Art Exhibition English

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

It was Christopher Marlowe who coined the infamous line regarding Helen of Troy; ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’.

I have to say, I do feel sorry for Helen! Put in a position where she was, effectively, responsible for a ten-year war, loss of lives, and the sacking of a city. I ask: was it even her choice to leave Menelaus? Sure, the story goes that she and Paris fell in love and escaped Sparta and her husband by fleeing to Troy. But, really, what if this wasn’t the true story? What if she was actually in love with Menelaus, and was just kidnapped by Paris? Admittedly, if Paris looked like Orlando Bloom in Troy – and let’s face it, with a brother-in-law like Eric Bana… – fair enough, she might well have decided to go.

BUT… this is all Hollywood conjecture. Menelaus could well have been the Channing Tatum of his day, or, admittedly a character who was a little older; Brad Pitt say. Who’s to say he wasn’t? Throw in charming, persistent, influential (hey, he did win Helen’s hand over all her other suitors, right?!), and you’ve got the beginnings of a pretty good match. Additionally, he was friends with Odysseus, who strikes me as a very decent guy (anyone not familiar with The Odyssey and his ten-year journey to get back to his wife and child, you’re missing out!), now, I may be reading too much into it, but I don’t think Odysseus would have been so loyal to an undeserving man. Paris – the young and brash fellow that he was, obviously did not have that much good sense, and on top of that was selfish. Seriously, endangering your whole country for the sake of one woman (who may not actually have wanted to go with him)… that is not an attractive quality in my opinion. You see, Helen had a lot to put up with!

Image
Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), c. 1503-1506.
Oil on poplar panel, 77 x 53 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.

But it is true, that for many of us, beauty is blinding. A beautiful face (sadly) offers a free pass to many things in life, whether it is a cancelled parking ticket, free entry to a club, or free dinner/groceries/drinks, you name it. It has happened. And will happen again. But this is shallow beauty. Once you have met beauty, invariably, you also meet the beast. A pretty exterior unfortunately often comes with an ugly interior – shallowness, vanity, selfishness. This, of course, is not always the case, and I’m sure that many people would say, very rarely the case. But think about it, a face filled with character, one which is not classically beautiful, may often be much more intriguing than that which we have been told is classically beautiful.

Image
Michelangelo
David, 1504.
Marble, 434 cm.
Galleria dell’Academia, Florence.

Take the Mona Lisa – I’d go as far to say that she is not beautiful, but she is certainly enigmatic! She has been a mystery for centuries… who or what inspired her smile?

In a similar manner, The Laughing Cavalier also causes great speculation. Whilst Michelangelo’s David is supposed to be the bees’ knees in terms of masculine perfection, in my opinion, The Laughing Cavalier is far more interesting  – all because of the facial expression.

Helen of Troy, I fear, in all her beauty, lacked this quality of unusualness. It is for this reason (I admit, this is my own personal speculation) why she was regarded as a possession rather than a person: to be stolen away, and then fought over, like a child’s toy. Is this the future that anybody actually aspires to when they wish for beauty? The expression ‘Be careful what you wish for’ springs to mind!

 

 

To appreciate the beauty of the unusual and the enigmatic, the BP Portrait Awards exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the must-see exhibition of the New Year. On display until January 27th, 2013, the very best of contemporary portraits showcase the beautiful, the tender, the surprising, and the insightful renderings of the artists’ perceptions of themselves and the people around them. Not to be missed, there is no excuse not to see this inspirational exhibit, especially as it is free of charge! However, if you really cannot make it to Edinburgh, do the next best thing, and check out 1000 Portraits of Genius, written by Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl. In this book you will be able to find for yourselves the quirks and the idiosyncrasies which make a face memorable or not: who will become your new Mona Lisa?

-Fiona Torsch