Pevsner Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London
Lynda Nead is Pevsner Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on many aspects of the history and theory of visual media. Her books include The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (Routledge, 1992); Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (Yale University Press, 2008) and The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale University Press, 2018). She is currently working on a book called British Blonde which is about femininities and visual culture in Britain 1945-1970. Lynda Nead is a Trustee of the V&A and a member of the Research Advisory Council of the Museum of London and of the Advisory Council of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. She is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society and the Academia Europaea.
Modern, Excessive and Pleasurable: The Female Body in 1950s Britain
In the late-1940s and 1950s the commodified and sexualized image of American blonde glamour crossed the Atlantic and was given a very distinctive British twist. British Blonde draws on but is unlike American Blonde; while it uses many aspects of its styling (body shape, hair, cosmetics, dress, jewellery), it is placed within a different cultural tradition of music hall, comedy, sex, class, race and respectability that transforms its American source into the expression of British national values and ideologies.
The lecture takes as its starting point the August 1956 cover of Picture Post. Published in the middle of the Suez crisis, it shows the British film and theatre actress, Diana Dors, in her persona as the ‘British Marilyn’, the culmination of the migration of a US, Hollywood-style glamour to Britain. Glamour and sexualized femininity was part of a larger passage of commodities across the Atlantic in this period, but in the process something important happens: Blonde become British; Marilyn Monroe becomes Diana Dors, the pin-up girl of the Suez Crisis. Red lipstick, gold cuff and bullet-shaped breasts - the distinctive blonde body of the 1950s; curvaceous and opulent, this body seems the perfect corporeal expression of the emerging affluence of Britain in this period.
The female body in 1950s Britain is bounded, moulded and given form but also seems in excess of frames and two-dimensional containment. Modern, excessive and pleasurable: the lecture looks at the visual construction of this female body and its representation in media technologies such as 3-D and Cinemascope and the fearful nature of the female body beyond the frame.
Many of the images and objects that will be considered here are popular and everyday and pose the question of how we address the banal in history and what histories apparently trivial forms can release when used as a lens for cultural history.