In the age of social media, the pressure to conform to beauty standards embodied by celebrities and influencers has become "unrelenting", said Anita Bhagwandas in The Guardian. The global beauty industry is expected to exceed $800bn by the end of this year. Yet this obsession is not quite the modern phenomenon we might imagine it to be. Indeed, "defining who and what is 'beautiful' has plagued philosophers, mathematicians, scientists and mere mortals for centuries".
As this "fascinating" new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection explains, our current ideals of beauty are the culmination of "age-old beliefs that date back to prehistory". The show brings together some 200 objects, installations and works of art to explore the concept of beauty "in all its glorious and insidious guises". "The Cult of Beauty" tells all manner of "untold stories" from cultures around the world, from the dawn of history right up to the present: one series of photographs examines the prevalence of nose jobs in contemporary Iran.
"There's an awful lot here to think about and marvel at," said Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard. We see, for instance, "a fascinating selection of antique make-up tools, including an Egyptian device for producing kohl". There is also a burnished bronze mirror from Egypt, demonstrating that even before the invention of "effective looking glasses" – enabled by putting mercury behind glass – we still sought to gaze at our own reflection. And while attempts at cosmetic surgery have existed since the 17th century, the "really gross" examples of botched treatments come from our own time: a number of photos here will "cause you never to entertain the idea of a facelift or breast surgery". It's not all great, however. The contemporary art installations here are less successful than the historical exhibits, and the show often strikes an off-puttingly hectoring tone, demanding we think in a certain way about the "politically unsound past".
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Nevertheless, this is a "riveting" exhibition, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. It's fascinating, for example, to learn how many aesthetic procedures have their origins in medical science: electrotherapy for wrinkles was first used to treat tuberculosis, while "the oxygen therapy beloved of Hollywood stars" was originally a treatment for asthma. The curators have "a keen sense of the ludicrous", as seen in Hogarth prints lampooning the fashions of his day and, "best of all", a "scaled-up life-size mannequin of Barbie" with "a 21-inch waist" and "hips scarcely any larger". Elsewhere, and altogether more disturbing, a 17th century satirical print depicts men taking their "old" or "ugly" wives to a windmill "to be 'improved' through grinding". At once horrifying and compelling, this is a "terrific" and revelatory show.
Wellcome Collection, London NW1 (020-7611 2222, wellcomecollection.org). Until 28 April 2024.
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