Horst P. Horst: Superlative Survey Of A Great Photographer Of Style

It’s another coup for the V&A with this superlative survey of the late, great Horst P. Horst. Not only does the excellent exhibition design and intelligent curation highlight what was great about the first great master of fashion photography, the show ties in with the rest of the V&A collections so well as to encourage a meander around the best wandering museum in the city.

Installation View of Horst - Photographer of Style at the V&A - 2014HE4204.jpg

The exhibition adopts a broadly chronological approach to surveying Horst’s work over an illustrious sixty year career. In so doing, it allows the visitor an inkling of the man Horst was and the creative impulses that drove him.

‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ displays more than 250 photographs, alongside haute couture garments, magazines, film footage and ephemera. The exhibition explores Horst’s collaborations and friendships with leading couturiers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli in Paris; stars including Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward; and artists and designers such as Salvador Dalí and Jean-Michel Frank.

Alongside most of the early images are informative captions that provide a rich experience for the viewer. These captions, replete with fascinating biography and anecdote, help explain the formal foundations upon which his technical mastery was built (extensive sketching and studies of renaissance master paintings), as well as the almost paternal role he played in the lives of the models he relied upon. He was their protector and their liberator it seems, in complete faith of their beauty and wholly dedicated to capturing it with respect and elegance.

6. Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher, 1939 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate.jpg

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher, 1939

© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Much of this early work was taken in Paris at the Vogue Studio, and the images are suffused with the implacable nostalgia for a time we can only but imagine in terms of its glamour. Whether the clothes and the jewellery are being displayed by models or aristocracy, Horst is always respectful of the subjects, determined to extract their essential grace.

The images themselves are the very definition of formal elegance. Horst’s command of composition and line are sublime, but is his use of lighting that takes the breath away. Many of the images have the model arranged in sculptural pose, but the lighting manages to elicit the mystery, the wonder of the ethereal beauty few other could capture on film. The exhibition design complements the work here, with its low-key lighting and black walls. There are even some of the dresses photographed on display.

5. Salvador Dali's costumes for Leonid Massine's ballet Bacchanale, 1939 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate.jpg

Salvador Dalí’s costumes for Leonid Massine’s ballet Bacchanale, 1939

© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

The following few rooms, also tastefully lit and demarcated with appropriate monochrome backgrounds, chart the Horst’s transition from photographing the aristocracy to Hollywood starlets (Horst’s quotes on working with the likes of Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford are wonderful), and then his forays into different genres and styles in images rarely exhibited. He flirts with Surrealism, using ‘trompe l’oeil’ to enrich his  portraiture, then there are some poetic and personal travel images taken whilst on trips to Persia.

7. Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate.jpg

Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942

© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Most out of character are his abstract images of nature. Detailed studies of natural forms such as flowers, minerals, shells and butterfly wings from the project Patterns From Nature, are shown alongside a series of kaleidoscopic collages made by arranging photographs in simple repeat; his intention was that these dynamic patterns could be used as designs for textiles, wallpaper, carpets, plastics and glass.

1. Patterns from Nature Photographic Collage, c. 1945 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate.jpg

Patterns from Nature Photographic Collage, c. 1945

© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

All these experiments are fascinating and serve to enliven the image of the artist constantly seeking to refine his art. This is most aptly exemplified in the final room however, when we see the master of monochrome engage with colour.

3. Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May 1941 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate.jpg

Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May 1941

© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

The advent of colour enabled a fresh approach and Horst went on to create more than 90 Vogue covers and countless pages in vivid colour. A selection of 25 large colour photographs, newly printed from the original transparencies from the Condé Nast Archive, demonstrate Horst’s exceptional skill as a colourist. These prints feature Horst’s favourite models from the 1940s and 50s, such as Carmen Dell’Orefice, Muriel Maxwell and Dorian Leigh, and are shown together with preparatory sketches, which have never previously been exhibited. He never reaches the heights of his early work for me, but these singular images are still so consummate as to be timeless.

Installation View of Horst - Photographer of Style at the V&A - 2014HE4184.jpg

Do not miss this wonderful exhibition by any means. It is genuinely uplifting.

Words: Kerim Aytac © Artlyst 2014 Top photo: Horst directing fashion shoot with Lisa Fonssagrives, 194.Photo by Roy Stevens /Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images. Other photos courtesy Kerim Aytac and the V&A all rights reserved.

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