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  • Review by Faye Coulman

REVIEWED: 'The Cult of Beauty' exhibition @ The Wellcome Collection, London

‘It makes no sense being beautiful if no one else is ugly,’ reads a modest white plaque adjoining a disquieting photographic collage of wetly gazing eyes, gaping mouths and bared teeth, all heavily caked in unlovely smears of garish red lipstick and mascara. Indeed, it’s precisely this single, intensely uncomfortable statement that prompts us to confront the various toxic and rigidly constraining ideologies underlying these seemingly innocuous, cosmetic accoutrements. And from steel-boned corsets and ancient grooming devices that bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval instruments of torture to grisly images of half-completed facelifts and surgical glass vessels housing formaldehyde-steeped body parts, ‘The Cult of Beauty’ offers up an unflinching, warts-and-all examination of a long and profoundly insidious cultural legacy that far predates Shiseido, Mac and Maybelline.

Like the baby pink curtain here seen tastefully cloistering the acclaimed exhibition’s veritable labyrinth of assorted curios, historical artefacts and frequently unsettling visuals from view, the many and varied covert horrors of this cult-like institution are enrobed in the most enticing of surface-level aesthetics. Take, for instance, the elegantly gilded, aquiline features adorning the bust of ancient Egyptian goddess Nefertiti or the iconic, ruby-red lipstick print commemorating the infamous kiss supermodel Kate Moss auctioned off back 2006 for the staggering sum of £60,000. A cursory scratch of its appealing exterior, however, soon reveals an altogether more unpalatable reality that, for literal millennia, has exerted unprecedented control over such fundamental matters as how we perceive and quantify our value as human beings in accordance with a homogeneous set of archaic yet stubbornly enduring aesthetic ideals. And from teenage eating disorders and plummeting self-esteem to savage acts of misogyny, self-mutilation and colonialism, the terrible cost incurred to humanity is one of ruinous proportions.

Comprising perhaps the most instantly arresting focal point from which all subsequent artefacts and installations seem to originate, a girlish statue depicting The Esquiline Venus stands gleaming white and unblemished adjacent to a tautly muscled and athletic-looking bronze Idolino. With its hairless and visibly underdeveloped juvenile form being eerily echoed in the life-size Barbie doll mannequin situated in close proximity to the surgery and body modification section of the exhibition, it’s unsettling to note the easy, unthinking passivity with which we’ve assimilated these toxic ideologies into our collective consciousness. Psychological weapons so powerful as to not only marginalise whole ethnicities, populations and genders but, perhaps more frightening still, to render individuals symbolically at war with themselves, refashioning their own bodies into an unruly enemy territory to be tamed and regulated in accordance with the dominant cultural narrative.

But as much as these archaic and fundamentally misogynistic ideals continue to retain an unrelenting stranglehold on today’s increasingly image-fixated modern world, the latter portion of ‘The Cult of Beauty’ also devotes no small amount of attention to the various ways in which the formerly marginalised and oppressed are redefining popular conceptions of beauty to altogether more empowering and enfranchising effect. Check out the humongous ladder of braided hair that stands as a proudly subversive emblem of rebellion against anti-Asian discrimination in the United States circa 1882, or the historic snaps of the reigning champion of the very first ‘Ms. Black & Beautiful’ beauty pageant for evidence of a more optimistic outlook on an institution today bested only by organised religion insofar as the pushing and promotion of cruel, oppressive and brutally homogenising agendas is concerned. And this eye-opening, frequently appalling and brilliantly curated assault on the senses certainly achieves a remarkable feat in stripping back the beauty industry's outwardly gleaming and glossy façade to reveal a hidden truth more rotten and abhorrent than we could ever begin to imagine.

'The Cult of Beauty' is running at The Wellcome Collection, London from 26 October 2023 - 28 April 2024


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