I spotted a very intriguing exhibition at Art Daily a few weeks ago. Two years in the making, "Beauty by Design: Fashioning the Renaissance" has finally opened at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I was hoping there would be something about cosmetics or beauty included (not that a fashion exhibition wouldn't be great by itself) and sure enough, there is! From the museum's website: "The exhibition showcases two different, but inter-connected strands of research activity: responding to old-master paintings in the National Galleries’ collections, UK-based fashion designers have created new works using high-quality materials such as lace, while renaissance art specialists have explored ideas about beauty and cosmetics. The theme of body image is central: the historic paintings have been approached both as a means of challenging current perceptions of physical beauty, and as inspiration for a more diverse and emotionally considerate practice on the part of today’s fashion designers."
This is quite a novel approach of linking Renaissance art to contemporary fashion and notions of beauty. Rather than simply gathering and displaying Renaissance clothing and portraits, which, again, would still make for a terrific exhibition on its own, the organizers developed a unique concept in demonstrating how art from the Renaissance can be reinterpreted as a counterpoint to today's beauty standards. They explain it better than I can: "The beautiful bodies of the Renaissance – the fleshy women of Titian or Rubens or the androgynous forms of Michelangelo or Leonardo - are a long way away from today’s size zero model, yet both have been considered ideals of beauty in these diverse societies..the project aims to promote and reinstate a healthier attitude towards diversity of body image and beauty. The research team will seek to unravel historical codes of beauty and innovate towards new fashion design and communication solutions."
While I find the fashion aspect fascinating, obviously my attention is mostly on the cosmetics and beauty part of the exhibition. Since I can't catch a plane to Scotland at the moment I'm unable to delve into any details about these topics, but there is a short essay about beauty ideals depicted in one of the paintings here. Additionally, that page led me to Making Up the Renaissance, which is described as "a collaborative project to research and disseminate information about renaissance cosmetics." The site doesn't appear to be active now, but offers a wealth of resources and research on Renaissance makeup and beauty practices. Make sure to check out the "further reading" page, as there are lots of good sources to look up. I was especially heartened to see that this site is maintained by Dr. Jill Burke, an art historian (my failed dream career!) specializing in Italian Renaissance visual culture.
Another interesting person of note: the contributors section of the Beauty by Design website lists Sharon Lloyd, a faculty member at Southampton Solent University who teaches in the Media and Fashion Styling program there and specializes in "theoretical application and debate surrounding beauty, make-up and hair design." I would love to see the specific work she did for the Beauty by Design exhibition, but in lieu of that, I enjoyed abstracts of various papers she's written about makeup here - I wish I could read the full papers.
If anyone lives in Scotland or will be traveling there before the exhibition closes on May 3rd, 2015, I'm all ears for a full review (and pictures if you were allowed to take them!)