The designer of this image, whoever it is, has learned from Vermeer. In costume makeup, hair in a messy, improvised arrangement (falling apart before our eyes), wearing an undersized baby-doll dress, Mary-Kate offhandedly chews on a toy necklace. She gawks straight ahead with big, isolated eyes, expressing...nothing. The sharpie eyeliner unpleasantly separates the eyes from the face. The way the lifted hair extends the height of the head combined with the way the background hair expands the width of the head presents the opposite disproportionality to the one we saw in Vermeer. Here we see Vermeer's inversion. Here the head outsizes the body. The little girl dress scrunches the shoulders as the head balloons upward. With her hair pulled back tightly high up on the sides, we estimate the alien-like shape of the head, which is markedly oblong, swollen at the top. An oversized head, which swells at the top, is indicative of improper development, immaturity; it is what I call a peasant trait, and therefore an important component of cuteness.
Another opposite: Vermeer’s Girl (through the headdress, earring and lipstick) falsely implies a mature womanhood. Mary-Kate‘s little girl dress and infantile chewing of the necklace connote the opposite -- extra youth. A dress that doesn’t fit but that fits, such as this one, has a certain welcome perversion to it. Few could pull it off. Her hand teasingly presses the ruffles between her legs. A preadolescent's bridal dress becomes a teenage miniskirt. But any allure is only potential. The eyes impress us as those of the android. Thy pull us into the cold. The empty gawk is looking without seeing, eyes without lids. Desire without emotion. Eyelids are everything in emotion-expression. Facing us she is a mere half-sexed-up cyborg. Her immature roundness too apparent. Instead of the pleasing long, sharp descent of the Olsen nose in profile, we are offered an ugly, off-center shadow with a disheartening crook in the middle. This draws our attention down to the lips, which appear overly large.
Cuteness often exists in profile only, where the balance between nose and cheek can be fully grasped by the eye. In my reading of various Vermeer critics I found a remark by Lucas one of the most poignant on Girl with a Pearl Earring: “The line of the right cheek.” he writes, “is surely the sweetest line ever suggested.” Profiles tell the truth of line. We see Mary-Kate (fig.2) in partial profile, at the zenith of her shiny-skin, perfect-teeth cuteness. She glows with health, infectious youthful vibrance. Perfect teeth is an integral and unique component of our American aesthetic, which we are rightly imposing on the rest of the world. America is the land of braces. We like large, white, artificially straight teeth. Braces correct nature's design flaws. Groomed, economically enabled cuteness is cuteness with hair. I found an interesting detail of the history of hair in Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, In 16th Century Holland, lower class women unable to afford the products needed to clean and care for their hair, were obliged to keep it hidden under white canvas caps (seen in many Vermeers). In Mary Kate's flowing hair we see the marked absence of any economic limitations. The gentle color mixture, the long gleaming waves, there's a desirable luxury to this hair. We see that cuteness with good hair, perfect teeth and tasteful makeup is closer to beauty. Maybe it is beauty, a lesson in the economics of beauty. Can beauty be created? Yes, but only if there is cuteness to start with. Without cuteness, there can be no created beauty.
The female beauty presented in high art (pre-Vermeer) has a business basis, I would say. The rich patrons of these artists expected to see women who looked like their wives in the paintings. Thus the Boccaccio's and Correggio's were forced to paint ugly women as if they were beautiful. This classical favoring of ugliness has influenced our idea of beauty, taking it away from its relationship to cuteness. That is what my essay seeks to restore -- the cuteness/beauty connection.
The profile is also better for Mary-Kate because it makes the transplantation more subtle. I am speaking of the width of the nose, the shape of the lips I noticed in Fig.1 above. The genetic background of the Olsen girls must include an element of the African. Their noses and lips are transplants from another racial profile. Art history offers some examples.of transplantation. This Young Lady by Petrus Christus (1470),
though a more staid expression of peasant beauty, does approximate Vermeer’s ideals. This is cuteness in a different mood, but the visual-emotional effect has to be similar, because look at the line of the right cheek. It’s virtually the same as in Vermeer. Again the infant forehead. Does she even have hair? Her eyes are open because they cannot close. Indeed the major difference is the eyes. Petrus Christus makes the isosceles slints of his Young Lady the most urgent feature of the picture. But this is no Asian girl. The Asian eyes are transplants. Christus takes costuming to a Vermeerian extreme. Like eyebrows, eyes are matters of costume. They are found and decided upon like gowns and jewelry. Christus sees into the secret methods of nature as a sexual designer. Cuteness is connected to racial interbreeding. In many cases we could establish the route. Cuteness passes through racial interbreeding to become beauty. It seems that racial ambiguity heightens allure.
Though not as relevant to this discussion, the following work by Lucas Cranach the Elder titled Judith Victorious (1530) could offer some costuming insights.
Cranach the Elder gives his victorious Judith the face of Reese Witherspoon. Huge forehead, mousy nose, knobby chin. He costumizes the hands, showing them as icy blue skeletal claws transplanted from a scavenger bird. Again does she have hair? eyebrows? Are we supposed to believe she’s some kind of crusader warrior, with the Witherspoon face? There's such jarring incongruity in the image, what applied in Vermeer does not apply in Cranach. The face cannot claim any innocence. It knows too much. The right cheek-line is blah.
The hands are interesting. The still expressive severed head is high comedy (“Oh man, I can‘t believe I just got beheaded…by her!”). And her effeminately outstretched pinky finger on the sword handle, like she’s raising a tea cup, is also amusing.
Her face is so wrong for the picture, it starts to seem detached from the body. If those aren’t her hands, are those even her arms? Does she have arms? Is she wearing that outfit, or just standing behind it?
Though not as effective as art, Cranach the Elder’s JudithVictorious does follow the rules of how to present cuteness. Cranach transplants, but he transplants extremities from lower-rung species of the animal kingdom. He inverts fashion, but instead of giving her a turban, he gives her a severed head to hold. Conclusion: the Elder’s taste is suspect.
Cranach the Elder gives his Judith a more horizontally abbreviated mouth, a knobbier nose, and a frumpy double chin on closer inspection of the real Reese Witherspoon. Here windswept hair hides Witherspoon’s excess of forehead, her most peasant trait, which she shares with Mary-Kate. The line of the right cheek cuts through the hair shadow, and her overly rounded, forwardly protruding chin is nicely blended in topographically by light. Important shapes and contours are masked. There is maturity here in my analysis, a more aristocratic impression. Side-parted hair exactly frames out any oblongness. Notice the perfect oval from chin to hair part. Her dark, thin eyebrows also minimize the forehead and lend sureness to the eyes.
Her almost grin: the almost grin is a smile falling down, the fading of facial energy, the disease of mind setting in. Doubts, knowledge, confusion, questions, motivations, and most of all -- psychology -- are coming in. But the smile is not yet totally gone, and could come back any second. That’s the bright side - hope - the hope that the smile will return, that the energy will come back, that the doubts will be overcome, that youth will be restored.
Notice the straightened right cheek line, Vermeer’s line pulled tight, suggesting not sweetness but sureness and completion. Beauty emerges from cuteness through a process of sharpening and planing. The cheeks tighten to form renaissance golden ratios. Eyebrows appear in powerful dark arcs. The jaw squares. The eyes grow calm and satisfied. The lips come together. The chin is finished. The turban comes off. The hair is unleashed. The furthest reaches of Grace Kelly’s flawlessness are revealed in her hair, which gleams perfection. Her cuteness is based on her resemblance to a deer, her aristocraticness based on her resemblance to art, in other words to the imaginary idealization of a human face, for which the portrait photographer in this case is more than slightly responsible, being himself an artist. But even without the photographer’s techniques of glamorization, which are remarkable, the real life Grace Kelly, just walking around, is more like art than Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. She carries that element of the wondrous. The proof of all of this is available for all to see in To Catch a Thief (1955); Hitchcock's manifesto in defense of Grace Kelly as the ultimate screen beauty.
Now this still from The Swan, one of Kelly's lesser-known films. Like a child queen in her throne, she does not quite fit. The world is too big for her, too old for her. Note the childishly averted eyes, down and away. The summer hat is her futile shield, all she has to defend herself in a land of giants. I admire the symmetrical decorum of her posture in the giant chair, centered, feet together, knees perfectly level, glued shut, and the ballet of her elbows -- which we realize are points of a right triangle starting at the bridge of her nose. Not all beauty can be staged as cuteness, but Kelly’s can. She is cute, but she is also technically beautiful. That’s what makes her so special.
The promotional and magazine photos and studio stills are extremely numerous. I have had great difficulty finding out which portraits correspond to which photographer. George Hurrell, Cecil Beaton, Phillipe Halsman, Kelly sat for them all. The result of this excess of images is the lack of a defining image, the ideal shot in a pose most suited to her. I offer this studio portrait as the defining image of Grace Kelly. I choose it because of its strict focus on the face. The hair is only partially indicated, the dress just a vague background, but in the spotlight, from two angles -- the face.
In the profile, notice the eyelash, which points up like her nose. The curves of the profile are along snobbish lines, evoking the haughty faces of the Art Nouveau style, especially in the streamlined chin line and taut neck. The face angles upward. There are no lines on her face except around the eyes with their heavy eyelids half down. In the front view they say one thing, in profile they say another. In the frontal view the eyes convey a message of lustful sexual invitation in my analysis. An incidental effect? One could conclude Grace Kelly would have more of an overtly sexual allure were the sides of her face reversed as they are in the mirror. For when we look at the profile, the lidded eye suggests more of a muted anticipation. With all her monumental beauty I think Grace Kelly might have carried the secret desire to be seen by the world as she sees herself in the mirror, with her face reversed. Maybe she privately considered the possibility, with all her royal wealth, of facial reversal surgery. We just don’t know.
The scene is of Grace Kelly encountering herself. Like us, she also is taken aback, glanced off. This photograph is a true work of art. The effect is straight from Leonardo da Vinci: doubling. Kelly is doubled, but the personalities are divided. We look upon a scene of unrequited interest. The loved one (profile) looks off into the abyss. So great is her store of self-assurance, Kelly can lift her chin as she is rejecting herself. Looking away from her reflection, Kelly shows beauty rejecting narcissism. Beauty can be wise, can understand itself, live without itself. Grace Kelly's missing love of herself is the secret which pulls us to her. Vanity is tantalizingly denied.
Grace Kelly's face is a work of monumental vision. Equal parts the best of the peasant and the aristocrat, she is a long sought definition. The eye can find no flaws even if it wants to, and it doesn’t want to. Looking at these photographs, impossible ideals become flesh before us. Nature usurps human artistic vision. A camera takes us to God.
Mary-Kate Olsen, fig. 1
Mary-Kate, fig. 2
Before, I defined beauty circularly as mature cuteness, after defining cuteness as (among other things) picturesque immaturity. To say beauty is mature cuteness is to say that cuteness is what must be understood most when measuring beauty. This means any beauty that cannot be translated into cuteness is not beauty at all, but something else. All beauty must begin as cuteness.
Cuteness is a category of visual seductiveness. It sells. It has its own section of the brain, the cuteness receptors, which are located probably somewhere in the imniviphulus. Cuteness is less subjective than beauty, because it lacks beauty's philosophical absoluteness. A chocolate labrador puppy automatically sentimentalizes the eye. Psychological defenses are chemically defeated under orders from our eye-brain duplex. No one can resist. Cuteness, then, in a general sense, is the sentimentalization of the eye. The eye doesn't see. It feels. It only feels. The eye becomes an emotional center. Our insane love of dogs, which we seem to love more than our fellows, testifies to the power cuteness has over us. Across the many breeds (especially, for me, the dachsund breed) dogs exert the same force. They emotionalize our eyes. I'll leave the "Why Dogs Are Cute" lecture for another so I can carry on with my more sophisticated turn on the subject. In "Vermeer's Cuteness Manifesto," my examination of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, I show how Vermeer uses cuteness to create something beyond art. In his Girl, we found something that was not beauty but that had the power of beauty, and that we defined as cuteness.
In the following images I continue to search into female faces which, in their form and presentation, suggest an innate mastery of the visual impression of innocence -- what, in human terms, cuteness is all about.
2006, by Christopher Duckett
Grace Kelly in Technicolor. The correct verbal response to this image is "Wow." I have changed my mind. This is the image. We can throw the rest away and leave Grace in technicolor for the rest of eternity. The magic of technicolor is its artificiality. It suggests human alteration of reality, or art. This is Grace Kelley as Vermeer would envision her, alert yet calm, relaxed yet poised, cute yet beautiful.
For this portrait, Kelly adopts Greta Garbo's lean, but she modifies it. Kelly removes all sense of brooding. She is not a femme fatale. She has no secret pain or misterious visual silence. She has no interesting weakness. She is a serene, self-satisfied but not self-obsessed surface, which she is happy to share. In her eyes we see conscoiusness, but no desire. I think of Nietszche's axiom: "In the end we love our desire and not what is desired." N makes a good but useless insight. Because we must nevertheless desire. Yes we can understand, cognitively, that we don't really want what we want, that our desires are constantly wavering and insatiable. Desire without end. But that understanding does not help us. We still have to want.
But N, remember, is searching for the ideal human, a human that conquers the crazy cycle of desire, who overcomes the wild goose chase of the desire impulse. I submit Grace Kelly, in so many of her images, and especially in technicolor, is a visual manifestation of a human who has overcome desire. She needs nothing. Her extreme attractiveness, her rare photogenic brilliance, lifts her into N's superman dimension, where there is no vanity, no narcissism. She is an image without sin, an ultimate human image.