Saturday, July 20News For London

Beyond the surface: The Cult of Beauty exhibition explores the depths of beauty standards

Masks. The Cult of Beauty. Photograph by Malavika Pradeep

Reminiscing our recent visit to The Cult of Beauty exhibition in Wellcome Collection London, we saw the dialogue between beauty, age, gender, race and status through history in more that 200 artworks.

To get the whole picture, let’s explore the background of these artworks.  

Beauty standards in different eras 

With the first object of the Bust of Queen Nefertiti greeting exhibition visitors, the Wellcome collection says that her full honorific name, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, translates to “Beautiful are the beauties of Aten: The beautiful one has come”. 

Nefertiti. The Cult of Beauty. Photograph by Malavika Pradeep

According to National Geographic, beauty standards changed dramatically when Nefertiti reigned. Rigid and straight lines became fluid, curved, and more natural.  

Even though the sculpture was made in c. 1351–34 BCE and discovered in 1912, Nefertiti has been an archetype of African feminine beauty by European Egyptologists and Black feminists. 

The symbol of multicultural and multiethnic identities, The Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura, was also in the exhibition. 

The Virgin of Guadalupe. The Cult of Beauty. Photograph by Agne Galdikaite

Made in 1745 by an unknown artist, the black Madona image of the Virgin Mary is sometimes linked to pre-Christian worship of other female divinities. 

Cosmetic recipes 

In the middle of the exhibition, you can find a room called the Beauty Sensorium. According to The Wellcome Collection, this project highlights women’s historically overlooked role as pioneering chemists and botanists. 

Beauty Sensorium. The Cult of Beauty. Photograph by Malavika Pradeep

The beauty sensorium is a collaboration with the Renaissance Goo project led by historian Professor Jill Burke and soft-matter scientist Professor Wilson Poon from the University of Edinburgh, whose main goal was to try the beauty recipes dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries. 

Fashion accessories 

In the early 17th century, during smallpox and syphilis epidemics, men and women in Europe started to use beauty patches to cover the scars from these diseases. 

However, by the early 18th century, they had become elite fashion accessories showcased to show people’s status.  

It became an essential accessory for the elite class, with the placements of beauty patches having social codes. Even sex workers used to wear them to attract more clientele.  

Gender influence 

The exhibition showcases the impact gender roles had on beauty standards.  

Corsets. The Cult of Beauty. Photograph by Malavika Pradeep

One of many artworks that shows that is a 1672 chapbook and a 1650 engraving by Paulus Furst, Germany, which presents a legend of a miller who grinds and transforms his “old, ugly scolding and adulterous” wives into young spouses who are “easier on the eye and to govern”.  

This legend is an example of the misogynous ideology that was prevalent at that time and the position of gender roles in 17th-century Europe.  

Beauty standards that were shaped by social constructs of masculinity for men were also on show. It included sketches of powdered wig hairstyles for men during King Louis XIV’s reign. The wigs were used to signify wealth and status while also hiding the lice and hair loss due to diseases like syphilis.  

Male wigs sketch. The Cult of Beauty. Photograph by Agne Galdikaite

According to the Wellcome Collection, after the Crimean War, having a beard was a masculinity symbol for many British men. Thus, a lot of new beard grooming products were created in order to sculpt facial hair.  

In essence, The Cult of Beauty not only showcased the evolution of beauty but also delved into the sociocultural norms that shaped these standards. It served as a thought-provoking exploration of how perceptions of beauty relate to history, gender, and social norms across the world. 

Exhibition at The Wellcome Collection. Photograph by Malavika Pradeep