London has not been at its most picturesque during a summer of miserable weather and rioting, but two exhibitions have brought some much-needed aestheticism to the capital. Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe at the British Museum, though somewhat different in subject matter, both reflect an infatuation with beauty.
Glamour of the Gods features promotional portraits and stills from the vast collection of the John Kobal Foundation. These mostly black and white photographs capture Hollywood at its most glamorous, with subjects ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe. The exhibition allows you to trace each era’s particular style, as the girlish prettiness of Clara Bow gives way to the iconic images of Elizabeth Taylor, and the suave suits of Cary Grant become the effortless plain white t-shirts of James Dean and Marlon Brando. In particular, E.R. Richee’s minimal portrait of 1920s film star Louise Brooks encapsulates the look of the decade, with only Brooks’ white pearls, hands and bob haircut-framed face visible against the black background. In this portrait, as throughout the exhibition, the graceful poise of the subject is matched by the beautiful composition of the image. Another constant theme in the exhibition is a concern with surfaces and textures; of cloths, jewels, skin and hair, to the extent that Veronica Lake’s trademark long blonde hair almost becomes the subject of George Hurrrell’s portrait of her.
However inherently stylish the subjects were, the exhibition also highlights the expertise that went into creating such enduring images of beauty and glamour. Wrinkles showing on photographs of actors and actresses are circled to be retouched, soft-focus lenses are used to create porcelain skin, and pictures of photographers with their sitters show the spotlights, make-up artists and assistants that went into creating these images of perfection. This artifice could make the portraits appear vain and irrelevant; with the exception of Charlie Chaplin‘s Little Tramp character and Stan Laurel’s ragged suit, most of the images seem entirely removed from contemporary events such as the Great Depression. However, these images reflect the joy of escaping into the glamour and unreality of cinema, especially clear in the still of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in Swing Time.
The reliquaries (beautiful containers designed to hold religious relics) displayed in Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum have a more sombre but also more opulent beauty, featuring objects exquisitely crafted using gold, ivory, pearls and jewels. The fourteenth century French reliquary pendant of the Holy Thorn is a particularly stunning example. Probably made to hold a thorn from Christ’s crown, it is a tiny pendant of gold and amethystine crystal small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand, and which contains richly coloured and detailed enamelled scenes of the life of Christ. Like the film stars in the National Portrait Gallery, the beauty of the reliquaries is enhanced by their lighting, with the gallery darkened and each item spotlit.
As well as the beauty of the materials and craftsmanship, the exhibition also reflects medieval ideals of female beauty, such as one reliquary believed to have held part of the skull of a companion of St Ursula. This is in the shape of the head and shoulders of a woman with pale skin, golden hair and round plucked eyebrows (weirdly similar to those of the 1930s actresses) and a cavity in her head in which to store the skull fragment. It seems strange that these beautiful objects were designed to hold fragments of body parts and torture devices; as well as thorns, blood, bone and hair fragments, there were also reliquaries that had claimed to hold the umbilical cord of the baby Jesus and the breast milk of the Virgin Mary. A little unsettling, but the medieval craftsmen were trying to glorify the saints whose relics they were by creating beautiful objects (not to mention how gruesome some of them would look if they just replicated what they contained!).
As the beautiful Hollywood film stars’ portraits were used to promote the actors, their films and their studios, the beauty of the reliquaries was used to promote the saints and their piety, as well as the church and town that held the relic. Regardless of the commercial or ideological values they were made to promote, these images and objects are still as stunning now as they were decades or centuries ago, which is a testimony to the incredible skill that went into creating them.
Image 1 – Wikimedia Commons
Image 2 – The British Museum, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York