Horst P. Horst and the Russian avant-garde theatre

ARTS, Visual Arts
img_horstphotograherofstyleAt London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, a definitive retrospective of Horst P. Horst’s iconic fashion images, plus radical designs from the Russian avant-garde theatre.

Horst: Photographer of Style
September 6-January 4, V&A

Documenting a 60-year career that spanned both sides of the Atlantic, the V&A’s new retrospective on Vogue and Conde Nast photographer Horst P. Horst is an extensive and diverse insight into his work. German born and educated, Horst moved to the French capital in 1930 when haute couture and high society flourished in equal measure. He was soon embraced by the dazzling era, no less helped by George Hoyningen-Huene: his mentor, lover, and introduction to the world of photography and French Vogue. Chanel, Cartier, Lanvin, Dior, Schiaparelli—Horst’s portfolio quickly developed into a who’s who of Parisian high fashion. His famous clientele later expanded to the superstars of film and stage, with Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, and Bette Davis all featuring in Horst’s illustrious catalogue.

Best renowned for his atmospheric interplays of light and dark, Horst elevated the standard black and white fashion photograph to a new level of romanticism and theatricality. Luxurious drapes of silk and satin cast long dramatic shadows, whilst swathes of selective darkness shroud his pictures with intrigue and mystery. Through the use of carefully placed spotlights, Horst accentuates certain areas whilst leaving others to recede, transforming two-dimensional photographs into dynamic images teeming with depth and volume.

Horst was equally skilled with his models and muses, using an unparalleled understanding of the human form to his advantage. Influenced by experiences under architectural heavyweights Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, as well as a passion for classicism originating in Huene, Horst’s models exhibited a statuesque elegance reminiscent of the old marble masterpieces found in the Louvre. His models were meticulously composed into an ideal, a dream, a dramatisation of what already existed in the human body—a striking jaw line, a curvature of the waist, or a stance loaded with mystery and allure. Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish supermodel whose images often focused on her expressive and lithe hands, would later recount, in her own words: “I became a model because he (Horst) made me one.”

img_marlene-mainbocherBeyond the beauty and elegance that permeates the exhibit’s walls, there are the occasional reminders that fashion is often a superficial business. Decades before Photoshop entered the scene, photo manipulation was already thriving. Penned-in pictures point to blemishes to be erased, brows to be trimmed, lashes to be lengthened, and—to follow the classic Chanel ideal—waists to be slimmed. Even ‘Mainbocher Corset’—possibly Horst’s most famous piece and later alluded to by Madonna in her music video ‘Vogue’—was subject to the surgical knife, the sensuous unravelling corset altered to fit perfectly on to the model’s body (although Horst himself preferred the more natural, loose-fitting original).

Horst’s mastery of shadow and light is echoed throughout the exhibition space. Sharp, elongated lines of inky black and porcelain white evoke the lurking shadows in his signature portraits. With the advent of colour photography and a new lease of life in the bustle of post-war New York, the exhibition unfurls into a bright airy spaciousness. For a time, Horst’s signature chiaroscuro shadows disappear, giving way to crisp portraits where striking pigments of deep garnet, Parma blue, blood orange, and rosebud pink take centre stage.

From the subtle eroticism of male nudes to the lavish interiors of English aristocracy, Photographer of Style delves into the diversity of Horst’s non-fashion catalogue. Most striking is ‘Patterns of Nature’—a personal project of Horst’s following his move to America. As World War II raged, he swapped shimmering jewels and glamorous models for the brooding still life of nature. Inspired by nature photographer Karl Blossfeldt, his macro documentation of ferns, shells, and crystals brought new perspective on the form of familiar objects.

Today, the world of Horst has largely vanished. Shot in the preceding hours of his departure from a Europe on the precipice of war, ‘Mainbocher Corset’, for him, captured “the essence of that moment” and all that he was to leave behind in the glamour of 1930s Paris. Despite changed styles and attitudes towards clothing, Horst’s sentiment on the world of fashion rings true for his illustrious catalogue: “Fashion is an expression of the times. Elegance is something else again.”

img_vladimirtatlinRussian Avant-garde Theatre: War Revolution and Design, 1913-1933
October 18-January 25, V&A

With Tate Modern’s retrospective on Kazimir Malevich having come to a close, this new exhibit at the V&A gives an intriguing insight on the broader world which Malevich and his contemporaries inhabited. Following Russia’s takeover by the Bolsheviks in 1917, not only was politics revolutionised, but theatre and film as well. Aesthetics shifted, experimentation flourished, and a new Russian avant-garde duly emerged, expressing themselves in radical and futuristic designs of posters and stage sets by artists such as Alexandra Exter, Vladimir Tatlin, and Liubov Popova.

Horst P. Horst
Muriel Maxwell, American Vogue, 1939
© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942
© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Mainbocher Corset (pink satin corset by Detolle), Paris, 1939
© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Vladimir Tatlin
Costume Designs for the Archers for the Life for the Tsar (unrealised), 1913-15
Pencil, India ink and gouache on cardboard
Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow