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Pop Art and the Beautiful Silhouette

Despite all of our poetry, song lyrics, and fairy tales, the concept of beauty is fluid. What is considered beautiful in our society today may be very much the opposite in 3 or 4 decades. Some enduring concepts exist (hold out for the next BLOG post for more on this topic!), but even a casual glance around one of the country’s great art museums will rapidly demonstrate my point. Traveling from the Rubenesque nudes, with their voluptuous figures – round bellies, plump cheeks, full hips – to Post-Modern figure drawings or Cubist portraits – with their sharp angles, long and lean figures, and chiseled faces – we can see that over the course of a couple centuries, “beauty” transformed from one extreme to its opposite.

On a recent visit to Chicago, I was fortunate to see a retrospective of the works of Roy Lichtenstein at the Art Institute. Lichtenstein is a key figure in the Pop Art movement, and his work engenders reactions ranging from enthusiastic applause to utter detest. Perhaps most interesting to me were the facial features in some of his mid-career work (famous for looking like excerpts or stills of comic books or B-movies). The method of Pop Art is essentially incorporation of mundane things into a highly conceptualize or altogether different context. As such, Lichtenstein’s figures – his faces – were drawn quite literally from the popular media of the day (the 1950’s to 1960’s, mostly). This collection was a fascinating exploration of “what qualifies as art”. And the faces! Women with small, up-turned noses and big wide-open eyes. Men with strong, square jaws, thick eyebrows… and stern looks.

It is interesting how stereotypical or ideal female and male forms can be captured as single black line silhouettes. This may be obvious to any comic book enthusiast, but in the world of “fine art” it is quite unique. Equally interesting is how some of the aesthetic ideals of female beauty have changed over the past 50 years – in some cases, multiple times. Nose size, nasal tip contour and rotation, eyebrow position and thickness, lip fullness, etc., etc. For sure, there are some constants – a crisp contour between the chin and the neck, for example.

If you’re in Chicago before September 3, it’s definitely worth checking out. If not, there are some Lichtenstein pieces in the permanent collection at the SF MOMA (www.sfmoma.org). Who knows what will be “beautiful” in 2060!?

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