The V&A museum’s exhibition Horst: Photographer of Style recently presented a ‘‘definitive retrospective of the work of Horst P. Horst (1906-99), one of the 20th century’s master photographers.’’ Renowned for his glamourous fashion and Hollywood images, he was also a portayer of the male body and exponent of photographic art. K magazine reveals if the exhibition catalogue does him justice….
Horst’s career is inseparable from the successful rise of glossy magazines and cover girls. The above book, like the exhibition, relates the importance and the continuity of Horst, a contemporary of Erwin Blumenfeld, who from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, constituted a strong aesthetic body of work, indisputably taken with the radiant, natural ideal of a classical Grecian beauty.
Horst and style: that of classic, harmonious compositions, of contrasts and gentle gradations, of poses at once delicate and disquietingly eternal. Of languid and aristocratic bodies, only abandoning themselves ever so slightly to the idea of pleasure but freely embodying order, good posture, and the photogenic quality of a capitalist century in the best of lighting conditions.
From soft homo-erotic subjects to naturalist projects, Horst lays out a sober and sometimes elliptical approach, an abstract glamour that brushes up against questions of montage, collage and subterfuge. This is precisely where he reaches style, when montage goes beyond the photography. When Dadaist collage attacks the expression of a silhouette, the rarity of a look, the fleeting elegance of allure as symbol of a diffuse present.
From Chanel to Daly, Bette Davis to Lisa Fonssagrives, the clothing detains the body. It’s the photograph that then tames the clothing through composition. Framing is everything. Physical frames subordinate the photographic frame. Mirrors, windows, steps, reflections, studio background paper, furniture, and stripes all structure the clothing, then the body. The set, so often out of focus, is a visual tool, subdividing and fixing the look, capturing the muse.
It’s an aesthetic game, contemporary and cinematographic, as much Dadaist or surrealist. Horst adds an overdone glamour, a quiet insanity – the paradoxical sharp focus of a Max Ernst collage. The photograph replays the compositional montage, at once legible and paradoxical, full of duplicity. The classical composition functions as a means of seizing and subdividing a fleeting glamour, which the spectator can latch on to.
The photo studio is the ideal birthplace for these shrewd assemblages. Collaborations with set designer Marcel Vertès affirm this fool’s game with their illustrative scenery and grandiloquent flourishes, re-enacting details of the photographed clothes. The organic motif of a polka dot 1953 Mollie Parnis dress is observed by the envious, hypertrophied eyes of a group of comedic legged, polka-dot figures.
A 1953 Pierre Balmain blue floral dress is arranged like a tattered bouquet draped on a painted still-life statue set against a red, garden trestle backdrop. An Adele Simpson dress perfectly at home on a Dali background. An eloquent range of completely photogenic effects is achieved.
The other side of his work, the romantic portrait, follows a similar path. The sets and settings – sunbathed, theatrically lit, cinematographically set – accentuate a classical reading of an ideal drama, but with a twist: the arrival of a reckless friend, the couture dress.
Beauty is located in the incongruity, the precision of the elements (the black and white set and the coloured jewels). The disquieting cinematographic posture of the model, the blurry movement that rejects the shutter’s fixity….
It all signifies an unreal present, outside of time. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes this as the unreal gap between fashion and life at this time. From this quest for untarnished beauty to the pursuit of an ideal model, the encounter between the set and the muse is bombastic, generating its own drama.
In the Living In Style section of the catalogue, a visit to the homes of aristocrats or dandies like artist Cy Twombly show the same quest to discover the enigmatic rules of style and uncover a lost paradise of assemblage. It is a desire to find a place where eclecticism and radical modernity co-exist, where fashion dictates co-ordinating ensembles in Baudelairean salons where ‘‘that great symphony of the day is an eternal variant on the symphony of yesterday, that succession of melodies a kind of infinity….’’
The question of colour (in Jacqueline Lichenstein’s theoretical sense) is primordial. Colourised or already present in the image, the chromatic range of the photo expresses its sensuality, glamour and grand style. Out-of-focus zones create enough empty space for each colour to co-exist with the others in the global composition.
Is this genre sleek? Surely sometimes in its rendering, but rescued by its radical style, the art of re-situating the body in a setting that makes everything explicit, dramatic: a total look. The art of choosing and specifying: a look that composes while reducing to essentials. The photo is stable, the actors enter into the cinematographic frame, silhouettes against a haze, the impossibly precise focus allowing the style to show through, and fine objects to emerge.
All of what Horst and the best of his contemporaries created was style, and it’s what we are missing today. Construction without the weight of communicating an exclusive commercial obligation, the ability to propose a poetic vision, is what this excellent catalogue offers up as a brilliant reference.
In fact, what we owe cultural players like Horst is to grasp that fashion isn’t only defined by style, that the clothing-object only exists through the image that holds, fixes and broadcasts it. On a body that is chosen, not endured.
Order the catalogue Horst: Photographer of Style, £40, by Susanna Brown, V&A curator of photographs and curator of the exhibition. The exhibition Horst: Photographer of Style will be touring internationally in 2015-2016.