Wednesday 17 April 2024

'Cute' and Somerset House & 'The Cult of Beauty' at the Wellcome

 To try and lay aside my disastrous easter, I decided to check out a couple of exhibitions that I thought would go together nicely, Cute at Somerset House and The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome Collection.

I’m not immune to cute, I’ve been to aww at the odd thing here and there, but I do find a lot of the things marketed as cute, those bulbous heads and big, sparkling eyes (and non-existent noses) to be mildly horrific. I’m also not the biggest fan of cats, so an exhibition funded by Hello Kitty’s Sanrio company may not have been exactly my thing.

There was an entire room full of Hello Kittys, with plushie upon plushie nailed to the walls and people taking selfies all over. Very much not my thing, but I did learn that Kitty herself is called Kitty White, and that she canonically lives in London. There was also a Hello Kitty disco, which was like stepping into a glitterball, with tunes chosen by Scritti-Politti’s David Gamson, I liked his picks.

I also liked an earlier room which mentioned twee-pop in the arena of cute and played songs by Orange Juice and Altered Images. Earlier parts of the exhibition also charted the rise of the cat as cute banner-holder. There were cat images known as the Brighton Cats’ from the 1870s, in which a man called Harry Pointer put the frisky felines in cute positions and took their photos. There were also some examples of Louis Wain’s cats - which I don’t think really count as cute but I have a fondness for as my local tube station is opposite a large mural of one, so they remind me of home.

Other items I enjoyed seeing were a collection of Daniel Johnston cassettes, I got the albums but never seen them in their original cassette form. There was a Pussy Riot balaclava, and a whole range of other assorted cute stuff. Despite a few unique pieces (I liked the big furry dragon monster thing) much of what was on show came from something designed by committee and mass-produced to be cute. I think that is where my ambivalence to cuteness comes from, it’s a very easy aesthetic to copy and mass-copy.

There were arguments about cuteness being able to sugar-coat a more subversive pill, that was where items like the balaclava came in. There was also an element of cuteness being a very welcoming, comforting thing - that it touches elements of childhood, of acceptance and is an allowed expression of the vulnerable. I could see these sides and their appeal but more than anything else, cute seemed more a consumerist trap then anything else. A conclusion re-enforced by the large, bustling gift shop.

A certain brand of politician must hate (or want to make hate-noises at) the Wellcome Collection because their exhibitions are frequently loudly and proudly woke. The Cult of Beauty is no different and uses its items to tell a story of beauty that has no set truths, varies across place and time and has been subject to colonial and commercial influences.

It starts with a Naomi Woolf quote, which I think is brave and the first item that caught my attention was a bust of Nefertiti. She gave herself this name and it meant ‘the beautiful one has come’. I like that confidence, and if the bust is a reliable indicator, she was not lying. There was another bust later, modelled in Queen Elizabeth I but with half of it as a mouldering skull with maggots in - the point of the bust was to train lookers out of vanity.

In that same area was a print of a windmill designed to grind ugly wives beautiful (rather like the windmill to grind old people young in Kit Smart’s The Midwife) and a picture of a woman who drank gold to keep herself young and probably died of it. That’s next to a modern beauty product with gold as its special ingredient. I also learned about St Rose of Lima, who used to rub peppercorns on her face to make her ugly, as she believed her beauty was a distraction from Christ’s. 

There were some fun collections of various historical beauty aids. There was a full kit for the eighteenth century woman wanting to youthen herself up with cheek plumpers, breast plumpers, mouse fur eyebrows and a pot of mouches to hide smallpox scars. There was a moustache nightcap, which I remember General Melchett having in a scene in Blackadder, and a mug with a moustache-guard for the heavily moustachioed gentleman. 

Things got more serious as we got to the modern day. There was a section about the colonial impact of beauty, with adverts for older and more modern skin whiteners, and a catalogue of beauty by race. There was a bit about cosmetic surgery that I moved through pretty quickly and a life sized Barbie, showing how ridiculous the doll would look as a real person.

Finally there were some of those artworks that get commissioned for exhibitions that I never really get. One of them was a mirror with the words, “I’ve mistaken social pressure for self expression.” Not being one of the beautiful people, and being the general kind of person I am, I’ve never really seen my body as much of a canvas for self expression. There are certain materials, colours and cuts I veer towards, I must have some sense of my personal style as I don’t walk about in a mishmash of whatever is around but generally my body is the thing that lugs me from one exhibition to another. 

Both exhibitions ended with this queasy feeling that something that is natural, a fondness for the vulnerable and slightly infantile, a desire to look good in our own eyes and others, have been mercilessly hijacked by the money making forces and that any true autonomy is pretty small. I’m not sure what to do with that information, but hair and beauty adverts seem more aggressive since.

No comments:

Post a Comment