Kenneth Clark Observes That a Warring World Has Always Agreed on One Thing: Feminine Beauty

“He’s the most entirely heterosexual man I’ve ever met,” said Colette Clark several years ago of her father, renowned art historian Kenneth Clark. “He responds only to women,” she added. “He adores them and they adore him.” Although Lord Clark has often dealt with the subject of the female form in his books, including The Nude and Landscape into Art, and in his 13-part BBC series Civilisation, he has never produced a work devoted entirely to that subject. Until now, that is. In Feminine Beauty (Rizzoli, $25), published in November, Clark traces the changes in the Western ideal of womanliness, from the goddesses of ancient Egypt and Greece to the movie queens of Hollywood and Europe.

Now 77, Lord Clark spends most of his time editing his previous writings. The father of three grown children, he lives on an estate in Kent and in an apartment at the Albany, an exclusive collection of flats not far from London’s Piccadilly Circus. Feminine Beauty is dedicated to his second wife, Nolwen. Lord Clark talked with PEOPLE’S Fred Hauptfuhrer at the Albany.

When did you first become aware of feminine beauty?

At age 8 or 9, by looking at pictures of beautiful women. I had a few books on works of art, but I was already very much taken by beautiful women.

How has your perception of feminine beauty evolved over the years?

When one is young, one likes what are called pretty women rather than beautiful women because they are somehow more accessible. Concepts of beauty in its highest form you only achieve after you have looked for a bit at paintings of beautiful women. Then you gradually read back from the paintings into the women themselves.

Are you as captivated by feminine beauty now as in your earlier years?

No, of course I’m not. When I was younger I was active about it—passionate. I’m 77 and an old gentleman now. I look with great pleasure at beautiful women, but I don’t have the same passionate feelings as I had before. That’s reasonable enough.

Do you in any way order the elements of feminine beauty as to their importance—face, hair, breasts, legs?

No, no. Wrong. Harmony of the whole is what matters—combined of course with an inner life. Feminine beauty without la vie intérieure is of no interest.

Do you prefer women slender or plump?

I like them all. I was at a public lunch and got into some sort of trouble by saying that I liked plump women. Well, I do. The idea that plump women are out is very far from right, I think. But I like slender women too.

Do women perceive feminine beauty any differently than men?

That I don’t know. I’m not a woman. But on the whole I think women are very good judges of feminine beauty.

To what extent is it a matter of beauty being in the eye of the beholder?

All esthetic judgments are subjective to some extent. But there is greater consensus about feminine beauty than about almost any other esthetic perception. Think of it historically. The beauty of the Egyptians is as moving to us as it was to them. Same with the Greeks and the Gothic beauties. There’s a nuance of difference between all those beauties. It’s surprising how similar they are.

Is sexual desire a determinant in a man’s perception of feminine beauty?

Not at all. Libido and sexual desire are aroused by some strange mixture of vitality, energy and sensuality in a woman. Men can perfectly well see the beauty of a woman and it will not fan any libido at all.

Then how do you explain that many of the great artists of the past used their mistresses as their models?

Artists on the whole have been very much taken by sensuous responses. That’s what an artist is, after all, a man who reacts sensuously. Botticelli and Titian—they all had a sensuous feeling for their beauties. Velazquez had less than anyone else, I would say. Then there is Rembrandt, whose nude women are painted with tremendous feeling though they are not what we call standard classic beauties. He makes us feel they’re beauties by his physical love of them.

The photographer has largely replaced the painter as the interpreter of feminine beauty. Is that for good or ill?

For ill. The artist created an ideal which went on being valuable to people. A photographer, who often derives his ideas, his poses, his approach to feminine beauty from the images of the painter, will very seldom get a model who approaches perfection. There will always be things—fat thighs, fat stomach—which worry him. So he has to pose the women and light them in such a way that those things don’t show. Very often he must touch them up, in fact. So I would say a painter’s idea of physical beauty dominates the photographer’s.

How about modern cover girls?

I love cover girls. I see more and more beautiful ones. I tear them off and keep them tucked under my bed. Lady Clark doesn’t mind. You see, I love beauty.

Has the ideal of the fashion model or the movie star changed over the years?

Oh, yes. The fashion model has changed a great deal. At different times we’ve had fashions for thin, tall, blond women and we’ve also had fashions for plump women.

Is there a historical parallel to this?

Certainly. Women have been influenced in how they dressed and made themselves up by the vision of an artist. A good example is someone like the French painter Jacques Louis David, who in Madame Récamier, the celebrated 19th-century hostess, discovered an idea of beauty and handed it on. I don’t doubt that women of that time tried to look like Madame Récamier.

Has women’s liberation affected the ideal of feminine beauty?

I suppose so. You get sort of hearty, jolly women who wouldn’t have been considered beauties in the past but who are now because they are part of the more vivid life we lead.

Is there a period of feminine beauty that is your personal favorite?

The early 19th century was very beautiful. The whole influence of David and neoclassicism going down to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres combined a wonderful sense of form with a certain amount of inner life.

Do you have a favorite nationality?

Not really. In the old days women from Venice were considered particularly beautiful. People were also said to go to Ferrara to see the beautiful women. But that had passed by the time I went there. They were like women everywhere else.

What about in your lifetime?

Today southern Ireland has perhaps a greater number of beautiful women than anywhere else. Also Sweden. The universities there have more pretty girls than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Is there one beauty, either fictional or real, you would like to have known?

I suppose Madame Récamier. But I think Garbo is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She’s not very interesting, you know. Very quiet. The most beautiful woman I knew well was Vivien Leigh. She had this exquisitely perfect face and wonderfully pretty gestures.

Elizabeth Taylor or Princess Grace?

I never met Elizabeth Taylor. She certainly photographs well but without much inner life. I know Princess Grace. She’s very beautiful in a purely classic style. She seems to have absolutely no sex appeal, however, if I may use that expression.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?

I don’t think of her as a great beauty. She’s a type. I’ve met her several times. She’s pretty and lively but she wasn’t very interesting.

Mae West?

She was heavenly. Shamelessness—that’s what was divine in her. She would have gone down as a beauty in any period.

What about Cheryl Tiegs?

Typical American woman. I’m sure there are better faces than that one. The actual structure of the face, the wide bones, is not very good. But her vie interieure is so sparkling.

Does Bo Derek have the potential to be a legendary beauty?

Who knows what’s going to be remembered? Compared with beauties of the past, she’s more masculine. There’s a real strength in her face and that’s what America wants.

Is this a trend that will continue?

This kind of feminine beauty, less soft and delicate, is going to project itself into the future, simply because women have so much more active lives.

Do you believe feminine beauty has become more commonplace in our time?

Oh, yes. In the past nice-looking women were isolated, very much part of the upper class. The working class, well, they were all working, poor dears. They hadn’t time to look beautiful. Now they have.

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