A week ago I spent a lovely day visiting the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.
This beautiful neo-classical building at the edge of the Golden Gate Park overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. The Legion’s exceptional collection of Ancient, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo Art are accompanied by many of Rodin’s sculptures and a lovely Impressionist section that I particularly like.
However, on this day, I was there to visit the current exhibition (February 18, 2012 - June 17, 2012) appropriately titled “The Cult of Beauty.” This outstanding collection of artworks took over a decade to put together into one cohesive exhibit that represents the height of the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th Century. Featuring such works as James McNeill Whistler’s “Symphony in White”, John Spencer Stanhope’s “Love and the Maiden”, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Bocca Baciata" and last but not least, my personal favorite, Frederic Leighton’s “Pavonia”.
Looking around the exhibit, it was evident to me that this small yet prolific avant-garde group had a very clear ideal of beauty. Their ideal female form, to be specific, had striking classical features, a square jaw-line, a straight and prominent nose, full lips and almond shaped eyes framed by cascading locks of auburn hair. Peering at me from almost every canvas in the collection was a version of this ideal female figure, no matter the artist.
The exhibit was beauty-filled. In-fact it was beauty-saturated, yet their ideal female figure did not resonate with me, as abundantly beautiful as indeed she was. Viewing this body of work from a distance of over a century, what amazed me is that I could not, as much as I tried, think of even one woman that I’ve ever met or seen in the media that looks like this ideal. Not even one. My 21st century sensibilities and cultural baggage must be getting the better of me; for to me, it is very odd that such a consensus should emerge over a non-existent archetype. Am I in the wrong? Has anyone ever encountered her? If yes, would you be so kind as to forward me her email address? I’d love to chat with her about Botox, Lipo-suction and the latest in lasers and fillers. I have to wonder, does she work out?
'Art for Art's Sake', was the adage carved on this movement’s tombstone – one that identified beauty as the primary goal of Art. This maxim is long gone and buried under the ruins and remains of the various art movements of the 20th century. It seems that the contemporary art world has lost all interest in formal beauty, except for as a byproduct of its process.
Today’s art challenges our concept of traditional beauty and confronts us with disquieting imagery. It seems to be an entirely private affair - one that excludes the viewer and is exclusively accessible to the fortunate few who posses an intellectual road map. As our art loses all concern for beauty’s sake, it seems that in our popular culture beauty has grown into a cult. Please do not be misled; the cult of beauty is very much alive and kicking. It is found on the covers of drug-store magazines and in our top grossing movies. America’s obsession with beauty is reflected in the annual statistics of plastic surgery. I guess we must have buried the Aesthetic Movement alive - oops!
In my mind, to seek beauty is to be human. It is a natural instinct not much different from a newborn’s instincts to draw her first breath. And although I find contemporary art intriguing, stimulating, funny at times and (please don’t tell anyone) even beautiful - I do feel a twinge of nostalgic sentimental longing for this era long gone.