Some are famous beauties. Their faces are characterful, fascinating, vivid. Yet the effect of these pictures is shocking, because the women are old.
Infinite Variety is an exhibition of photographs of older women – some famous, some not – put together by the actor Harriet Walter and currently showing at the National Theatre. The idea dates back to 2002, when Walter was playing Cleopatra at Stratford and began collecting and commissioning pictures, and the show takes its title from the play: ‘Age cannot wither her, not custom stale her infinite variety’ – a line that celebrates of the complexity and resilience of an older woman, her powerful appeal.
It’s a sentiment not all that often expressed today, when our ideal images of womanhood are blank-faced girls, Botoxed and airbrushed, onto whom we can project our fantasies. The photographs in Infinite Variety, by contrast, are of women who insist on being themselves.
Resilient older women seem to be something our culture would rather keep hidden; this exhibition is shocking because it brings together so many triumphant images of them. ‘One of the reasons I wanted to express this through photographs is that even when an older woman does appear on the cover of a magazine, the pictures are often silly,’ Walter told me. ‘Nobody’s kidding themselves; we all know she’s been around for 30 years, but the picture is so airbrushed that all you end up with is the basic shape of the features.’
Some of the portraits in the show are stunning, although Walter points out that it’s not an art exhibition so much as a ‘starting point for a conversation. The reason I wanted to use photographs is that I think we can quickly adjust to images – so we might see a fashion shot and think “that’s a ridiculously short skirt,” but then, the next year, we’ll all be wearing it. If you started putting wrinkled faces in magazines, I’m sure we’d all say “yuk” at first, but in no time we’d find it normal.’
The women featured in the exhibition range in age from 48 to 97, and their pictures challenge the audience to see the beauty in lined and lived-in faces. ‘When I was putting the exhibition together, people would say to me, “So-and-so’s looking brilliant for her age and she can still get into her daughter’s jeans,”’ Walter says, ‘but that wasn’t really what I was after. I was as much concerned with character and spirit.’ So there is a photograph of Bianca Jagger, eyebrows exquisite, lips rose, a pearl earring visible under hair whipped by the wind. But what makes the picture compelling is that she is at a demonstration: we are reminded that she is an activist, a woman who uses her beauty fiercely.
Joan Bakewell looks into the camera, the lines around her eyes emphasizing the energy, resolve, guts, and pleasure in her gaze. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are photographed in costume for Ladies In Lavender, two women who are prepared to play their age on screen, who aren’t hiding from themselves. Compassion, distress, resignation and wonderment are compressed into their expressions. The way they hold themselves for the camera asserts their entitlement to be looked at, admired.
Some of the photographs are happy: there is a great pair of Emma Thompson and her mother Phyllida Law, in the first of which they can barely contain their laughter while, in the second, it appears to have exploded out of them. Some of the subjects look pensive (Jung Chang); others authoritative (Baroness Mary Warnock) or impish (Yasmin Alibhai Brown or Una Stubbs). The women present themselves variously as elegant or intellectual, romantic, hippyish, down to earth. But all the pictures pulsate with life; they suggest an openness to experience. None of these women is closed down.
Infinite Variety is a useful corrective to a world in which, as Walter says, ‘we are terribly dismissive of experience. Everything has to be new, latest. We seem to care more about technological development than human wisdom.’ She finds this obsession disconcerting. ‘I am in the business of human wisdom: I speak words written 400 years ago, which cannot be improved upon.’
There are remarkably few positive representations of women over the age of 45 in magazines, television and film. As a result, women fear ageing as much for its connotations of invisibility and uselessness than because of anything inherent in its process. In reality, as Walter says: ‘women have never had such full and diverse lives, nor kept their health, sex appeal and vitality for so long.’
There is an age-old story here, of the fear of older women, witches who have power because they have seen a lot and know about others’ frailty. That prejudice derives from a world in which women were ruthlessly repressed, which is hardly one we should want to live in today. Yet we continue to endure the assumption that once a woman’s face is marked by age, her public value is diminished.
‘If a face is allowed to age naturally,’ Walter says, ‘we see the child, young woman and the present all at once, like the rings of a tree.’ It is a lovely idea and, seeing all these fascinating, varied faces in one space, it is hard not to be impressed and awed by the different ways that experience shows itself. The unlined, bland face of the ingénue may suggest potential, but a more subversive and interesting understanding of beauty would be the rich, textured face of the woman who has lived and goes on living.
Infinite Variety continues at the National Theatre until August 15. Monday-Saturday 9.30am-11pm, Sunday 12 noon-6pm