Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon – National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn has long been seen as the epitome of style and audiences are guaranteed to flock to film showings and exhibitions. Some old Hollywood stars never seem to lose their glamour but it’s a glamour that’s frozen in time, in those golden years from about 1940-1965. Rarely do you see anything before or particularly after that time as said starlet wrinkles and fades. Arguably this is true of Hepburn’s image, forever trapped in her roles as Holly Golightly or Eliza Doolittle, so this new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery while focusing on these years is also a rare chance to see a smattering of pictures from her later life.

This exhibition tells the story of the one time ballet dancer and show girl who became an icon, yet while these pictures are beautiful, all Hepburn gives the viewer is her image and there is little hint of the personality beneath or the real life she was living off-screen. It seems unusual now where celebrity exposures are a daily occurrence (although happily some still maintain a level of discretion over their personal lives), but for most their knowledge of Hepburn is almost entirely related to her films which is presumably what makes her image so powerful – it is untarnished by over familiarity with her off-screen life.

The exhibition opens with a number of early images of Hepburn’s dance training as well as showcasing her ballet shoes. This is accompanied by promotional flyers and pictures from her days in the chorus of various music hall type performances where her looks were first spotted. Soon, Hepburn had become a model and photographed by those including Cecil Beaton and thus, this exhibition shows the beginning of her long association with clothing and style. This chronological approach soon moves on to her early film roles with a number of stills and off-duty but clearly posed shots between scenes, throughout which Hepburn of course looks as poised and stylish as you would expect.

But it’s at this point, coming into that series of iconic films from Roman Holiday to Charade, that it began to depart from its own determination to examine Hepburn’s influence. Yes we’d seen picture after picture proving she wore a lot of very nice clothes but somehow everything began to look the same, lacking any particular insight into her lifestyle and personality. Hepburn began her career when the studio system was at its height, controlling not just the films each star made but also their lives on and off screen. Is it inconceivable then that Hepburn’s style was actually forced on her by the studio bosses? This lifelong association with Givenchy which the exhibition repeatedly romanticises could also be boiled down into a mutually lucrative deal between the movie makers and a famous fashion designer offered an unheard of level of publicity via the silver screen. How better to sell your clothes then by getting a beautiful starlet to wear them.

Now I’m not for a moment saying that this is how it happened, maybe Hepburn was Givenchy’s champion taking his work from film to film, but nowhere in this exhibition is that proven. Famous actors today endorse all kinds of products and some have been associated with big fashion houses for a year or two. Using the images alone how can someone looking back in the future insist that Nicole Kidman made Chanel a modern powerhouse or that Eddie Redmayne determined Burberry’s 21st-century look? We don’t see Hepburn off duty at any point and even the pictures that seem as though they’ve caught her unawares are still quite stagey, so from this exhibition we can’t know for sure whether it was Hepburn, Givenchy or the fat cats at the studios who really created her style.

This debate leads on to a discussion about the creation of iconic images. There is no doubt that Hepburn was one of the faces of the Twentieth Century but at some point, through no fault of her own, her image became devalued and commercialised. I lost count of how many student rooms had a poster of that Breakfast at Tiffany’s image of her in a restaurant (shown in this exhibition), and not to mention those nasty box print images of her silhouette flogged by the people at Argos and such like. So hasn’t looking at these overfamiliar pictures of Breakfast at Tiffanys now lost some of their style and allure? These are questions you’d expect the Portrait Gallery to address in the exhibition, i.e. to what extent has this over-emphasis on Hepburn’s fashion credentials led to a greater commercialisation of her image that has ultimately cheapened it?

For Hepburn too, what were the consequences of selling her ‘face’ in this way? The pictures here are accompanied by the barest knowledge of her personal life with fleeting references to her three major relationships (two of which were marriages) and her two sons who colluded in this exhibition. So what were the tensions between the public and private versions of Hepburn, what did fame, celebrity and icon-status mean to her. Was it a burden or a delight, and what effect did it have on her family?  One thing this exhibition gives is a number of shots of Hepburn in her later years both on film and magazine covers, as well as her charity work in Africa. Given that our view of her is eternally stuck in the 1960s, it was actually fascinating to see her age, admittedly gracefully, but still an interesting contrast to the elfin 30-year old we’re bombarded with.

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is by no means a bad thing, despite what it may look like above. The images are interesting as objects of beauty certainly reinforcing society’s obsession with the image of Audrey Hepburn, so if you’re a fan or just want to wallow in some reverence of the golden age of Hollywood film then you’ll certainly enjoy this. It’s reasonable value at £9 although I was only in there for about 40 minutes and I tarried while others stalked though, but then the Portrait Gallery has lots of other free things you can see while you’re there.

Lots of lovely photography, but I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was rather soulless and didn’t even begin to tackle some of the big questions about the commercialisation of image. Hepburn is undoubtedly an icon and a worthy subject for exploration, yet somehow this exhibition is a little too reverential and takes too much at face value. It perpetuates the myths rather than questioning them to offer up new insight into a woman whose image adorns a thousand student walls.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October. Entrance is £9 although small concessions are available.    

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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