Beauty and erasure

Sunday December 14, 2008 @ 12:37 AM (UTC)

I recently finished the meaty nonfiction tome The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander. It led me to reflect on youth and responsibility, the totally different worlds that coexist within a given culture and time period, and many other things. One line of thought was inspired by a throw-away line and a series of illustration plates.

A surviving, highly stylized portrait shows Nessy [Heywood, sister of a mutinous young gentleman] as the ideal young woman of her time, with large, limpid eyes and a small ‘rosebud’ mouth, her slim, pale face framed by a mane of soft curls – a portrait that does not accord entirely with Peter’s own fond and forgiving description. His sister’s features, he allowed, ‘were by no means regular’, although her long-lashed eyes ‘redeemed the whole face’.

The portrait, seen here, is reproduced in a plates section further on in the text. It is, in fact, pretty but insipid, a sharp contrast to the portrait of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley on the facing page. Pasley’s portrait is more detailed and by a noted portraitist, so perhaps it’s natural that his face shows hints of cunning and perhaps a twist of humor, where Nessy’s portrait gives no real insight on her character.

But turning the page again, I find character after character. The officers at Peter Heywood’s court martial appear in different media, by different artists, and most of them are strikingly individual. I could very easily label each with an adjective: self-absorbed, stodgy, idealist, bold; or use each picture as the jumping-off point for a character in a story. I turn the page again, and here are more portraits, few of them detailed oil portraits, but most of them, again, with that indefinable spark that speaks, if not of likeness, then of humanity, perhaps of essence. Take a look at Rear Admiral John Knight, small tho’ he be here, and then look at Nessy again. Isn’t she amazingly devoid of character?

Another woman I find myself unable to envision as real from her portrait is Tahitian noblewoman Poedua (WARNING: exposed breasts). On the other hand, Elizabeth Bligh, Captain Bligh’s wife, seemed very real to me. But when I turned the page to her portrait, I felt a sting of embarrassment on her behalf. Despite the intellect I know from the text she possessed, there is something weak, perhaps a desire to please, in her face. She would seem puppyish even without the accompanying dog. And there is something unprepossessing in her mouth and teeth. More than Poedua, she seems naked to me. Naked because she is real, unbeautiful.

In our perturbation over before and after airbrushing photos, perhaps we forget this earlier precedent. When likeness was a matter both of the skill and of the tact of the portraitist, these flattering lies were rampant (whither Marie-Antoinette’s Hapsburg chin, Mme. Vigée-Le Brun?). There’s no reason to suppose that the men’s portraits are immune – some of these men may have a more dashing set of the head or stronger set of the jaw than they did in life. But those envied physiognomies of manly virtus are not so demanding and distorting as the fickle ideal of beauty.

I remember arguing once with someone who argued that we shouldn’t have a Sacagawea coin because we don’t have any contemporary portrait of her, and can’t be sure our coin is accurate. I pointed out that before photography, only rich, ruling class/race men (and a few women) could have their likeness preserved for posterity – insisting on a likeness before a stamp or coin could be produced would mean perpetuating the effacement of poor people and people of color throughout the ages. And now I realize that there is another effacement here, that of personality and individuality (and occasionally ethnicity) in many of the portraits that were painted. Perhaps Marie-Antoinette was mortified to be sketched on her way to the Guillotine by Revolutionnaire Jacques-Louis David. Under the circumstances, more mortified than most celebrities enduring the paparazzi’s flashes can possibly be. But I feel this picture, stark and incomplete as it is, shows more of Marie-Antoinette’s personality than the many posed and prettified portraits of her I have seen. Her jaw is set and her back is straight. That seems both real and admirable. To be without the veil of beauty is to be exposed, for good or ill.

The beauty ideal isn’t weakening. Rather than allowing a less restrictive and more attainable range of female appearance to be celebrated, our culture is upping the pressure on men to perfect, pore-minimize, depilate and smooth. When you can open a magazine and find Clive Owen in the uncanny valley almost as easily as Beyoncé, perhaps it’s time to celebrate the fragmentary, distorted truth-telling the camera can provide. Perhaps next time we look at a photograph of ourselves, we can look, not for the bulge or the pimple or the wrinkle, but the spark of humanity, the essence that has been preserved and transmitted. Something that says, “I was there.”


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