Future Fashions: Horst: Photographer of Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover. 15 May 1941 © Condé Nast / Horst Estate.
Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, May 15 1941. © Condé Nast / Horst Estate.

Don’t be misled by the rich red lipstick. To promote this exhibition, these resplendent models have been plastered across London Underground walls – but Horst was not a man who championed fashionable chic. In his eyes, style was very much separate from fashion. Despite his continued commissions and connections within the industry— he photographed over 90 covers for Vogue, and his friends included Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli—he remained adamant that fashion was something transitory. As he declared in 1984: “Fashion is an expression of the times. Elegance is something else again.” Elegance, style, those famously elusive qualities, are what Horst so compellingly captures. These mysterious virtues are the fodder of his images and the reason for the timeless endurance of his photographs.

Susanne Brown has compiled an exciting and extensive collection, and interestingly it is the lesser-known and less obviously “stylish” shots that prove to be the most intriguing. Their inclusion is deeply engaging, a glimpse not only into Horst’s chosen subject matters but a peek into the experiences that shaped the photographer he became. One portrait in particular of a boy holding an eagle (from his travels in Persia) looks so magnificent it feels like the reincarnation of a fresco or Roman statue. In his nature shots the vivid close-ups enable a deeper and more considered notion of everyday sight; plants and shells are made gloriously alien through reconceptualization. The photographs are by no means mere nature shots; they are almost forensic in their detail, some replicated to form patterns that shimmer, tricking the eyes like modern optical illusions. The galleries celebrate the extent to which Horst was an artist in his own right: not merely a man to regurgitate images for advertising revenues and commercial success, but a true photographer with a unique and individual eye.

Brown credits, among other things, Horst’s initial training in Hamburg as a furniture designer as a founding influence for his attentive and original photographic approach, and it’s easy to view each of his photographs as independent crafted products, as carefully constructed, rigorously redrafted and shaped as pieces of carpentry. It was evidently a training that enabled Horst to look at his subject in a different way; his eyes were classically trained, through both his design teaching and independent travels. His famed trips to the Louvre in Paris to study the statues, for example, provides evidence for how the medium of sculpture remains a perfect parallel for his physically vivid creations. His consideration of dimensions was essential to the way in which he worked; he had a distinct, mathematical manner when utilizing the eye of the camera.

Although Horst was adamant about the ephemerality of the fashion world, he used fashions in his own work to cunning effect, his images both recreating and elongating trends of the time. For example, the celebration of the naked body, a fixture of the 20th-century German aesthetic, was absorbed by Horst and replicated, transferred strikingly to a new medium for a new audience. The Odalisques made popular in the nineteenth century by orientalist painters such as Ingres proved to be great stores of inspiration, whereby Horst was able to bring these unfamiliar and exotic works into another world. He brought the past into another dimension, free from the complexity of paint, made purer by the starkness of his medium of shadow, of light and dark.

Martin Roth, Director of the V&A, said that the exhibition “will shine a light on all aspects of [Horst’s] long and distinguished career”. This is well put: the shining lights of the exhibition echo those used by Horst himself. Described by curator Susanna Brown as a “master of light and shadow” it’s evident that Horst’s ability to handle light is cunning; sharp sculptural silhouettes with strong bands of light and shadow bring out dynamic compositions and chiaroscuros that work to sharpen and accentuate lithe limbs and swathes of delicate fabrics. Horst uses light like an artist using pigment; it becomes a medium as highly tuned and intricately spun as any other fluid in the development process.

Collaboration is also prominent in this exhibition, with each room almost giving homage to a different era, new friends, new photographs – from his first fashion pictures and Cartier jewelry advertisements to Surrealist explorations in association with his friend and colleague Salvador Dalí. Then there are the many varied faces of the silver screen, the Hollywood masses, among them Vivien Leigh, Noel Coward, Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford. An entire wall of portraits shows how photographers such as Horst were fundamental in creating the future fashion of the “Celebrity” as we know it today. However, in a piece such as Electric Beauty, we witness Horst’s ability to critique fashions and not merely shape them, the photograph a wry comment on the excessive beauty regimes and treatments in 1939.

Future Vogue art director Alexander Liberman declared in 1941 that “producing a fashion magazine is theatre”. This concept of curating and curation is something that finds roots in Horst’s work. He was theatrical in every aspect of his picture making. For that is ultimately what it is, intricate and exciting, a show that is produced and created through an entire entourage, a construction, not a mere click of a shutter but months of research, of carefully considered staging. Horst was perhaps his own greatest critic and editor: small Kodak negatives from sketchbooks are shown with stark pen lines where Horst narrows the eye of his audience, brutally cropping images to enhance small details. The eye is drawn in, microscopic details examined with blunt ferocity in stark shades of grey, the texture and shape of the inside of a leaf brought to the fore.

Moving on from the demure world of monochrome we are suddenly plunged into the world of Technicolor with Horst’s Condé Nast commissions. The vibrant energy of these rooms is striking, made brighter through the sharp contrast between their coloured rosy cheeks and the stoic obtrusive monochrome of their photographic predecessors. Yet despite the sudden abundance of colour in the later works, colour itself is never wasted; it remains—like the spotlights in Horst’s earlier works—a means of accentuating a subject, a spotlight all of its own. The birdcage of the surreal still lifes from his Dalí period returns with a vengeance with coloured exclamation, in an ensemble by Bergdorf Goodman in an advert for Cartier Jewelry in 1939. After the huge covers as a finale, you might expect a calm exit, but the penultimate part of this exhibition is perhaps the most enchanting. The section in which I could have happily lingered in was the gorgeous slideshow of house and garden shots, commissions that brought together Horst’s own penchant for adventure and discovery with his strong visual aesthetic. It’s like trawling through archives of an older Todd Selby, providing a glorious peek behind the locked doors of the rich and famous.

The exhibition ends on some of Horst’s most intense portraiture, in which the body is once again revealed and sculpted by the artist as a medium for light. The collection of his 1950 Nudes has already been described by many as remnants of the Renaissance, a nod to the statues of the Louvre, the flesh and bone made cold yet supple in the stark eye of the camera, flesh immortalized in stone. Mehemed Fehmy Agha, another art director at Vogue, described them perfectly: “Horst takes the inert clay of human flesh and moulds it into distinctive shapes of his own devising.” We see limbs, curves of the spine, the movement and grace of the body frozen in acute attention.

The exhibition maps out a transformation over several years, from black and white to colour, from personal portraiture to Vogue covers. Towards the end a glass cabinet holds rows of shiny covers, initial sketches, meticulously thought through. His 1939 Mainbocher has become an icon of fashion photography, and so here hangs the famous Mainbocher corset with Horst’s sketchbook underneath, a homage to the final glorious product.

Roth is adamant that Horst’s “legacy and influence” are still very much a part of present and future fashions. “Horst was one of the greatest photographers of fashion and society and produced some of the most famous and evocative images of the 20th century.” For contemporary photographers he remains a striking point of influence – a “touchstone”, as Brown puts it – for artists as varied as Tim Walker and Bruce Weber, who have both reimagined Horst’s photographs for the modern day. Almost every contemporary photographer, from Annie Leibovitz and Mario Testino to Rankin and Bill Henson, has taken inspiration from him and this re-imagining itself takes us back to Horst’s own imitations of those artists he admired, from the seminal photographer of the 1920s and 30s George Hoyningen-Huene who was his first mentor, to the Renaissance masters displayed in the Louvre. It’s a curious chain reaction whereby we are continually learning from the past in the present, a process of imitation and re-imagination, of revisitation and resurrection that propels us into the future. Fashions come and go, as Horst noted, but it’s the shared essence of fashion that these photographs are able to capture, and it is this which allows them to endure with such resonance into our contemporary world.

Horst: Photographer of Style runs at the V&A until Jan 4 2015. Travel partner American Airlines; with thanks to Bicester Village, London, and Kildare Village, Dublin; supported by the American Friends of the V&A.

Thea Hawlin

About Thea Hawlin

Theodora (Thea) Hawlin is assistant editor and production manager of The London Magazine.

Theodora (Thea) Hawlin is assistant editor and production manager of The London Magazine.

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