Associated from antiquity with harmony and strength, with nature and the sacred, the “perception of the world through the senses” no longer ignores the experience of the ugly, nor the richness of diversity.
Kieslowski’s lenses, Fellini’s films, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, cherry blossoms in the Japanese spring, the tension that precedes the storm, full lips, the light in Rembrandt, a wide smile, David, a dancing body. The list of images captured by the eye that trace a kind of beauty consensus can be endless.
Here we speak only of the beauty captured by the vision, full of individual subjectivity, which attributes to things the quality of the beautiful or the ugly. There is no precision in this experience of perception: there is a bridge between what is visible and what is hidden, a harmony from within that is expressed on the outside, an intimate mystery that delights. An encounter with beauty is an encounter always of the order of the transcendental.
Since the beginning of civilization, poets, philosophers, and artists have seen the experience of beauty as an approximation to the divine and, in this regard, nature has become its greatest expression because it is beauty in itself. It impacts us because it takes us out of the world of things and carries us to the sphere of contemplation, this, its inseparable ally.
The first ideas about the beautiful arose in ancient Greece. In the 4th century BC, Plato associated beauty with good and truth and affirmed that beauty is the sign of another, higher-order. Hence the belief, among the Greeks, that beauty was also a moral issue: external beauty was associated with internal and, more than that, with an intelligence. For them, a beautiful face was the expression of a great character.
Plato’s master, Socrates (famous for his ugliness, by the way) separated the apparently external, superficial beauty from the beauty of the soul – the latter, the true one, at the same time that it was also virtue and excellence: “an agreement observed by the eyes and ears ”. In Aristotle, on the other hand, beauty was preferably related to grandeur, order, proportion, and harmony of forms.
Altogether, this idea reflected the values of a civilization that also had a “subjective” perception of beauty – expression, at that moment, of a way of life that included sports, music, and citizenship practices. In the centuries that followed, standards of beauty will reflect other social dynamics and cultural issues. Therefore, they change, transform, reorganize and create new convictions.
Following the history, the look, the forms, the dynamics, the rhythms, and the expressions change and inaugurate new aesthetic categories. It is no longer possible to speak of a universal concept of beauty. We speak of a plural beauty, still linked to the invisible, to the surprising, to harmony, ultimately, to an epiphany.
In the 18th century, beauty and aesthetics became inseparable, and their privileged field of study became artistic work. It was the German Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) who, borrowing from the Greeks the word aisthetiké – which designated “what can be apprehended by the senses” – created the term aesthetics. In his book Theory of the Beautiful and its Manifestations Through Art (1750), he argues that aesthetics has its own requirements in terms of truth, reconciling sensation, and logic.
In the same century, Kant returned to the question: “Beautiful is what pleases universally, without concept”. It is as if it were impossible to define the beautiful rationally. More: when we say that something is beautiful, we intend it to be a universal voice.
This supposed universal voice has some perennial references in behavior. In ancient Egypt, the ideal of beauty was a youth. To try to maintain it, the Egyptians who could take care of the body to exhaustion and, to display it beautifully, invested in creams and the wardrobe.
Cosmetics, hairstyles, clothing, creams, wigs, baths have been themes in Egypt since the most remote origins. In the late period, honey masks, milk baths, exfoliations with sea salt, and many other practices are associated with Cleopatra’s beauty secrets. Her subjects, men and women, were equally vain and focused on body care. They used creams for cracking the feet because they lived in the desert, oils of all kinds, baths, and skin creams. Physical appearance was a valuable business card.
Ovid, a Roman poet who lived between the years 43 and 18 BC, wrote a text about how women should preserve and care for their beauty. He gives recipes for masks made with grains, flour, honey, and so on: “Every woman who takes care of her face with such a cosmetic will be brighter and smoother than her mirror”. He recommends incense sticks, flowers, and other odors to soothe the skin and perfume the body: “Your mothers have generated refined young people, you want your bodies covered in golden clothes, I want your hair scented and vary your hairstyle.”