The distorted face of beauty: In the late 20th century, a Hirshhorn Museum exhibition suggests, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.


The poet John Keats wrote that beauty and truth are two aspects of the same thing, that to know one is to know the other. But if the art of our time is to be truthful, how can it be beautiful too, given the terrible events this century has witnessed?

The century started out by declaring war on beauty, or at least the notion that beauty was necessary for a definition of art. As the painter Barnett Newman declared in 1948, "the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty."

The misadventures of beauty in the 20th century -- its early exile by the avant garde and its shy reappearance as the millennium approaches -- serve as backdrop for an endlessly intriguing show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington titled, aptly enough, "Regarding Beauty."

This is a large group show that fills most of the second floor of the museum and contains nearly 90 works by 36 contemporary artists whose ideas helped shape the art of the last 40 years.

It opens with an installation by Paolini and Jannis Kounellis that re-creates a doorway whose opening is blocked by fragmented reproductions of Greek and Roman statues.

The meaning of the piece is implied by the open door, which leads to the art of the future. But no one can pass through that door without negotiating the heavy weight of the past.

That past is evoked in quite a different way by Cindy Sherman's quirky, self-posed color photographs that rework 17th-century Old Master paintings by Caravaggio and others.

In the same section, Yasumasa Morimuras updates Manet's 19th-century picture "Olympia" by casting himself in drag as both the legendary beauty and her maid.

Sherman and Morimuras' staged photographs, made deliberately ugly by the poses and costuming, mock the classical concept of beauty by draining famously beautiful pictures of the very quality for which they are best known.

In the next gallery, the show presents some contemporary interpretations of the nude, a form traditionally associated with the ideal of beauty.

Yet the 20th-century nudes here are angular and unlovely. A reclining figure Picasso painted in the 1960s, and Willem de Kooning's brutally distorted woman from the same period, stubbornly refuse to conform to classical ideals.

Picasso and de Kooning were less interested in the body's physical appearance than in the complex emotional and psychological interplay that produces character and personality -- inner beauty, if you will.

Yet both men achieved their most shocking distortions while painting the women they loved most, their wives and mistresses.

Elsewhere in the gallery, Lucian Freud's hideous male and female butterballs and Marlene Dumas' monumental portraits of newborn infants seem less interpreted than transcribed with a deadpan acceptance of nature's embarrassments.

There is a section on beauty based on mass-media images that includes Andy Warhol's pop art pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and an oddly out-of-focus painting of Playboy bunnies by Sigmar Polke. Photographer Mariko Mori also weighs in with one of her signature high-tech heroines modeled after comic book characters.

But it is the second half of the show that argues most vigorously for the idea that beauty is not dead in contemporary art.

Vija Celmins' amazing paintings and drawings of the ocean and the sky at night are rendered in such patient and meticulous detail one can only wonder at the artist's technique. Yet the works have a magical, hypnotic power that makes them deeply rewarding to look at.

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's serene seascapes, taken at different times of the day or night in several locations around the globe, share this wordless approach to the sublime, a quality the eye needs no tutoring to recognize as beautiful.

One of the most truly wonderful pieces in the show is James Turrell's "Milk Run," an installation that the viewer enters through a light-proof corridor. The corridor leads to a darkened chamber that glows a deep crimson from lights reflected and refracted by a projector at the front of the chamber.

Turrell's piece, like a lot of contemporary art, is designed to produce an intensely personal experience unique to each viewer. Alas, that also makes it difficult to describe in words. Suffice it to say most people will come away from the experience feeling as if a potent yet inviting mystery had been revealed.

Artists and philosophers have always debated the nature of beauty. Is beauty a quality inherent in objects themselves, or does it exist solely in the mind of the beholder? Is it governed by rational rules that can be codified, or does it spring from unconscious, unclassifiable intuitions and emotions?

The Greek philosophers were the first to establish beauty as a tangible, definable characteristic of art. For the Greek artist, beauty was associated with the values of order, balance and harmony.

From the Renaissance onward, beauty in art was defined largely in terms of the classical art of Greece and Rome. Though artists frequently adjusted these precepts according to the philosophical predilections of their day, no one until the middle of the 19th century seriously questioned the idea that beauty was indispensable to art.

Modernism changed all that by separating the idea of beauty from the definition of art. Beginning with Manet and the impressionists at the end of the 19th century, modern artists progressively rejected the notion that art had to be beautiful in the classical or any other sense.

The rejection of beauty began in the first years of the century with the work of Pablo Picasso, whose radical departures from classical norms shocked even his fellow revolutionaries.

Picasso's notorious "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon," painted in 1907, drew on Iberian, African and Oceanic traditions to produce a new art whose raw, non-Western imagery defied comprehension among the artist's peers.

Meanwhile, young artists in Italy calling themselves futurists announced their rejection of the past and all its traditions, including beautiful art. For a while the futurists thought the beauty of the past could be replaced by the new beauty of the machine, with its impersonal efficiency and speed. But after the machine-made carnage of World War I, a disillusioned Marcel Duchamp and the dadaists renounced aesthetics altogether, insisting that art existed primarily in the mind of the artist rather than in tangible objects.

The separation of art from beauty freed artists to express their tumultuous times with any and all the means at hand. The 20th century has been a violent epoch of warfare, ethnic genocide and the threat of nuclear annihilation. No wonder artists are skeptical of attempts to "beautify" the harsh reality. "How in this rage shall beauty hold a plea," Shakespeare asked, "whose action is no stronger than a flower?"

Yet though our century declared war on beauty, even protracted conflicts eventually end. Ultimately, the Hirshhorn show suggests, a renaissance may be at hand, thanks in part to the long postwar respite of peace and prosperity.

If so, the new beauty will be based on a more expansive idea of human possibility, one that acknowledges the classical ideal but also insists on its right to evolve continually in order to reflect its own time.

A beautiful view

What: "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century"

Where: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, 7th Street and Independence Ave. N.W., Washington

When: Through Jan. 17

Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Call: 202-357-2700

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