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Extreme Beauty in Vogue

An exhibition at Milan’s Palazzo della Ragione explores how beauty canons changed from the 1930s on through the work of some of the most important photographers of our times.

Beauty, the famous statement claims, is in the eye of the beholder. This may be a generally agreed upon definition, but it’s impossible to deny that perceptions of beauty changed throughout the decades. As society transformed, aesthetic sensibilities changed and cosmetic industry considerably developed, the ideal of beauty was radically transformed. This is basically the main theme behind the exhibition “Extreme Beauty in Vogue” currently on at Milan’s Palazzo della Ragione
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The exhibition - organised by Vogue America, curated by Vogue executive fashion editor Phyllis Posnick with Eva Respini as guest curator, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, sponsored by Dolce & Gabbana and celebrating the launch of D&G’s brand new make-up range - analyses the concept of beauty through 89 images taken by important photographers such as George Hoyningen-Huene, Edward Steichen, Erwin Blumenfeld, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Steven Klein and Irving Penn. The photographs are divided in different themes - “Icons”, “Heads”, “Bodies, Unleashed” and “Bodies, Restrained” - and showcased on two different sections, divided in a lower and upper level, the latter dedicated entirely to Irving Penn.

Jean Nouvel’s architecture gives the exhibition a sort of decadent and at the same time hieratical atmosphere: the photographs on the lower level are indeed exhibited in little cabins that recall confessionals or church niches in front of which the visitors might kneel and maybe have an intimate dialogue with the image or silently worship beauty. Visitors are invited to stop in front of the photographs and ponder about them, question the main themes they tackle and admire the talent of the photographer who took them. Decadent red velvet sofas are carelessly arranged along the corridors in front of the images while the Latin words “Gloria Venustati” are projected on the crumbling walls of the palazzo.

The exhibition opens with a few black and white images from the 1930s such as George Hoyningen-Huene’s “Modern Mariners” photographed on the beach and Edward Steichen’s “Your Hands”, but soon colours appear with Clifford Coffin’s bare backs on sand dunes and Erwin Blumenfeld’s iconic image of model Jean Patchett’s pencilled eye, red mouth and beauty mark.

As the decades progress, women turn into very different icons of beauty as Penelope Tree in a Pierre Cardin dress or Twiggy with hair styled by Ara Gallant, both shot by Richard Avedon prove. The transformation of women continues with Avedon’s Veruschka portrayed in a yoga position in 1972 while wearing a Giorgio di Sant’Angelo wrap, Helmut Newton’s futuristic and fetishistic women and Steven Klein’s “Strength Training”, with a haunting and extremely elongated superwoman wearing a golden evening gown and lifting a car.

The exhibition offers enough material to write an essay on the pre and post-feminist notion of beauty and on how this ideal has been altered with plastic surgery, through the photographer’s lenses or with computer programmes. Faces become canvases on which emotions are projected: Avedon hides the model’s face behind a metal mask, Duane Michals uses a flower bouquet almost recalling the “Surrealist Phantom” pictures of artist Sheila Legge standing in Trafalgar Square in a tight satin gown, her head hidden by a wire cage covered with pink paper rosebuds. Yet the master of the face transformation is Irving Penn: infusing in his images his love for exoticism, masks and colours, Penn transformed his models into strange creatures with faces covered by feathers, hair, Fauchon candied fruit, milk, jewels or an old rugby ball.

While worshipping at the altar of beauty, visitors will be mesmerised also by the glamour and elegance that ooze from each single picture, by the clothes and accessories, the make-up and the hairstyle. Yet by looking at the images more in depth you realise there is a strong message behind them: indeed each single photograph directly mirrors the society that has indirectly produced them, showing how women looked or how they longed to look in a particular period of time. Time passes, everything changes and transforms, seems to be the final message of the exhibition, yet beauty remains.          

“Extreme Beauty in Vogue” is at Palazzo della Ragione, Piazza dei Mercanti, Milan, until 10th May 2009.