Bothered, Bewildered: Wellcome Collection’s “The Cult of Beauty”

Perhaps it was neither a matter of coincidence nor irony that the last stop, the final artwork in the Wellcome Collection’s, “The Cult of Beauty” exhibition in London, was a nearly-ten-foot-tall sculpture of the cumulative ephemera of the artist’s mother’s life. Resembling a static tornado bursting with detritus, the piece consists of a plethora of items such as articles of clothing, personal effects, decorative objects, and more. Titled, (Almost) all of my dead mother’s things (2023), the multimedia sculpture by the artist who goes by “Narcissister,” symbolizes her mother’s lifelong pursuit of feminine correctness. 

A roughly anthropomorphic portrait, (Almost) all of my dead mother’s things functions not only as a critique of the commodification of feminine beauty and the vast market it has wrought, but also as an invitation to enter an alternative discourse on physical appearance with respect to sex, gender, race, class, and more, and how each is affected by and in turn influences beauty standards within and across cultures. 

An apt epilogue to “The Cult of Beauty” and commissioned specifically for the exhibition by the Wellcome Collection, the monumental work is bathed in bright, warm light in an otherwise darkened room; thus, it resembles a dramatic, Baroque-period portrait. Quite literally composed of the things and beliefs she consumed, the bulky mother perches on – or, rather, towers over – a wooden chair that threatens to collapse under the weight of her considerable mass. Indeed, as the artist explained, “[the] commission centers on the crushing weight of beauty ideals that are passed on from one generation to another.” 

(Almost) all of my dead mother’s things might alternatively have stood poised like an imperious Sphinx at the entrance to the exhibition, albeit proffering a warning rather than a riddle: “Prepare to be utterly inundated.” Nearby, Krishna, Nefertiti, Saint Rose of Lima, and Aphrodite emphasize historical beauty “hierarch[ies] and myths.” 

Click image to enlarge.

Next, a small copy of The Sleeping Hermaphrodite, the imperial Roman (c. 155 BCE) marble copy of a Hellenistic Greek bronze sculpture in the Louvre’s collection, reminds us that appearances can be deceptive. The latter work is one of a number of objects in a group titled, “Beauty at Gender’s Boundaries.” The thread is dropped here and only later, near the summation of the show, taken up again.

As a counterpoint to the prodigious, messy amalgam of Narcissister’s (Almost) all of my dead mother’s things, the first object you see upon entering the exhibition is a copy of Thutmose’s Bust of Nefertiti (original: c. 1351-34, limestone and paint; reproduction: Clarke and Davies, 1912-28 CE). The object label explains that, since its discovery, “this representation of the Egyptian queen has been held up as an archetype of African feminine beauty and empowerment by European Egyptologists and Black feminists in various contexts.”  

Curator Janice Li has organized the show according to three broad themes: “The Ideals of Beauty,” “The Industry of Beauty,” and “Subverting Beauty.”

The complexity of the subject, of beauty and beauty standards, is reflected in the ambitious but somewhat meandering narrative of “The Cult of Beauty.” Curator Janice Li has organized the show according to three broad themes: “The Ideals of Beauty,” “The Industry of Beauty,” and “Subverting Beauty.” It precedes along a roughly chronological path, attending to differing cultural and geographical perspectives now and then, through the first two sections until, in the latter, recent artworks tackle some of the prevailing issues, developments, ethical questions, and controversies in relation primarily to humans’ appearance, physical beauty, and beauty standards.

“The exhibition is hung together like a moodboard,” writes Kitty Grady in her review of “The Cult of Beauty” for Apollo Magazine, “showing without telling or narrating any wider, sustained story about its subject.” Buried in an online guide for people preparing to visit the exhibition is a brief summary, which explains that the show is about: “Why we all think about beauty,” “How ideas about beauty are different for different people,” “How the beauty industry is connected to health and wellbeing,” and “There are many ways to be beautiful.” Aside from establishing a rather low bar for intellectual inquiry, this summary also implies that “subverting beauty” is largely about reshaping and rethinking beauty standards rather than acknowledging the problematics of assuming that the notion of beauty is anything but a construct. 

A veil of distrust shrouds the objects. That is, the clear lack of curatorial focus and direction seems to reflect a lack of faith in viewers’ capacity to observe, analyze, and process emotionally and intellectually within the range of proposed (by artists and curators) discourse for a given work. Did they think we wouldn’t get it? Ultimately, one gets the impression that the curatorial team was unwilling to accept the inherent limitations of their project, which might well have led them to some valuable insights and toward a cogent, manageable theme. 

“The ‘hungry’ art machine demands more and more ‘shiny junk’ at ever increasing speeds and volumes.”

In the aforementioned review, Grady refers to Linda Dzuvervoc and Irene Revell’s essay, “Lots of Shiny Junk at the Art Dump” (Parse, 2019), echoing their lament that “the ‘hungry’ art machine demands more and more ‘shiny junk’ at ever increasing speeds and volumes.” Distracted by the “shiny junk” and gimmicks like a “sensory map of the exhibition,” visitors may not notice that “The Cult of Beauty” offers no solutions to the problems it vaguely (at best) poses. 

The seductive visual medley, the “shiny junk,” of “The Cult of Beauty” offers for contemplation and, most-assuredly, titillation, objects as diverse as the beauty marks or mouches of French courtiers, a 17th-century painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe known as The Black Madonna from the Wellcome Collection, a Hogarth print depicting husbands taking their “ugly” wives to be ground in a mill, a life-size version of Barbie, and various other objects, images, devices, adornments, and cosmetics. This also includes Wellcome’s own “Hazeline Snow,” a cream intended to “whiten” skin, which Wellcome (as Burroughs Wellcome & Company) began manufacturing in the late 19th century. 

Li’s and Wellcome’s exhibition succeeds in terms of provoking sometimes intense emotional responses, particularly in instances where we are witnesses to the physical torments to which humans have submitted themselves in the pursuit of beauty. Possibly to offset the vicissitudes of the visitor’s journey, the gallery space has been designed to resemble a series of boudoirs (or confessionals) separated by sheer pink curtains. Overhead lighting is minimal, no doubt to protect vulnerable objects but also, it seems, to achieve a particular, theatrical impact. Oh, the things we do in the shadows!

It is in the final few galleries where select objects demonstrate the ingenuity, intelligence, and empathy with which many contemporary artists are confronting the anachronistic, universalizing discourse regarding beauty.

“The Cult of Beauty” dons a different mantle in the last section, “Subverting Beauty.” Here, artists may or may not have set out to “subvert” beauty standards, dictums, or expectations, but, overwhelmingly, the works explore appearance, beauty, and body image issues from a refreshingly broad range of perspectives. Thus, it is in the final few galleries where select objects demonstrate the ingenuity, intelligence, and empathy with which many contemporary artists are confronting the anachronistic, universalizing discourse regarding beauty, appearance, comportment, and so forth.

Artist Eszter Magyar’s, It makes no sense being beautiful if no one else is ugly, multi-media collage with sculptural objects (2023, part of her visual project, Makeupbrutalism) explores notions of body image and internalized, deeply skewed beliefs resulting from physical appearance and comportment standards established by the high-profit, high-pressure beauty industry. A predominantly pastel-and-white montage of uncomfortably up-close photographs mostly of women’s facial features, some scrawled with messages like “I’VE MISTAKEN SOCIAL PRESSURE WITH SELF EXPRESSION” and “THIS IS WHAT MAKEUP HAS COME TO” mocks the beauty industry branch of advertising. 

With her photographic and multimedia series, The Disobedient Nose (2022), London-based artist, Shirin Fathi, explains the exhibition catalog, “experiments with the shifting nature of identity in relation to cosmetic surgery through roleplay, prostheses and make-up.” Shirin wryly considers the subject of rhinoplasty in Iran, which performs the highest number of the procedure across the globe. According to the artist, many Iranians hope to have the rhinoplasty procedure performed; there is a socio-cultural assumption that individuals both need and want to alter their appearances most prevalently to conform to Western beauty standards. Shirin draws from historical medical procedures like early skin grafting techniques in India, Renaissance anatomical illustrations, and much more in her work.

Woven through the narrative provided by object labels and gallery text is commentary by a variety of contemporary writers, most predominantly author, broadcaster, and scholar, Emma Dabiri, who has published extensively on race and beauty standards. For instance, she observes about “racialised whiteness” that the “idea that light skin is more beautiful than dark skin is the consequence of colonisation and racist Western beauty norms in many contexts.”

Several works on race and racism, colonialism, whiteness and white supremacy, and the like stand as testaments to Dabiri’s remarks. Chinese-born, London-based artist, Xu Yang’s, Perhaps We are All Fictions in the Eye of the Beholder (2021) is a painted self-portrait that presents the artist as French court painter, including of Marie-Antoinette, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun–except that Xu is obviously not white. She wears a strapless ballgown and a towering, cotton-candy pink wig and holds a palette onto which dollops of unmixed paint have been deposited. The self-portrait has been sketched but the artist looks not at the canvas but at the viewer. Is her gaze confrontational or are we seeing rapt attention as she looks into an invisible mirror rather than us?

Click image to enlarge.

A powerful indictment of white supremacy is provided by Brazilian artist Angelica Dass’s ongoing project, Humanae. Angelica began by photographing friends and family, matching “pixels from the nose of each subject to a Pantone colour that forms the background…” (“The Cult of Beauty” catalog) Ambitiously, she hopes to create a catalog representative of, informs Women Making Art, “every human skin tone in the form of Pantone referenced portraits.” Thanks to broad exposure of the project on social media, she has added more than 4,000 people from 16 different countries to her inventory. “The Cult of Beauty” is displaying a panel of 16 portraits from the Humanae project. The work speaks for itself.

Also interrogated are body shape and image and sex and gender and, along with compelling analyses of the influence of race and racialized beauty. In this regard, “The Cult of Beauty” excels. For instance, Danish artist Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm’s AI-generated animation, An Algorithmic Gase II (2023) by Cecilie and ARTificial Mind, consists of an “endlessly morphing human figure generated by AI through a 10-month-long learning process.” The animation never repeats. In addition to emphasizing not only that every single human body is unique, the work also demonstrates that bodies change, sometimes drastically, including over time–and so do seemingly intractable beauty standards.

The involvement of Curator E-J Scott from London’s groundbreaking Museum of Transology (MoT),  “the UK’s most significant collection of objects representing trans, non-binary and intersex people’s lives,” is a welcome component of “The Cult of Beauty.” Objects relating to “everyday beauty and personal care” that have been donated by local intersex, non-binary, and trans communities are accompanied by notes from individual donors “sharing intimate stories of their journeys.” As Scott emphasizes, these deeply intimate, personal accounts juxtaposed with “seemingly mundane products,” prompt us to look at beauty standards from a completely different perspective, one in which beauty functions in a positive manner “in the path towards self-actualization.”

In the end, there is just so much, too much, with which viewers are left to grapple. In part, that is an irrevocable consequence of proposing a topic of such breadth and depth. If Li and collaborators have not inscribed a counternarrative into their analysis, perhaps that is one saving grace of “The Cult of Beauty” after its relentless oversharing and overtelling. It could be that the dissatisfaction one feels when leaving the exhibition is precisely the impetus that is needed to spark further conversations, including via art, across diverse venues, virtual and real-life. 

© Debra Thimmesch (4/28/24) — Special for FF2 Media


Check out the “The Cult of Beauty” online gallery guide from The Wellcome Collection.

For more coverage on Narcissister, check out a previous Swan of the Day feature by FF2’s Julia Lasker.

Read about Makeupbrutalism from Eszter Magyar.

Visit Shirin Fathi’s artist’s website.

Read Kitty Grady’s “The changing face of beauty through the age” from Apollo Magazine.

Read Linda Dzuvervoc and Irene Revell’s essay, “Lots of Shiny Junk at the Art Dump” from Parse.

Check out Emma Dabiri’s books, Disobedient Bodies: Reclaim Your Unruly Beauty via the Wellcome Collection.

Learn more about Angelica Dass’s project, Humanae, plus a feature from Women Making Art.

Check out The Museum of Transology in London.


Featured photo: Xu Yang’s, Perhaps We are All Fictions in the Eye of the Beholder on display in “The Cult of Beauty” at the Wellcome Collection.

First middle photo: Narcissister’s (Almost) all of my dead mother’s things on display in “The Cult of Beauty” at the Wellcome Collection.

Second middle photo: Angelica Dass’s ongoing project Humanae on display in “The Cult of Beauty” at the Wellcome Collection.

Bottom photo: The Disobedient Nose by Shirin Fathi on display in “The Cult of Beauty” at the Wellcome Collection.

All photos taken by Debra Thimmesch for FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Angelica Dass, Apollo Magazine, Debra Thimmesch, Emma Dabiri, Eszter Magyar, Irene Revell, Janice Li, Kitty Grady, Linda Dzuvervoc, London, Narcissister, Shirin Fathi, The Cult of Beauty, Wellcome Collection, Xu Yang

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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