Saturday, 8 May 2010

Decadence, degenerency and death

The cosmetic 'death mask' referred to in my previous posting is symptomatic of many things but ultimately could be said to signify the degeneracy of the individual and society at large. Recent experimental make-up has a dark side, a preoccupation with representations of death and trauma.  This is beautifully indicated by the actor Dirk Bogarde, in the 1971 film Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti.  The main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, seeks to attract the attention of a young boy by painting his face white, rouging his lips and dying his hair.  The boy embodies the ideal of beauty that Aschenbach has long sought, and attempts to replicate through fulfilling a Renaissance ideal of beauty where white skin is seen as a sign of modesty and virtue, and red lips are coveted as a representation of passion and beauty.

Renaissance ideal of beauty

A painting of a woman during the Renaissance period. She has all the hallmarks of an ideal beauty for her time - white skin, red cheeks and lips.

The use by Elizabethan males of skin whitening make-up made from arsenic and lead was later to discourage future male face painters, where the direct correlation between make-up and death somehow dissipated the apparent aesthetic benefits.  We seem to be returning to these anxieties about the dangers of cosmetics, and they appear to reflect modern concerns about false identity leading to decadence and degeneracy.  In the light of pervasive and insistent identifications between face-paints and the styled photographic image, make-up artists who depict the made up face as deathly can be seen as indicting their own medium, suggesting that fears about the contaminating force of cosmetics are not limited to the opponents of make-up.

No comments:

Post a Comment