Leeds exhibition examines what is to be beautiful

THEY are the women who changed the face of female beauty - and shape how we regard ourselves.

Artist Bay Backner pictured with her work at Cafe 164, The Gallery at 164, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

Iconic faces such as Kate Moss, Audrey Hepburn and Frida Kahlo have been painted by Saltaire-based artist Bay Backner for a new exhibition at The Gallery at 164 on Duke Street.

She spent six months examining what we see as beauty, how it affects how we see ourselves and what it means around the world for the exhibition, which features brightly coloured, large portraits of the women, painted in a style that harks back to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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Backner was inspired to create the collection after a conversation with Janine Sykes, the leader of Leeds College of Art’s MA course in Curation Practices, at a previous show of work based around the fashion industry.

Artist Bay Backner pictured with her work at Cafe 164, The Gallery at 164, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

“We spoke about the concept of beauty and how it has changed over the years - how as the media has become international, so has the idea of beauty,” she said. “It made me think about why I look the way I do, why I do my make up in the way I do, and how much of that is our culture and how much is internal.”

She turned to online pinboard site Pintrest to research who people consider to be fashion and beauty icons, and picked the women who appealed to her.

“There were women there that I didn’t even realise had become part of my beauty mix,” Backner said. “I really responded to Louise Brooks, who was the original 1920s ‘It girl’ and made it cool to have a boy-like figure and short hair. She changed the way women wanted to look.”

Some women Backner painted did not make the cut for the final exhibition, including Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot.

A portrait of Audrey Hepburn. Picture by Simon Hulme

She said: “Marilyn was one of the first people I painted for the exhibition. I painted her because so many women respond to her, but I don’t, so made the difficult to decision to not include her.

“All of the images are really personal to me, but with her, it just wasn’t there.”

The portraits are not based on a single photograph of the women, but the artists’ personal perspective of their image, based on a composite of pictures of them.

Not all the women have been in the public eye for decades, one, supermodel Bella Hadid, is a more recent “icon”.

Supermodel Bella Hadid. Picture by Simon Hulme

Backner, who studied at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University, and Central Saint Martins, London, said: “Bella’s beauty is unplaceable, it strikes a conversation. Her look isn’t associated with a certain country or a certain time, and she doesn’t look anything like she did three years ago.

“She has created her own image to be this international face - a blank canvas that we can project our own cultural identities on to.”

‘How To Be Beautiful’ is at Cafe 164, The Gallery at 164, until Saturday October 7.

Artist Bay Backner pictured with her work at Cafe 164, The Gallery at 164, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme
A portrait of Audrey Hepburn. Picture by Simon Hulme
Supermodel Bella Hadid. Picture by Simon Hulme