AHA Alum Helena Roy reviews the V&A’s ‘Horst: Photographer of Style’

If fashion is most often a triumph of style over substance, the V&A shows Horst P. Horst’s photography to be the very substance of style, and the redemption of the materialistic.

In 1930, aged 24, Horst moved to Paris. Attractive, urbane and in search of experimental aesthetic, Horst was absorbed into a bohemian clique that included many renowned people who would shape his career. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a photographer for Vogue Paris, became his lover and mentor; Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a lifelong friend and champion.

Gloria Vanderbilt, photographed in 1941 by Horst. American Vogue captioned: 'She is dark and beautiful, seventeen years old'.
Gloria Vanderbilt, photographed in 1941 by Horst. American Vogue captioned: 'She is dark and beautiful, seventeen years old'.

Horst began his career as the era of photography began to eclipse graphic illustration in magazines. Fashion week in the 1930s was absent of the model hysteria it has today. Modelling was in its infancy as a profession, and to avoid inconveniencing haute couture clients, models were shot in the studios at night. The black and white nocturnal photographs are sensual and atmospheric, with lighting that is intense without harshness.

The exhibition is large and laid out according to theme. Photographs move from elegant chiaroscuro to the surrealism of the Dali years. Whimsical elements increasingly infused Horst’s 1930s work, making the commercial mystical: tasked with cataloguing nail varnish, he creates impossible patterns with layered hands; mirrors in dark, cluttered attics reflect blue skies and bright clouds.

Salvador Dalí-designed costumes for Léonide Massine's ballet Bacchanale, 1939

The centrepiece of Horst’s legacy and the V&A’s exhibit is the ‘Mainbocher Corset’ (1939). Madame Bernon wears a Mainbocher corset, assuming the role of Venus with perfect statuesque proportion. The last photograph Horst shot in Paris before the war, it epitomises the end of a charmed era. Melancholy and seductive, it was retouched to make the corset cling to Madame Bernon’s body; but the original has a loose provocativeness that is more striking.

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher (unedited), 1939

The 1940s present a mess of fractured wartime motifs and icons of the silver screen. Horst trained with the army in Fort Belvoir, accepted US citizenship and worked as a photographer for army magazines. Photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth hang opposite landscapes of ruined Persepolis (then recently uncovered) and the newly established state of Israel.

Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942
View of ruins at the palace of Persepolis, Persia, 1949

Straying from the fashion he was known for, the V&A presents close up ‘Patterns from Nature’, repeated and panned out to replicate gothic architecture. Along with Horst’s collection of nudes, the sheer skill in artistic composition underlines the integrity of his fashion photography, in an era that was steeped in commercialism.

'Patterns from Nature' Photographic Collage, about 1945

The V&A’s exhibit imparts a loose sense of the man behind the camera. Handsome and elusive, there are a few childhood pictures of Horst, scattered objects and the rare glimpse of him on a fashion shoot. But personality leaps forth with endearing anecdotes. Horst once visited Chanel in her studios to shoot some jewellery she had designed. He sat, chatting to her, playing with a bit of putty they were using to model the jewellery. A few weeks later she gifted him a cigarette lighter. She had moulded it on the putty he had left behind so it fit perfectly into his fist; he carried it throughout the war.

Horst directing lights and cameras on a fashion shoot with model Lisa Fonssagrives, New York, 1949

The penultimate room in the exhibition pops with 1950s colour. As fashion crossed the Atlantic to settle in New York instead of Paris, technicolour entered the mass media. Ninety-four Vogue magazine covers, and 25 giant photographs are blown up with jewel tones. Some are overlaid with murals, making haughty models the centre of easels.

'Summer fashions' for American Vogue, May 15, 1941

Horst’s fashion has a spontaneous feel. It has no desperation or need for immediate admiration, but is confident and considered. There is an inexhaustible thirst for the ground-breaking, but not necessarily the brand new, original, garish or shocking. With no vindictive internet audience to please, art was able to permeate his work as the world moved at a stunning, sloping pace.

Model Carmen Dell’Orefice on shooting with Horst, opening the exhibition and staying young: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29017638

‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ will run at the V&A until 4th January 2015. For more information visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-horst-photographer-of-style/

 

With thanks to Conde Nast Horst Estate for photographs.

Introducing Pick of the Week: this week by Annie Gregoire

Every Monday on AHA’s blog you will now find Pick of the Week – our recommendations of things you can do to spice up the week ahead, be it with art, music, theatre, travelling, food or anything else! We will review the best exhibitions on show that week, note exciting upcoming events, and maybe inspire you to take a visit somewhere different or try something new – across the UK and the globe.

Pick of the Week will tell you the things to look out for and incorporate into your week, discuss people and places that inspire, or introduce interesting ideas and matters that will offer something to think about in the following days.

There is loads to look forward to to in 2014. In the coming fortnight don’t miss the V&A’s exhibition ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900’, on until 19th Jan. You can even join us for a lecture, lunch and exhibition day for this show on Thursday. There will be opportunity to experience more of the country’s unbelievably rich cultural history – which most of us know embarrassingly little about – and learn about a pivotal period of world history in the British Museum’s ‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’ exhibition that opens in September. With a range of some of the finest and most intriguing objects you will have ever seen on display, it promises to be a sensational show.

A 15th Century Ming Cloisonée Jar © Trustees of the British Museum

Feminist issues remain incredibly important in the modern day but in all the discussion have we forgotten about the men? Grayson Perry, Jon Snow and Billy Bragg, among others, will be at the Southbank Centre’s ‘Being A Man’ festival at the end of the month, where they will be talking about just that. This look to be an exciting event and a platform for the important discussion of what often remains undiscussed. (Being A Man events taking place at Southbank Centre Fri 31 Jan- Sun 2 Feb)

Brazil will be talked about a lot this year and Roche Court arts centre and sculpture park in Wiltshire (a hidden gem of the south) will host an exhibition of new work by David Batchelor – bold and colourful sculpture that reveals his interest in Brazilian concrete art. (David Batchelor: Concretos, 8 Feb – 16 March 2014, Roche Court, Wilts)

Visit the blog on Mondays from now on to discover something to excite and enliven each week!

David Batchelor, "Contretos" at Roche Court. Photo: sculpture.uk.com.

Nostalgia for China: Helena Roy reviews ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’, at the V&A

The twenty-first century has been heralded as the century of the East. Asia is rising exponentially on the global stage, while Western dominance is undeniably waning. The star of this exotic movement is China. Impossible to pin down and infinitely mysterious, growing interest in China is currently evident in the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’.

Inside the exhibition at the V&A

From tiny intimate works by monks, to huge 14-foot scrolls by the literati, the exhibition charts the evolution of style and subject in Chinese art over a 1200-year period – with many paintings never seen before in the UK. Videos show the artistic process of painting on silk; and in the dark exhibition rooms, pale-lit scrolls are eerily luminous. Chinese paintings were not made for permanent display (with the exception of murals), but were treasured possessions, often stored away in boxes to be observed for set special periods. Subjects are portrayed on scrolls, banners and fans – all very tangible objects that act as alternative canvases.

The display starts with painting for religious purposes in the Tang and Five Dynasties period (700-950). A selection of Buddhist banners and deities are adorned with intense colour; tigers with gleaming eyes prowl around monks clad in red and orange robes. Monks are cluttered with swirling clothes and excessive, ribbon-like detail while their portraits are encased in circles offering serenity. Stories are laid out on scrolls, to be read like a book, allowing subjects to develop in a way traditional Western painting does not.

With the Song Dynasty there was a quest for reality (950-1250). Gone was the exuberance of the Buddhist era: artistic impetus was now for a momentous, monochrome aesthetic – against light brown silk scrolls, scenes are painted with porcelain precision. Guo Xi, a landscape painter, commented in 1117 that ‘without leaving your room you may sit to your heart’s content among streams and valleys. The glow of the mountain and the colours of the waters will dazzle your eyes glitteringly. Could this fail to quicken your interest and thoroughly capture your heart?’ Mountains drape gracefully into lakes and streams (the Chinese word for ‘landscape’ means ‘mountain and water’), with trees tripping down the edges of cliffs. Dragons and seas are meshed, appearing in the form of smoke as charcoal-like ink is waved across silk.

'Nine Dragons' (detail) by Chen Rong (1244)
Yan Wengui's 'Landscape with Pavillions' (10th century)

Monks and scholars later embraced solitude (1250-1400), uniting calligraphy, painting and poetry in a contemplative manner. During this period, the Chinese saw poetry as painting without image; painting as wordless poetry. Art became laden with literary, philosophical and political meaning. Stark black ink on white paper became the means of expressing creative solitude. Lone blossom, trees and orchids symbolised endurance and regret of the lost past.

'Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonising their Minds', attributed to Shi Ke (13th century)

Stability and prosperity during the Ming Dynasty led to an enthusiastic artistic explosion (1400-1600). Paintings became status symbols; with romanticism and decoration taking over, and instances of portraiture rising. Roosters were portrayed as elaborate birds of paradise, flowers enlarged and women’s gowns elaborated. From 1600-1900, art challenged the past and increasingly looked to the West; artistic rivalry festered, and the slow seeping of European influence into China took effect on painting too. Jesuit missionaries introduced western styles in the late 16th century, importing greater linear perspective, realism in portraits and chiaroscuro.

'Saying Farewell at Xunyang' (detail) by Qiu Ying 1494-1552
'Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as Calligrapher-Beggar' by Ren Yi (1887)

Much of the art in the exhibition is anonymous. This groups the pieces, giving them a unified national identity that dominates over its artistic identity. Though the painting is beautiful, it is overrun by the study of China. Though not necessarily a negative, this makes it less an exhibition of art, and more a study of history and a nation. Interesting nonetheless, but possibly not what the artists would have wanted.

‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’ runs at the V&A until 19th January 2014. For more information visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/masterpieces-of-chinese-painting/.

Art History Abroad are running a Dilettante Lecture, lunch and Exhibition day on Thursday 16th January for which there  are a few places left. Click here or contact Charlie Winton at charlie@arthistoryabroad for more details or to sign up.


With thanks to the V&A for photographs.

Behind closed doors: AHA alum and Cambridge student Catriona Grant takes us into the stored collections and study rooms of the Fitzwilliam and Ashmolean

Galleries and museums across Britain are undeniably incredible public resources. Not only do they exhibit and preserve priceless works of art for the nation, they are also repositories for the vast number of artworks that space restrictions prevent from being displayed.

I have been fortunate enough that the close study of original works of art has been central to my history of art degree so far. This has included frequent lectures in the assorted rooms of the Fitzwilliam Museum, in the centre of Cambridge, engaging in discussions about works by the likes of Renoir, Hogarth, Millais and Rodin. Lectures have taken place in front of paintings by Titian, and handling fragments of ancient Greek pots and vases.

Renoir, A Gust of Wind, c.1872

Furthermore, one of the best parts of studying my subject in a city such as Cambridge, is the artistic assets owned by the university in various guises, from the cross-section of plaster casts of ancient sculptures in the Classics Faculty, to the astonishing collections of art owned by colleges.

 

Cast of the Belvedere Torso

 

One of the greatest resources I have been able to use is the Graham Robertson Study Room in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here I have spent time looking closely at prints, drawings and paintings by a variety of artists, in the company of peers and professors alike.

 

Cotman, An Overshot Mill, c.1801-2

 

Turner, 'The Yellow Castle', Beilstein on the Moselle, c.1839

On one occasion we looked at watercolours in the collection, observing the sketchy white paint, suggestive of falling water in Cotman’s An Overshot Mill, and the ephemeral skyline in Turner’s The Yellow Castle. On another, we compared the precision of Dürer’s woodcuts with the rapid etching of Rembrandt in various states of his work.

 

Durer, Melancholia I, 1514
Rembrandt, Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, 1635

Similar experiences were had in Oxford, at the Ashmolean Museum. I was able to supplement a term of studying Russian art, with looking at Natalia Goncharova’s costume designs when working with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes in Paris – her original scribbles surround the drawing, written in French, with instructions for the seamstresses. Examples of Konstantin Somov’s work, can also be seen, such as The Embrace, a sentimental, Rococo style painting that demonstrates the particular influence of the era of Louis XIV of France on the Russian Wold of Art group.

Natalia Goncharova, Design for a Ballet Costume, after 1914
Konstantin Somov, The Embrace, 1927

But of course such opportunities are not limited to these two cities. Museums across the country have similar study rooms available – anyone can ask to see works (often by appointment) – they belong to the nation after all! The British Museum allows members of the public to request to see parts of the collection not on display, and use their library. Similarly the V&A lists the various additional study rooms open to visitors, such as those for photography, architecture, ceramics, Asian art, the list goes on….

 

The purpose of this blog is, therefore, to raise awareness of such resources, whether for study or personal enjoyment. Apologies if this is old news, but it was certainly something I was oblivious to before my lecturers introduced me to my local collections. As a result I urge you to look up the museums in your city – chances are they’ll have similar facilities in place for the general public to engage with the nation’s cultural heritage.

(Images courtesy of the Cambridge Classics Faculty, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Ashmolean Museum’s Online Collections)