The spark of life
Just as the classic “golden ratio” can aid an artist in the composition of a painting, there is, we’re told, a mathematical basis for a beautiful face. A sort of algorithm, to use that accursed term, wired into our (un)consciousness that, recognising a preordained sense of proportion, triggers a pleasurable response. If the eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks and chin accord to the rule – behold! The magic and rarity of beauty.
I’ve long believed beauty is more complex than maths. In one of childhood’s eureka moments I saw that beauty (in a face, a landscape or even an idea) was about life. And ugliness? Death.
The beauty of a baby’s face – or that of a puppy, lamb or kitten – comes from the incarnation of life at its dawning, at its most hopeful. Versus the ugliness of a face destroyed by violence or disease, or the implacable grimness of a skull.
Yet there’s a paradox. Some of the most beautiful faces are very old faces, almost archaeological in their ancientness but so expressive of long lives lived. (I remember Faith Bandler’s face, which was incomparably lovely. It was a significant anniversary of the Aboriginal referendum of 1967 and we were wondering whether it would pass today. Faith doubted it. “Are we more bigoted now?” I asked. “No, but bigotry is better organised,” she replied. The face of bigotry is always ugly.)
This life/death/beauty/ugly argument works well with symbols. The Hindu swastika, an elegant symbol of eternity, becomes horrific when appropriated by Nazism, arguably the most death-obsessed ideology in inhuman history. And the Christian cross? A symbol of one of the Romans’ most sadistic forms of execution, adopted by a new faith that believed death had been conquered by its Messiah, thus metamorphosing from an image of horror to hope. However, both symbols – cross and swastika – become blurred by the undeniable fact of Christian complicity in the Holocaust, deriving from millennia of generalised Christian anti- Semitism and centuries of specifically German anti-Semitism (read your Martin Luther). Hence my description of the swastika as “the crucifix in jackboots”.
The living forests of life versus death’s clear-felling. Verdant farmland versus the deathliness of the quarry or open cut mine. The term desert derives from an Ancient Egyptian term for the land of the dead – the endless sands rather than the fertility of the Nile, the land of the living. And, by descent, from the Latin desertum, “an abandoned place”. Yet there is a profound beauty in the desert, in the voluptuous and restless curves of dunes. And remember the transcendent image of our blue planet as seen from space, in contrast to the desolation of dead worlds.
Another paradox. Much creative beauty in the world comes from the desire to defeat or deny death – in the architecture of pyramids and cathedrals, in the glories of great art and literature and music. And behold human courage in the face of epidemics, suicide bombings and the ravages of war. Again and again the ugliness of death creates the beauty of bravery in those who defy it.
Imagine two paintings. One an original, the other a seemingly perfect copy. Yet the former is the more beautiful because it is full of a life force that even a flawless replica lacks.
Beauty in the eye of the beholder? Some see it in a chalked equation. Others in the contours of a piece of pottery or the design of a car. Beauty skin deep? Surely more applicable to the merely pretty. Beauty in a human or an ideal has depth. But so has the ugliness of hatred.