The V&A has had plenty of blockbuster exhibitions in the last few years, tapping into the popularity of celebrity figures such as Kylie and David Bowie, as well as a love of Hollywood costumes and haute couture. These exhibitions have all been big and shiny with tons of interesting items, but – and this is a huge but – they have been badly curated with next to no information on the pieces or the thematic structure. Of course it’s all in the expensive guide available in the shop, not that this helps you in the exhibition. And sadly this has become a common tactic in big London galleries, forcing you to pay more if you want to understand what you see.
It was with some trepidation therefore that I went to their new show of Vogue photographs by Horst P. Horst, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is a carefully planned exhibition which manages to be both roughly thematic and chronological, giving you a sense of how Horst developed as a photographer, as well as showing how he reflected changing attitudes and styles in his work. It begins in the 1930s with formally posed models pictured in backdrops reminiscent of classical styles alluding to ancient Greece or Rome.
Horst was incredibly skilled at creating mood in his work, cleverly composing scenes like a painter, using light and shade to infer a sense of drama beyond that shot – as though the statuesque subject is in the midst of a wider story. It’s an interesting contrast between the somewhat unnatural pose and the narrative being created around it. At the end of this first room are examples of designer dresses from famous fashion-houses, not immediately relevant to Horst’s pictures, but gives an interesting sense of the groups he worked with and the glamour / femininity of the time. And any excuse for the V&A to showcase its extensive fashion collection is always welcome.
In the second set of rooms we see Horst experimenting with technique by layering images over one another to create surreal visions. He also looks beyond the surface glamour to photograph models undergoing various beauty treatments simultaneously, so they are covered in creams while attached to numerous electrical devices to primp and perfect. You also see him retouching shots including the famous woman in corset (Mainbocher Corset) to change both the lighting and the fit. Alongside this, Horst retained his reputation for glamour by photographing some of the leading celebrities of the 40s and 50s including screen sirens Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
After the war, Horst began to explore different subjects and the exhibition includes his travel photography from the Middle East showing ancient monuments, artefacts and views, as well as his love of the natural world. This section shows a number of collages created from a single image printed over and over, and placed together at different angels to create larger symmetrical patterns. Throughout the exhibition you’re given a clear idea of how many of the images were altered for publication, showing that retouching is by no means a 21st-century phenomenon.
Most of this exhibition is in black and white, so when you walk into one of the final rooms the boldness of the colours is even more striking. This is filled with rarely-seen large-scale prints which burst with energy and pose an interesting contrast to the more statuesque formality of Horst’s black and white work. Some of these you’ll have seen on the posters – the girl balancing a beach ball on her feet, another fixing her lipstick – but there are many more which beautifully capture Horst’s technique of playing with shadow all the while emphasising the glamour of his subject; be it the fashion or the model.
Overall this is a nicely curated exhibition and in keeping with other such retrospectives, including the Portrait Gallery’s David Bailey show earlier in the year, where we learn as much about the photographer as we do about changing taste in the twentieth-century. Part of the reason for its success is the approach to Horst’s work here covering its many elements and his willingness to experiment. As for the V&A’s disappointing record of late, well I’m not ready to entirely forgive them just yet, but let’s say this is a great first step on the road to recovery.
Horst: Photographer of Style is at the V&A until 4 January. Tickets start at £9 with concessions at £6 and £7.