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BEAUTY QUEEN

Photograph from one of Empress Elisabeth  of Austria’s photo albums, ca. 1862.

I COLLECT WOMEN. The saved tab of my Instagram account contains—in addition to recipes, funny videos I intend to DM to crushes, and nimble axioms on wellness in pastel fonts—images of women, each serving a purpose for the ongoing Frankenstein project that is me: a haircut I want to get, an outfit I want to buy, a body I want to emulate. Sisi did the same, albeit without the algorithms that permit us to assemble our little archives in relative seclusion. “I am creating a beauty album,” she wrote to her brother-in-law in 1862, “and am now collecting photographs for it, only of women. Any pretty faces you can muster at Angerer’s”—i.e., Hapsburg court photographer Ludwig Angerer’s— “or other photographers, I ask you to send me.” How embarrassing. 

The West has a grand tradition of Women with Too Much Time on Their Hands. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a key if underappreciated figure in this history, was struck with all the listlessness and suffering of a modern heroine. The Bavarian princess, born in 1837 and known to all as Sisi, enjoyed an unusually informal upbringing, then married Emperor Franz Joseph I at the age of sixteen. Elisabeth had a famously difficult time at court, spending most of her never-ending leisure hours clashing with her mother-in-law, sympathizing with the democratic yearnings of the people, traveling solo (whenever she could), and assembling a collection of some two thousand photographs. She organized these images into albums, which will be on view at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig in an exhibition opening October 24.

The show is titled “Sisi in Private,” but what kind of privacy displays itself for posterity? Are we violating her privacy or operating on the assumption that she didn’t really want it—or that the dead don’t deserve it? In her own lifetime, Sisi brooked the growing pains of celebrity. There is no feminine pathology, however private, that has not metastasized into its own aesthetic, and celebrity itself is a kind of metastasized subjectivity—one we now all share.

Sisi called her most remarkable compendiums “albums of beauty,” and I believe she had to in order to procure their contents—photographs of beautiful women. But the subtext of these images in the aggregate hints at something sexier and unspeakable, the early stirrings of a new affect that had yet to be named but was keenly embodied by the leg-flashing courtesans Sisi pored over (racier photographs were supplied to her by Parisian ambassadors). The word Beauty is freighted with moral baggage, exclusion, a certain Latinate stuffiness that, along with most Western ideals, has not aged well. Now everyone wants to be hot—the term has the punch of cruder diction. It’s queer, not as hopelessly cathected to whiteness, and infinitely more flexible than beauty. Now fully fledged and preening under its own rubric, hot is smarter than beautiful, more seductive, more self-aware, and for those reasons, sinister. It is the revenge of the libido after generations of limp, lifeless perfection. The direct gaze of Manet’s Olympia, coupled with her louche, specific, unidealized body, is what made her so unsettling to a bourgeois audience. The Black woman standing near her, as Lorraine O’Grady writes in her watershed 1992 essay “Olympia’s Maid,” exemplifies “the West’s construction of non-white women as not-to-be-seen.” Her erasure is its own form of objectification, helping to produce the new affect Olympia so boldly models. 

One of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s photo albums, ca. 1862.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger noted that glamour, another uniquely modern phenomenon, is contingent on the object of the gaze knowing it is being looked at; its engine is the creation of envy. Hot is similarly an attitude, a highly subjective synthesis of sex and attention cultivated in private and then projected outward. It’s not hiding from the gaze so much as smirking back, because we now know privacy is a joke. In an essay reprinted in the show’s accompanying catalogue, Olivia Gruber Florek juxtaposes T. J. Clark’s remarks on the gaze of Manet’s Olympia with descriptions of the frank expressions in the photographs of Parisian prostitutes in one of Sisi’s albums—photographs intermingled with reproductions of paintings by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the German painter known for his idealized portraits of the European upper crust. Sisi deconstructed the modern gaze despite herself, while it was still being established. And then she was murdered—stabbed to death by an assassin in 1898.

Both modern painting and the camera informed the development of modern subjectivity. Sisi’s uncle, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, had his own “gallery of beauties,” which would have been familiar to the young princess. Ludwig commissioned these portraits of women and handpicked the models, who ranged from family members and fellow aristocrats to anonymous peasants. It was a public, patriarchal template for Sisi’s albums. Do the albums really record a private practice, then? Look at this woman. Do you think I could get away with her haircut?

I believe everyone is an artist, and lacking title or institutional pedigree, anxiety can manifest in ways as compelling as what we call art. In Sisi’s albums, we see the etiology of our own pathologies preserved like pressed flowers. There is a poignancy and a fascination in them, bordering on hotness, but not quite escaping the onus of beauty.

Christina Catherine Martinez is a writer, actress, and comedian living in Los Angeles. She is the author of Aesthetical Relations (Hesse Press, 2019).