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Vogue 100: A Century of Style – National Portrait Gallery

The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty by Cecil Beaton

The National Portrait Gallery has had a very nice line in fashion photography over the years including an impressively insightful David Bailey retrospective in 2014. To celebrate the centenary of Vogue Britain, established in the midst of the First World War, the NPG presents a glamorous walk through the decades of a magazine that has reflected a changing taste in clothing as well as the political, economic and cultural influences of the day. Last year’s Alexander McQueen show at the V&A – arguably the greatest fashion exhibition ever to hit London – has changed how the history of fashion is presented and, although there are no clothes on display here, its influence can be felt in the in both the curation and more dynamic design of this exhibition.

London’s art scene is doing a roaring trade in photography exhibitions at the moment; some such as the Imperial War Museum’s Lee Miller: A Women’s War, can be seen viewed as a companion piece to the Vogue show, covering some of the same images including those of Miller in her early days as a model as well as her military work during the Second World War. Other shows such as the brilliant Strange and Familiar at the Barbican cover much of the same period but offer two very different interpretations of the world. Haute couture fashion is often seen as ‘aspirational’ and much of the material on display at the NPG reflects how women wanted to look in particular decades and the pages of Vogue can be interpreted as a history of how Britain wanted to be seen – whereas Strange and Familiar shows us who we really were – and seeing both in quick succession is an eye-opening insight into the last 70 years.

Vogue 100 actually starts in the here and now with modern covers and unexpectedly a film showing models in close up, playing in a mirrored alcove so everywhere you look are reflections upon reflections (one of the elements surely inspired by the McQueen show). Then you can trace a path back through the decades of celebrities and approaches, ending up where it all began in 1916. Trendy as it may be, it wasn’t clear what this backward-looking approach was supposed to give us, so instead you can defy the crowds as I did and march yourself all the way back to the 1920s (there’s no exit here you will still have to walk back anyway) and start from there, seeing the developments in fashion, photography and in the magazine’s approach to the cultural world it represents unfolding before your eyes.

Whichever way you chose to go this is clearly an exhibition about the artists that have made Vogue what it is today rather than the story of its production, editorship or backroom dramas. Instead we see how popular culture was presented and influenced by the pages of this magazine through the choices of models, designers, photographers, celebrities and actual artists who drew works for the early spreads or, like Picasso, were featured in the magazine itself. In the unique world of Vogue this walk through the twentieth century sees hemlines rise and fall as quickly as empires, and economic shifts in the aftermath of war and depression that affect fabrics choices and shoot locations.

The 1920s and 30s show a selection of early prints in decorated glass cases which is a nice touch reflecting the particular style of each era and the major players of the day. From a dancing Fred Astaire to stylish swimsuits for men and women (an image recently used as the cover for a novel about Hemingway), from society “it girls” to Horst’s famous corset images – which you may have seen in Horst’s own retrospective at the V&A last year – this decades represent a stagey look to the images with models in formal, often classical poses against pillars or architecture that infer the silhouette of the outfit. Often ‘moody’, the use of lighting creates contrasts of light and shadow that add considerable atmosphere to the black and white prints, as well as an elegance that colour photos just never seem to emulate.

On to the 40s and the décor becomes a bold striking red as the NPG contrasts its war coverage of pilots and military workers with the New Look that Dior introduced after the conflict. It’s an interesting approach that offers both sides of the magazine’s work, although the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition on Lee Miller has all the best images actually. On the fashion side the increased use of sites of destruction to contrast the outfits is apparent particularly in Norman Hartnell’s work where elegantly dressed ladies stand in front of bomb sites as though to suggesting ‘fashion is indestructible’. Here also there is a greater saturation of bold colour advocated by those like Cecil Beaton who was a major influence on Vogue’s unfolding style. His 1946 image of a model dressed entirely in shades of red with red accessories against a red background entitled ‘The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty’ is a memorable example of this dynamic approach.

The full-skirted elegance of the 50s gives way to a much more relaxed approach to modelling in the 1960s as formal poses are replaced with ‘action’ shots of fashion in everyday lives. Twiggy of course will be familiar, careering along on a scooter or Jean Shrimpton relaxing in a series of coats for one shoot. New photographers were also part of this freer style with David Bailey in particular starting to document the more liberal times on location and with more experimental images.  By the time we reach the 70s and 80s it’s those experiments with colour and composition that seem to take precedence, and some of the more memorable images here are Claudia Schiffer on the back of a motorbike which in colour is a study in monochrome, and a model in a 20s-esque red bathing suite leaning on a swing which we learn was fashioned ad hoc on location, and harks back to that early image of the bathers on the platform.

Onto the 90s and the rise of the supermodel with that famous cover, and in more recent images you should get used to seeing that darling of British Vogue, Kate Moss who is everywhere. From the ‘heroin chic’ pictures that launched her more simple ‘every-girl’ look to the African Queen image of her in a desert, there’s no doubting her influence. As more and more magazines sought to challenge Vogue’s dominance, the photoessays become increasingly outlandish and surreal including a 40s bomber shown coming through a chintzy living room wall to advertise a khaki inspired trend and a stunning pink powder-puff shot of Lily Cole. Colour also continues to dominate as digital images allow even greater opportunities to retouch the pictures in pre-production, enhancing their fantasy-like suggestion and getting to the heart of that aspirational life Vogue has always wanted to present.

Vogue 100 doesn’t claim the magazine has profoundly changed the world, but for 100 years it has reflected society’s changing values while offering entertainment and escapism to its readers. While this show doesn’t tackle the story of Vogue itself or any of the controversies its pages unleash such as the size zero model and the doctoring of images by airbrushing to extremes it’s an interesting version of a history the magazine wishes to present. It has attracted important photographers including Horst, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier who have forwarded an artistic aesthetic that lifts what could have been a catalogue for expensive clothing to something more meaningful and inventive. And yes, it is all glossy photos of a world that doesn’t exist, but view it as an expression of a changing fantasy life and see it in partnership with the coincidentally contrasting show Strange and Familiar at the Barbican and both shows take on an added resonance that only adds to our understanding of the Britain we live in.

Vogue 100 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 May. Tickets are £17 without donation and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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.    

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery

Exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery have taken an interesting turn lately and while a show is dedicated to the life of one individual, you leave having learned a huge amount about the times in which they lived and the interaction of various different groups within the cultural world. Last year the Gallery successfully staged a major David Bailey retrospective that told us a lot about his origins in the East End, his travelogue years and the host of artistic figures with whom he spent his time. This year, it uses his portraits to shine a light into the world of painter John Singer Sargent.

Sargent is an artist I know best for his First World War paintings including the stunning Gassed which is on permanent view at the Imperial War Museum, although Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth have long been highlights of Tate Britain’s freely available gallery selection, both of which have made the journey up Whitehall to this exhibition. His Great War paintings are beautiful and complex, mixing seemingly opposed ideas such as the disaster of war with a hint of hope and safety, but this exhibition focuses on the years until 1914. The way he paints light and the seemingly glamorous sheen of his subjects mean he’s often unfavourably compared to seventeenth-century master Van Dyck, court artist to Charles I, but in painting friends and fellow artists Sargent’s skill at capturing personality and surroundings becomes clear.

The exhibition begins with Sargent living in France and Italy, containing four rooms of portraits he composed from 1874-1885. The signs next to the pictures only tell you the name of the person but all the information about them and their relationship with Sargent is contained in the detailed guide given either at the ticket desk or exhibition entrance. I really like this touch and it shows a gallery that’s in tune with its audience. So often now guides are only available via app and for those without smart phones (and given the age demographic of the people I saw there that’s going to be an awful lot of people who go to art exhibitions) we miss out on this information. And in a packed space it also reduces the queuing time to read it on the sign, this way you can look at the picture and then move away somewhere quieter to read the background without holding everyone else up.

Anyway back to the work in Paris, there are a lot of notable pictures here, not least the theatrical Dr Pozzi at Home, a well know gynaecologist seen here in a bright scarlet dressing gown which has shades of Philippe de Champaigne’s portrait of Cardinal Richlieu, and Sargent’s first work at the Royal Academy. As well as the central figure, Sargent also uses the background and light in his work to interesting effect to create atmosphere and tone; a perfect of example of which is Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola which is most interesting for the formal looking man against the beautiful reflective quality of the water.

For many the portraits of Rodin and Monet will be most fascinating, both of whom Sargent admired and tried to emulate, creating a strong impression of the world in which these artists lived and worked together. Yet, quite another picture catches the eye, one which has a style rather different to those around it and showing the rehearsal of the Cirque d’Hiver orchestra. I liked the mix of impressionistic style and the sense of dynamic movement the painting has, like you can feel them performing. It also felt more modern than those around it.

Leaving the continent behind in the mid-1880s, Sargent came to England where he painted what is for me his most beautiful non-war picture, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose inspired by a scene he witnessed from The Thames, combining all his skills for painting people with enchanting backgrounds and depiction of light. Especially lovely is the way the lanterns illuminate the children’s faces showing a particular moment of dusk-light as the sun sets, while the floral backdrop has an English country garden meets oriental effect. Monet’s painting outdoors influence is evident. Even better you can usually see this painting for free at Tate Britain any time you like. But it’s from this point that I realised that the really fascinating part of Sargent’s work is not the people necessarily but the context in which their painted, which becomes even more apparent in the next room.

The paintings of Boston and London all have one thing in common – the sitter is almost invariably shown against a dark or opaque background, and as you wander around these pictures you get a feeling of stifling nineteenth-century city life, in cluttered rooms, smoky cities and somewhat oppressive society – in fact these portraits look exactly how reading a Henry James novel feels (and James himself is one of those on show in this room). From the haughty looking dancer La Carmencita to the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and fellow artist W. Graham Robertson, the backdrops are gloomy to make you focus on the personality of the sitter but also imply something of the nature of Victorian city-life. In a lovely contrast, this room also displays a few incredible charcoal sketches which are so skilful they look as though someone has drawn over a photograph – particularly the one of the poet Yeats and actress Mary Anderson.

In the final room, Sargent escapes the repressive atmosphere of the city and returns to light openness of countryside and seascapes in Southern Europe. His Group with Parasols shows intermingled friends contentedly asleep on the grass, while The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy is a similarly relaxed scene of a female artist at work as her husband snoozes beside her. These are a lovely end to the exhibition taking you up to 1914 and hinting at the some of the incredibly evocative work Sargent would produce of people and desolate landscapes in the Great War.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is a brilliant insight into the work of a skilled and varied artist, one whose talent was dismissed in the early part of the Twentieth-century. As with their previous shows, the key here is not just being able to see around 70 paintings but the way in which these chart both the life Sargent was living in terms of his location and progression as an artist, but also the nature of the world he inhabited – one full of artists, musicians, actors, dancers and patrons. This exhibition reminds us that not only could Sargent paint accurate portraits of any sitter but brought to them a sense of personality and multiple references to the lives they lived.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is at the National Portrait Gallery until 25 May. Tickets are £14.50, although the concession prices are not much less. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

You can’t fail to notice that it’s almost a hundred years since the First World War began and already this year we’ve seen several exhibitions and TV shows examining this significant event. Niall Ferguson played devil’s advocate with some of our leading historians, while Jeremy Paxman tried to tell us about the effects of the war on modern Britain…except he forgot that bit and chucked in two minutes at the end. The excellent 37 Days screened over three nights on BBC2 dramatised the political build-up to the war in the UK, Germany and Russia, and many hundreds of hours of television are yet to be screened. The upshot is that there’s a danger of feeling exhausted by the end of the commemorative period in 2018, you may even feel it already and a hundred years ago the war hadn’t even started yet.

That’s not to say that the things being produced are unwelcome, and have so far been of great quality and balance. The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition is an excellent example of this, walking you through the events of those years using many of the paintings and images already in its collection. You begin with the pomp of regal portraits celebrating the monarchical houses that dominated Europe in 1914 including Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas. They represent the old order, of formal oil portraits celebrating the power and grandeur of royal courts, illustrious histories and military might that seemed, from these pictures, that they would endure forever. On the next wall is an unassuming black and white photograph of Gavrilo Princip the man who assassinated the Austrian Archduke, and, in some sense triggered the downfall of that way of life. There’s something quite chilling about seeing photos of Franz Ferdinand and his wife not long before their deaths. But, as this exhibition shows, their deaths were just the beginning.

Once war has begun, we’re shown two types of picture. First the formal portraits of military leaders like Haigh and Hindenbugh painted by official war artists. Although they lack the grandeur of kings in the previous room, they are intended to convey a sense of the sitter’s authority and leadership role. William Orpen painted Haigh in 1918 and I couldn’t help but think had he sat a few years earlier, it would have been a different image. The styling is as you’d expect, but whatever your opinion of Haig, look at his eyes, there’s a sadness in them that hints at the terrible toll of the last four years. Whether that’s Orpen’s addition is for you to decide.

Alongside these images we see representations of the ordinary serviceman presented both as formal glory portraits to celebrate their victories, and as the dead or disfigured on the battlefield and hospitals. These include the incredibly striking Dead Stretcher Bearer which is simultaneously a moving and somehow beautiful image, casting a stark contrast with the formal portraits of war leaders. Changes in artistic styles are represented through pictures including the angular forms of Nevison’s La Mitrailleuse (The Machine Guns), emphasising the mechanisation and fierceness of war. One of the things I enjoyed most about this exhibition is the inclusion not just of these many styles and consequences of war, but of all kinds of protagonists; it’s not just monarchs and Generals, but ordinary men; not just soldiers but pilots, sailors and men from across the Commonwealth. Apart from Chruchill and a couple of photographs, the naval experience doesn’t really feature which is a shame, but NPG is saving them for a naval exhibition in May.

Before you become desensitised to the plethora of First World War activities, go and see this free exhibition. Not only is it a great opportunity to see a really diverse collection of art styles, but it will give you a surprisingly broad perspective of all the people who fought in the conflict as well as mix of bravery and horror that created. If you want to understand anything about the lasting effects of the Great War, then all you have to do is look in Haigh’s eyes.

The Great War in Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June and is free to enter.

Bailey’s Stardust – National Portrait Gallery

Has there ever been a bad picture of Michael Caine? There must be – perhaps they’re all hidden under his bed – but the only ones you ever see, whether he’s 35 or 75, he is the epitome of cool – and no more so than in the giant Bailey photo that greets you in the ticket hall of the Portrait Gallery. Stardust celebrates more than 50 years of eclectic David Bailey photographs, from his early work in 1960s east London, through the crowd-pleasing celebrity and fashion shots, to documentary-style images of east Africa, India and Australia.

Bailey has photographed anyone who’s anyone and is perhaps most famous for the black and white shots of celebrities and artists which first greet you. U2, Kate Moss, Cecil Beaton, The Rolling Stones, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Hall, Paul McCartney, Jonny Depp, the list goes on. Like most portrait painters, Bailey largely presents a glamorised view of his subjects which make some of these photos feel like empty publicity shots. His trademark white background gets a bit repetitive at first, especially as it masks rather than enhances the personality of whichever celebrity is featured. But it’s in the more playful shots where you begin to appreciate Bailey’s skill; Ralph Fiennes shown against an entirely black background resting his head on a skull, or Marianne Faithful laying on the grass pictured at a twisted angle against a diagonal horizon, are particularly striking.

Another room deals with his fashion images, not just showcasing models like Marie Helvin, Jerry Hall and Jean Shrimpton, but also designers, editors and stylists. Bailey’s fascination with the personalities behind particular art forms is actually one of the most interesting elements of this exhibition, so there are photos of artists like Dali, Warhol, Bacon and Hockney, as well as other photographers like Cecil Beaton who appears repeatedly. These are people who are, to some extent, are usually obscured by their work but here become the art itself.

Bailey has also experimented with different techniques over the years, playing with colours, focus and exposure which give a nice variety to the many images on display here. And, surprisingly, some of the most effective are large camera-phone shots of clubs and theatres taken in 2013 which are bursting with colour and drama. These provide the perfect book-end to the fabulous images of people and decaying street life in the 1960s east end where Bailey grew up.  Large-scale prints of people happily drinking in old-school boozers sit next to bomb-damaged shops in a time before regeneration. What’s interesting about this collection is the mix of the glamorous and the ordinary; for every celebrity shot there’s a corresponding collection of images from community life around the world, of people who couldn’t be further from the pages of Vogue.

This is Bailey’s Stardust because you leave knowing more about him and the life he’s led than you do about any of the people you see on the walls. Not only is every picture personally selected and arranged by Bailey, but all around you is a visual biography of where he’s been, who he knew and what he believed in. That in itself is quite a fascinating approach, indicating that far from being the anonymous man behind the lens recording the lives of others, Bailey has been at the heart of popular culture for more than 50 years, which, like that enormous picture of Michael Caine, is pretty cool.

Bailey’s Stardust is at the National Portrait Gallery until 1st June. Tickets start at £16 with concessions available.

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