Apr 2008 Journal
What better time to celebrate celebrity itself than the time of the Oscars? Into the melee of actors and their designer labels, the National Portrait Gallery launched its Vanity Fair Portraits photo show - from the jazz and modernist era of 1913 to 1936, when the magazine ceased publication, to its resumption in the clamorous, glamorous 1980s.
The time-frame excludes Monroe and Bardot, but we have George Hurrell’s Jean Harlow and Mario Testino’s super-natural Diana. Daffyd Jones’s Madonna with Mick Jagger and Tony Curtis is a clever pose of jagged intimacy.
It’s not all eye candy. The journal’s first period celebrates greyer matter. Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and a host of authors like Hemingway, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, and George Bernard Shaw are captured by Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton and Man Ray. And there is something to be said for the master stroke in black-and-white, which often conveys the subtlety of mood and gesture more accurately than the colour photography which defines the later period.
Generating art in photography is a bit of a hot potato. Some critics maintain that it is not a pure art form and bears no comparison with painting. The photographer’s gift is to place the subject within the frame of his or her time, to capture a mood or moment, not an eternity. Thus Annie Leibowitz – who so controversially snapped the Queen – presents Joan and Janet Collins as two lushes in contrast to her formally posed Hollywood Legends. Helmut Newton’s overpowering Margaret Thatcher in black-and-white is coldly magisterial.
In 2001 Vanity Fair turned more to serious reportage, and Jonas Karlsson’s award-winning Fire-Fighters near Ground Zero, 9/11 has all the pathos of uniformed men helpless in the face of catastrophe. Contrast this with the quirkiness of Steichen’s vision of an ironic yet static world, expressed in his 1924 photograph of Gloria Swanson.
The eighteenth-century painter Pompei Batoni is hardly a household name, but the National Gallery has launched an exhibition on the work of this stylised artist, who captured the British and Irish glitterati on the European Grand Tour. These mannered portraits gave him the chance to show off his exceptional draughtsmanship, a talent for which he was outstanding among contemporaries. Yet this most celebrated Roman painter of his time - the natural successor to Michaelangelo, Raphael and Carracci - fell into neglect in the nineteenth century because much of his commissioned work remained in private hands. Forced to juggle with work and parenthood - he supported five children after his wife’s death – Batoni was also the master of mythological and allegorical painting. Some of his works may seem too prettily sentimental; others are impeccable studies handled with great detail and sensitivity. In The Death of Meleager, even the sheets in which the dying man is entwined, used to wipe away his lover’s tears, have a life and a grief of their own, shared by the poignant Italian greyhound at the base of the painting. Batoni was more adept than most at conveying canine realism!