we want more than just a naked body. The body must be named and given an appropriate setting: so no Playboy centrefold is complete without a capsule biography of the model that tells us her name (even if it is false), her hobbies, and her future ambitions. The images reveal what is usually hidden, as they have always done: but now they also suggest how the woman might be made part of the daily life of the male who stares at her with awakened fantasy.

The first image in Sullivan’s book, dated 1855, is so powerful and rawly explicit that it seems to make superfluous the whole later development of the cheesecake genre. A shamefaced young woman looks quizzically at the photographer while fending off a half-tumescent man who simultaneously kisses her and displays her genitals to the camera (in today’s convention, a more dishonest one, she displays them herself). How appropriate, one thinks, that the camera’s action should be called an exposure! Next to these pioneering erotic images, the early art nudes look stiff and pallid – in large part because of the insistence on decking out the female form with lashings of drapery. Only a few masters like Braquehais or the painter Degas (if the attribution is correct) are able to breathe life into these conventions derived from the painter’s studio.

The turn of the century brings a reversal: the art nude enters its golden age, while the erotic nude sinks down towards its current state of facile vulgarity. Some of the major figures are Clarence White, Stieglitz, Frank Eugene, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. At their best, they united a concern for documentation – conveying the unobstructed truth about a particular body – with a fresh sense of the formal resources of texture, light and pose. They emancipated the nude from the studio in order to associate it with other natural forms; this was also, incidentally, one of the first indigenous cultural expressions of the American West. It seemed, for a while, that the New World could make the female body something it could not be in Europe: neither ashamed nor provocative, but timeless and even Edenic. Since that era, however, the nude photograph has not remained immune from the crisis of modern art: photographers have been caught in an endless search for gimmicks, striving to keep alive a genre whose ‘aura’ has been stripped away by the vulgarisation of sex, the limitless reproduction of pin-ups and the overwhelming dominance in our lives of commercial images.

One may be sceptical of nude photography’s attempts to bring us closer to the secret of feminine beauty. The art nude has typically obscured the model’s face, covered it with a mask, or cropped it off altogether (for many years, this was done as a matter of course to conceal the model’s identity). The effect was to cast the body on its own resources: whatever the aesthetic or sexual appeal of the resulting image, it could scarcely convey the force of a complete personality, which would seem to be of the essence of real beauty. Early erotic nudes, modelled by prostitutes, derive much of their impact from their subjects’ facial expressions – whether melancholy, ironic or complacently hedonistic. A faceless image pulls us up short, whereas beauty promises to translate us into another, more satisfying realm: the physical ideal opens prospects of some corresponding social happiness – whether a base reward like the envy of one’s peers or the transports of romantic love.

I should acknowledge that all this is seen very much from the male point of view (which has been stringently and definitively criticised in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing). For a woman, beauty must often be a more alienating and tainted gift than it appears to her admirers. Susan Sontag has complained that in our culture beauty, defined as ‘woman’s business’, has been made ‘the theatre of their enslavement’. This perhaps values too lightly what beauty gives its owner: provided, of course, that intellectual or moral gifts are also present. Even so, beautiful women may well be plagued by loneliness and suspicion, fearing that men desire them only for their looks and that women shun them as rivals. Marilyn Monroe’s tragic end is a classic case of beauty turning into self-entrapment. Beauty is a wasting asset at best: and if traded on the marriage market can only realise its full value in a single transaction – of which there may be long leisure to repent. Until recently, male beauty has been a much more exploitable advantage than its female equivalent, for society has placed fewer limits on the application of its power.

The move towards sexual equality, however halting, is bound to revise beauty’s status. The long tradition of beauty as pathos, epitomised in the fate of Monroe and all the other fallen angels of show business, will fade in proportion as such fates become more the exception than the rule. Time may be the enemy of us all, but to say that the beautiful have no enemy but time is to limit drastically the chances life may offer them. Beauty will cease to be an adequate career for a woman – it never was adequate, really – and will play a more peripheral role in her life. The example of the gay community is probably an instructive and prophetic one: there, beauty may be given its full due for purposes of communal celebration or sexual pursuit, but rendered neutral when the claims of work or domesticity come to the fore. Those who insist on the unmixed power of beauty are assigned a distinct and mildly contemptible role – that of the ‘hustler’. Probably the gay world brings to these matters a more clear and sober eye (hence its respect for beauties like Dietrich or Mae West, who adopt an ironic attitude towards their own charms). It is indeed ludicrous that the exact length of Cleopatra’s nose should alter the course of history: yet Marilyn had her nose surgically adjusted, and went on to fortune. The power of beauty may always have some flavour of tyranny: but we are more ready to embrace the tyrant than to protest against the capriciousness of her rule.