The filtered life: Cult of Beauty exhibit shows the morbidity of selfhood

Though it appears to trace the history of beauty, what really interests the curator of The Wellcome Collection is beauty's fabrication and its obsolescence.

It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly Makeupbrutalism (Eszter Magyar)
Wellcome Collection (c) Benjamin Gilbert
It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly Makeupbrutalism (Eszter Magyar)

The filtered life: Cult of Beauty exhibit shows the morbidity of selfhood

An old mate of mine – old being the operative word here – has taken to complaining that whatever ‘beauty capital’ he once had is sadly depleted.

In an effort to make light of the situation, I told him that at our age, only actual capital had any allure. This was easy to say, not having been born with much beauty capital myself. Oddly enough, it didn’t cheer my mate up.

And yet, it could well be a condition of his antiquity and mine that we cannot see another solution to the problem. We are not digital natives, after all.

We are what is known as digital immigrants. We have one foot in the last century and the other in this one, and as the two centuries draw inexorably apart, the situation becomes more and more difficult, like straddling two rapidly diverging continents.

Will we, one calamitous day, split down the middle? Or will we jump at the last moment, and if so, in which direction?

I suspect it will be back to the century we call home, and at that point, I expect to find all new gadgets incomprehensible while complaining bitterly that there are no humans at the railway stations, that books are no longer written by people, and that British news anchors are using words like ‘normalcy’ and ‘irrelevancy’.

I’ll stop there, as I actually heard a British newsreader say those very words last week. Needless to say, I’ve gone off him.

Digital immigrants

We – my old mate and I – are still grappling with the daily horror of living among the digital natives and trying to learn their ways in the hope that we shall not be revealed as the digital immigrants we self-evidently are.

The pity of it all is that old codgers like us would probably benefit more than any of the youngsters from a complete digital makeover.

Wellcome Collection (c) Benjamin Gilbert
The Cult of Beauty, Wellcome Collection, Benjamin Gilbert, 2023.

It has done wonders for Harrison Ford, who is set to take on younger and younger roles as he edges closer to extinction.

After that, he will be ready to play a string of precocious toddlers, talking dogs, his own girlfriends or their mothers, and all of these posthumously. His acting career while with us will have been a mere prelude.

This kind of freedom is already available to owners of a humble smartphone. In the virtual and augmented realms of Instagram, ‘beauty capital’ has no currency, not even of the crypto kind. Beauty itself is not a thing anymore — if it ever was. It’s a figment.

But before I get into this convoluted and paradoxical matter, let me demonstrate how, in the real world, Harrison Ford might still be feeling his age.

On my way by tube to see the Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome Collection, I found a young woman stranded at the top of a stairway, unable to carry a massive suitcase down to platform level. When I offered to help her, she was visibly relieved. I got the thing down for her, then carried on along the platform.

On reaching Euston, I happened to glance back down the platform and there she was, newly-alighted and looking helpless. Our eyes met through the onrush of commuters. It was a cinematic moment of the kind Ford would have taken in his stride, but then he would have had a body double to do the lifting.

So it was that, for the second time, and despite her embarrassed apologies, I came to her assistance, this time managing to get the massive suitcase up the stairs.

Chilvary is not dead, its just old

But here’s my point: there are some things the human body cannot dissemble. I got the stuff up the stairs for her alright, but I could still feel the effects the next day. Chivalry is not dead, but nor is it getting any younger.

It is with this temptation to succumb to 'fakeness' that things take a sinister turn. Life begins to imitate art.

Once I'd helped the young woman on her way, I headed across the road to the Wellcome Collection. In all these years, I'd never stepped inside. Housed in a vast and beautiful edifice, its staircase alone is ravishing, reminiscent of the 'line of beauty'.

English painter Willliam Hogarth once described it as: "a remarkable place, like a glimpse of the future. In the capacious reading room, people lounged about on bean bags."

"I know, they had bean bags in the Seventies, but these people weren't old enough to know that. They were entirely unperturbed by their surroundings, which included pictures of dissected bodies. "

Human body motif

The Collection's founder, Henry Wellcome, was an American pharmaceutical entrepreneur interested in the history of medicine; the human body runs like a motif throughout the exhibit.

Amongst the genuinely futuristic elements is a kind of open-plan toilet with a woman in attendance mopping the porcelain sinks.

Now, I admit her presence confused me at first. There were no urinals, only cubicles, and apart from the attendant there was no one there when I nipped in, but she didn't tell me to leave and there were no signs to inform me I'd strayed into the Ladies.

Everything led me to the conclusion the toilet was unisex. After emptying my bladder, I rather sheepishly told her she was doing a great job. I don't suppose even a toilet attendant in the Wellcome Collection thinks her job is 'great'.

Afterwards, I popped into the exhibition itself, but something was bugging me. I just couldn't settle. I decided that the art would have to wait.

First, I wanted to see something bizarre, not to say macabre, that I'd been meaning to see ever since my school days when I first heard about its existence: the Auto Icon.

Bryn Haworth
Jeremy Bentham

Now I have lived in London for half my adult life. You might think I would have gotten around to seeing the icon by now, knowing as I did that it was stored in the UCL.

In my defence, it is not a thing of great beauty. Just how pressing a need would anyone in their right mind feel to see the corpse of a 19th-century philosopher seated in his original clothes, with a broad-brimmed hat on his waxen head – the original head is now kept somewhere safe, having been subjected to a series of student pranks over the years.

Jeremy Bentham is the corpse's name.

Utilitarianism inventor

Bentham was celebrated in his day as the inventor of Utilitarianism. He gave the world a principle that is still referred to from time to time, almost passing for a proverb, despite its originator being largely forgotten: the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Bentham proposed that this was the only true measure of right and wrong. In order to assess all this, he even invented a felicific calculus that sorted out the pleasure and pain involved as a consequence of any policy. Bentham was the man Friedrich Nietzsche had in his sights when he scorned the English preoccupation with happiness.

He also designed the Panopticon, which was a prison in which a single guard could make sure none of the inmates were happy. As he was invisible to the prisoners, this guard could even ensure they were miserable in his absence.

The idea was first entertained by Bentham when he was on a visit to Russia, and the greatest misery of the greatest number has been the inspiration behind the Russian penal system ever since.

When Bentham died in 1832, at the ripe old age of 84, he'd had ample time to prepare a will which outlined:

"…measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written Auto Icon."

The cult of beauty is one of cognitive dissonance. The certainty of ever-evolving beauty ideals meets the insatiable chase of illusionary perfection.

Janice Li, curator

"The skeleton (my doctor) will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living."

"If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor wil cause to be conveyed the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet."

The reference to 'other disciples' suggests that perhaps the word 'icon' held genuine religious significance for the old sage. He seems to have imagined a cult of some kind forming around his mummified head.

As it turned out, his doctor's attempts at mummification were less than successful. If his followers ever revered the master's remains, they certainly were not initiates in a cult of beauty.

I found Bentham without much trouble, housed in a swanky new transparent box at the entrance to the UCL Student Centre. Eventually, I tracked down his original box too. Legend has it that he would regularly attend the university council in this.

It's not true, apparently.

Bryn Haworth
Bentham's box

At last, Cult of Beauty

Satisfied that I had finally paid my respects to the old Utilitarian, I returned to the Wellcome Collection's Cult of Beauty exhibition.

It begins with the bust of Nefertiti, an image of beauty the world has been unanimous in applauding pretty much since the day it was sculpted. "Beautiful are the beauties of Aten – the beautiful one has come."

Wellcome Collection (c) Benjamin Gilbert
The Cult of Beauty, Wellcome Collection, Benjamin Gilbert, 2023.

There are other images of feminine perfection dispersed throughout the rooms. A life-size Barbie, for instance. Videos of African women with ravishing hairstyles describe their pride in their tribal traditions.

Alongside these, some of the gorgeous (and often slightly surreal) shots of Nigerian women's hair, taken back in the Sixties by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere.

Bryn Haworth
J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere Hairstyle

There's also a lipstick kiss that Kate Moss has signed.

Bryn Haworth

Moss auctioned this smacker for £60,000 to Philip Green. The proceeds went to charity.

So much for the cute, relatively innocuous end of the beauty scale. But this exhibition does not titillate us with cuteness for long.

Though it appears to trace the history of beauty, in accordance with our narcissistic times what really interests the curator is beauty's fabrication, and its obsolescence.

Thus, we see a bunch of Dutchmen bringing their ugly, ageing wives to a windmill to be rejuvenated.

Then there's Rose of Lima, a Peruvian saint from the 16th-century, who suffered from such an excess of beauty capital that a servant saw her infant face transform into a rose and nicknamed her accordingly.

When the saint began to attract the attention of men, she hacked off her hair and deliberately disfigured herself, using peppercorns, to demonstrate that Christ was more beautiful.

Bryn Haworth
Rose of Lima

There really wasn't much cuteness to go around back then. Morbid critiques of beauty from a more puritanical age associated it with death, such as the small sculpture representing what T.S. Eliot would call 'the skull beneath the skin.'

The fleshy half is a waxen likeness of the Virgin Queen.

Bryn Haworth
The skull under the skin

By the 1640s, the association of beauty with venereal disease and the prevalence of small pox had led to a vogue for wearing beauty patches (the French called them mouches, or flies) to cover scars. Only the invention of the smallpox vaccine in 1796 led to the waning of this fashion. Otherwise, we might still be wearing beauty spots to this day.

At the same time as a profusion of information like this, the exhibition provides a critique of its own, though more forensic than that of the old moralists.

The curator, Janice Li, is consistently chary of taking images of beauty at face value. She gives us due warning from the very first by offering

'…an invitation to widen and complicate our understanding of beauty beyond the binaries of beautiful and ugly, natural or artificial, physical or digital.'

That she has achieved a majestic overview of her subject is obvious. Job done, frankly. My only reservation is that she speaks about it the way she does:  

'It (the exhibition) is a space that allows for multiple polarities, seeing beauty at both ends and everywhere in between. Beauty is as scientific as it is poetic, as engineered as inherent.'

Aside from the (probably inadvertent) humour of 'seeing beauty at both ends,' this stilted academic language struggles to sound beautiful. Instead, it is constantly in danger of sounding trite, littered as it is with the jargon of gender theory.

I also found myself wondering why she'd chosen to use the word 'cult'. In the beauty issue of Dua Lipa's Service95 (I urge you to subscribe), Li explains:

"The cult of beauty is one of cognitive dissonance. The certainty of ever-evolving beauty ideals meets the insatiable, never-ending chase of illusionary perfection."

"Beauty ideals are not universal or permanent, but the pursuit of them is shared. The neuroscientists we consulted for the exhibition explained to me…"

And so on. Very few curators are familiar with the injunction 'Show, don't tell.'

Tortuous journey

The textual journey is very tortuous, but the end point eventually becomes clear. All the talk of inclusiveness and the troubling of the notion of beauty culminates in an examination of the digital age. That is to say, beauty for the natives.

Though it appears to trace the history of beauty, what really interests the curator is beauty's fabrication and its obsolescence.

Influencing interest in art

Which brings us to the selfie.

In Italy, an influencer called Chiara Ferragni caused some consternation among art-lovers recently, after she was invited by the director of the Uffizi Gallery to take selfies in front of famous works.

The point was to entice Chiara's followers into the gallery. The young duly flocked there in their thousands.

It was a cushy number for Chiara. She merely had to follow her instincts like any digital native, turn her back on a famous work of art, then interpose her face between it and her mobile phone.

Beyoncé had shown the way that time in the Louvre when she totally eclipsed the Mona Lisa. This time, it was the turn of Botticelli's Venus to get upstaged.

Things quickly escalated from the sublime to its more familiar antonym. In an official Instagram post, the Uffizi Gallery went too far, comparing Chiara to the Renaissance's prototype of a "blonde-haired woman with diaphanous skin" and calling her "a sort of contemporary divinity in the social era."

I ask you, what self-respecting goddess would have stood for this? To get her own back, Venus bought herself a mobile phone and began taking her own selfies in front of famous monuments.

Here, we see her on a particularly blustery day in Saint Mark's Square in Venice.

Art taking its own selfie

Removing the smartphone from galleries would be more difficult than banning it from classrooms. People have to pay attention in school, but outside the classroom, the phone's distractions have become a fact of life.

For Kim Kardashian, this most versatile of gadgets replaced life altogether. She constructed her autobiography entirely out of selfies, thus fulfilling the front-facing camera phone's destiny. It became the ultimate memoirist.

In order to appeal to the Kardashian hordes, the Uffizi had to go native or die. After all, it's not as if the painting has feelings; it doesn't matter if the visitor is facing the precious canvas or turning their back on it.

Empty galleries lose money, poor galleries lose paintings, and before long, the entire Renaissance ends up in storage, avoiding tax.

More to the point, the gallery is no longer host to an encounter between a venerated old master and an admiring viewer but between an archaic type of artist and their digital equivalent.

Selfies offer more than just a record of this vita nuova. With the use of filters, life can be edited on the hoof as we live it, with the assistance of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

According to Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, even real-time puppy filters were a technological feat.

Now, thanks to neural networks, AI can help achieve the kind of data processing required for real-time video altering. Soon, we could all be living the life cinematic.

Just as the days of the great masters are numbered, so will the auteur director be a thing of the past. From now on, everyone can be a great artist. We can all preside over a director's cut of our lives.

The gallery is no longer host to an encounter between a venerated old master and an admiring viewer but between an archaic type of artist and their digital equivalent.

Life-saving filters

Caroline Rocha is a makeup artist and photographer. She claims that social media filters – and Instagram's in particular – saved her from suicidal thoughts after a bereavement.

"My reality was dark. It was deep. I passed my days inside four walls," she says. Filters gave her "the chance to travel … to experiment, to try on makeup, to try a piece of jewellery."

After the art history she'd learnt in school, Instagram filters felt like a deeply human and artistic world, full of opportunity and connection.

She became friends with AR creators, then a "filters influencer." She would try different filters and critique them for a growing audience of followers. Eventually, she started creating filters herself.

But Rocha has changed her view since then. This creative conception of filters now seems idealistic to her, not least because it is not how the majority of people use them.

Artistic or funny filters may be popular, but they are insignificant compared with beauty filters. Rocha says she sees many women on social media using the latter nonstop.

"They refuse to be seen without these filters because, in their mind, they think that they look like that. I've always fought against this kind of fakeness."

"But I'd say, 'Okay, I have to change my picture. I have to make my nose thinner and give myself a big lip because I feel ugly.' And I was like, 'Whoa, Whoa, no, I'm not like that. I want to feel beautiful without changing these things.'"

It is with this temptation to succumb to 'fakeness' that things take a sinister turn. There's a hint of Dorian Gray's inversion of reality. Life begins to imitate art.

In Rocha's words, "I don't think it's just filtering your actual image. It's filtering your whole life."

Body dysmorphia

In October 2019, Facebook banned distortion effects because of "public debate about potential negative impact." Awareness of body dysmorphia was rising, and a filter called FixMe, which allowed users to mark up their faces as a cosmetic surgeon might, caused outrage.

When the digital Dorian Gray resorts to plastic surgery in order to look like his filtered self, the boundary between real and virtual life dissolves.

By way of gently preparing us for this dissolution, the exhibition starts with alchemy or the hierarchies of wigs, but it soon leaves the weirdness of our ancestors behind to explore the far weirder landscape of the present.

There is Michael Moon, for instance, who has tattooed eyes that appear entirely black.

Bryn Haworth
Michael Moon

Over a series of portraits, we are supposed to observe emotions (sad, happy, angry) picked up by 'thermographic pigment which converts natural skin temperature fluctuations sparked by our emotions into colour patterns.'

To me, they looked like identical, very creepy faces. Moon would probably cause panic in the streets on Mexico's Day of the Dead. He's managed to turn the simple act of shaving into a memento mori.


Then there is Algorithmic Gaze II, Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrom's 'endlessly morphing human figure generated by AI through a ten-month-long learning process.' Her flesh-coloured figure never repeats but constantly grows or sheds protuberances.

This is all very mesmerising but rather tame compared with what follows. There's even a sign at the entrance to the next section warning those of a squeamish disposition that they might like to skip it.

Obviously, this warning was not intended for regular denizens of the Wellcome Collection but for newcomers like me who might have weaker stomachs because this is where we're first confronted with the blood on the editing floor.

Bryn Haworth

Some of the surgery is relatively straightforward. In Iran, for instance, we learn that rhinoplasty (a nose job) is more common than in any other country, and Shirin Fathi shows us 'a nose that doesn't want to be tamed':

Bryn Haworth
Victoria Cantons, Self-portrait

In Unwrapping (Hope Springs Eternal), however, Victoria Cantons confronts us with a trans woman looking at herself for the first time after feminising facial surgery.

She wonders whether a trans woman should undergo such surgery to make other people feel more relaxed. "Is there an idea of what a woman 'should' look like?" Well, preferably not like this.

Bryn Haworth
Victoria Cantons, Self-portrait

'Cult of Beauty' is at the Wellcome Collection in London until 28 April 2024.

font change

Related Articles