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Iconic, dramatic and edgy

Melanie Abrams reviews the Vanity Fair portrait show

Demi Moore, seven months pregnant and naked. Princess Diana laughing and carefree. Gloria Swanson staring seductively from behind a black, lace veil. These are just some of the über iconic images featuring in the new Vanity Fair show at the National Portrait Gallery.

Charting celebrity culture over the last 95 years, the show spans the magazine’s vintage years of 1914-1936 and its reinvention since 1983. It also features some of the great photographers from the likes of Alfred Steiglitz, Man Ray, Edward Steichen and Andre Kertesz to Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair’s current photographic supremo.

Interestingly, the vintage years include work by several women photographers, such as, Berenice Abbott, Helen Beaker, Helen MacGregor (with Maurice Beck) as well as Imogen Cunningham. But ironically, there is only one female photographer - Annie Leibovitz - representing the modern years, apart from a single image by Nan Goldin.  

But what really fascinates is how Vanity Fair has defined and re-defined the celebrity portrait as an art form. There are the big production numbers from the Hollywood group shots to the carefully constructed scenes such as the semi-submergence of Run DMC, the hip hop duo, in a 1967 amphi-car cruising past Liberty Island in New York harbour. 

There are the spectacles, notably, the over-the-top shot of Faye Dunaway splayed out on the roof of a white limo, surrounded by hordes of screaming fans in loud brash colours. Furthermore there is the drama of a petrified Peter Lorre by Lusha Nelson, as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1935) surrounded by a circle of accusatory pointed fingers. And then there is the sharp contrast of the elegant and tiny frame of Isadora Duncan dominated by the monumental columns of a Greek temple. 

Vanity Fair Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan by Edward Steichen, 1923
© Courtesy Joanna T. Steichen / Carousel Research Inc. / Courtesy George Eastman House

Some portraits even suggest the still in motion, notably, Man Ray’s two shot of the choreographer and ballet dancer La Nijinska. She is wearing the horrifying make up designed for her by Mikhail Larionov, the Russian avant-garde painter for her role in the ballet, Kikimora. As her head stretches backwards in one image, and bends forwards in another, her make up moves, so it seems as if we are watching frames of a film and, by extension, La Nijinska performing. 

The image of the 1920s and 1930s international dance star, Margaret Severn by Arnold Genthe, dancing on a seashore, wearing little else than a gossamer wrap, has a similar effect. As the wrap seems to blow in the wind and the waves lap at her feet, the sense of movement within the still is palpable. And let’s not forget, Hilary Swank captured in full flight by Norman Jean Roy.

Classical paintings are also used for inspiration. There is Julianne Moore by Michael Thompson as La Grande Odalisque 1814 by Ingres and Mario Testino’s shot of Madonna whilst she was filming Evita, sharply reminiscent of Renaissance portraiture and other works, such as, The Straw Hat by Rubens 1622-5.

Leibovitz’s image of George Clooney on a raft in the middle of the water, directing a bevy of semi-naked women, uses modern props, such as film set lights, and  today’s fashion to help contemporise its inspiration, namely, the 1926 shot of Fritz Lang directing Metropolis as well as perhaps the painting Raft of the Medusa 1819 by Gericault. 

Vanity Fair Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts by Herb Ritts, 1993 © Herb Ritts Foundation

But the art of the Vanity Fair portraits are not just about the formal constructions. Some are intimate and spontaneous, such as, the Bruce Weber diptych of Sam Shepherd and his wife, Jessica Lange, sharing private moments. Or the Herb Ritts’ shot of Julia Roberts, sitting on the ground in crumpled couture, laughing; a single image which captures her popular appeal - the mix of girl next door and Hollywood glamour, with the beaming smile that defines her as the archetypal Pretty Woman.

Vanity Fair Radiohead
Radiohead by Julian Broad, 2000 © Julian Broad

Rob Lowe by Nan Goldin and Radiohead by Julian Broad, are shot in a naturalist documentary style, and are the edgiest images in the show.  Interestingly, it was an early commercial assignment for Goldin of a very young Rob Lowe. As Lowe lounges on the floor, staring into the camera’s lens, Goldin captures Lowe with a rawness and intimacy that foretells her later work, documenting her family and friends, such as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency 1986. 

Iconic, dramatic, painterly and edgy, these images define the best of celebrity portraiture.  

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 is on at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 14 February - 26 May 2008. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 14 June – 21 September 2008.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles / LACMA, 28 October 2008 – 1 March 2009 and the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australiay, 12 June – 30 August 2009 .The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, priced £25, paperback

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