Being Beauteous brings together rarely seen vernacular archive photographs from Soviet Russia with images by internationally renowned photographers: Elliott Erwitt, David Goldblatt, Tony Ray Jones, Jacqueline Hassink, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr, Stephen Gill, Juergen Teller. The curatorial concept sets out the key theme of feminine beauty along two axes: Public/Private, and Western/Eastern. The exhibition is divided into two parts, the first of which is Public Beauties: Vignettes from the world of beauty pageants, glamour modeling, and advertising – works that document public visions of westernized feminine beauty from the position of critical remove. The second part is Private Beauties: Images that record private, Eastern, sites of feminine beauty – shot though with the trace of western mass-culture.
Central to Public Beauties is competition; being seen and judged ‘of a standard’. David Goldblatt’s Saturday Morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition is from his Boskburg series, set in a small white community in apartheid-era South Africa. As much about the black spectators – present only by special permission – as the white contestants, the photograph alludes to a broader spectrum of aesthetic judgments than the contest formally enshrines; to do with race, sex and society. Child beauty pageants feature in photographs by Parr and Erwitt. Martin Parr’s Miss Rosebud Competition, from the New Brighton series, depicts young girls in tutus, clutching star-topped wands, while Elliot Erwitt’s grave-looking American tots and their determined mothers are shown milling around a hotel lobby. Juergen Teller’s portraits of Miss Guatemala and Miss Poland, strive to capture the people behind the competitors, beneath the make-up and the hairstyles. No less to do with competition and judgment is Car Girls, by the New York-based Dutch photographer Jacqueline Hassink, which have as their subject a vision of feminine beauty that is pitched, or reduced, to the level of ornament. The photographs depict the smooth curves of the latest model (car), with women draped across their bonnets. Taken at international automobile shows, Hassink records the surface sheen to mass-cultural consumer products. Comic relief is supplied by Parr’s picture of an also-ran marrow at a Yorkshire agricultural show.
Private Beauties includes Stephen Gill’s conceptual series Russian Women Smokers. In these pictures, unseen – ostensibly Russian – beauties are referenced by a spectrum of red and pink lipstick traces on discarded cigarette butts from the streets of St Petersburg. Lest we forget, as Germaine Greer notes, ‘after the implosion of the USSR the first western shops to open in the old Soviet cities were cosmetic franchises; before a Russian woman could buy an orange or a banana she could buy a lipstick by Dior or Revlon’. Finally, the show features vernacular images of Russian Beauties by an unknown photographer, from a private archive. These provide a rare glimpse into the hidden world of a few women at the end of the Soviet era – training at home for the novel phenomenon of beauty contests. These rare documentary artifacts recall the genre of fizkultura in Socialist Realist painting as much they do American glamour modeling. In Being Beauteous we witness the collision of self-image, private desire, and historical forces, presented with humor and pathos.