Not in Vogue
Horst P. Horst was born in Germany in 1906 and became one of the world’s foremost fashion photographers while working for Vogue in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s. For sixty years he photographed a world of elegance and high style that is all but extinct today. Some of this work is represented in this exhibition, along with portraits, nudes and his later still-life photos.
Classical Head with Flowers, 1988
The Aidan Gallery consists of one simple room. The first wall is devoted to Horst’s archetypal black and white fashion shots. The lack of any information, either about Horst himself or his photographs, is frustrating. A closer look reveals the edges of the negatives and the name Eastman Kodak – the photos are original.
Of the thirteen photographs on this wall, all are of women, all were taken indoors, and the majority of them were poses shot with long exposures. Horst’s use of plain backgrounds and dramatic lighting leads the viewer’s eye to focus entirely on the models. Having recently attended a fashion show during Moscow Fashion Week, what I was immediately struck by was the huge difference between the fashion world of yesteryear and now. The models in Horst’s world were women, rather than girls, gracefully wearing classical and conservative clothes – pearls, elbow-length gloves and hats with veils.
Horst is not always so posed, or composed. Two of the photographs on the first wall are of models taken perhaps between shoots. One is of a girl sitting on a stool, twisting around to face the camera, her face slightly blurred because of her movement in the low lighting; one hand is running through her hair; a coffee cup and a mirror are on the table in front of her, while all around her is a chaotic spread of the contents of open boxes. The other shot is of a girl, her back to the camera, looking out of a window over her right shoulder. Shadows from the wooden window frames are thrown across the floor. A beam of light caresses her neck and a sensuous stillness exudes from the photograph.
The rest of the exhibition is a somewhat confusing journey through Horst’s long career, or perhaps the abrupt changes in subject and technique accurately reflect the changes in his style. The highly stylised Helen Bennet – Hair Lace (1935), sits jarringly next to a super-saturated colour abstract from the late 1980s, while the surreal and avant-garde Lisa – I Love You, that reminded me of the futuristic 1930s film Metropolis, hangs next to a classical portrait of the poet Edith Sitwell.
Two of the most visually dramatic works on display are nude studies. Both photographs use furniture draped in satin not only as props but also as a complement to the form of the subjects in the photographs. The figures and the furniture blend symmetrically in symbiosis, the frame filled with curves, textures, shadow and light.
Lisa I Love You, 1937
The changes in the fashion industry are also illustrated in this exhibition by the inclusion of some of Horst’s work from the 1960s. The shots are still black and white, but the models are younger and with figures closer to what we see now in magazines. One photograph is of a tanned girl in a print bikini, her physicality and movement captured so tightly in the shot it feels as if she is almost breaking out of the frame – a far cry from the elegant poise and restraint of the earlier work.
The last series of photographs are the still-lifes of flowers and statuary taken in the 1980s. These are the late works of a master photographer, and it is natural that they should have about them something of a retrospective. In Classical Head with Flowers (1988) one can see in the cold hardness of the sculpted head, with its big blank eyes and slightly pursed lips, the same facial expressions that appeared all those years ago in Vogue. The flowers around the brow of the head are in the manner of laurel wreaths, but they also echo the way in which Horst’s models tipped their hats in the fashion of the Thirties and Forties. One might re-title the photograph and call it Classical Head Dressed with Flowers. Of course the photograph is in the classical painting tradition of memento mori, the artist reflecting on the fleeting quality of human life. The bright red colour of the fresh flowers is in contrast with the light and shade on the lifeless face (back again to the dramatic lighting of the early fashion style); they are an affirmation of the living beauty of nature. But these fresh flowers could also be flowers laid at a tomb. Horst here is in mourning for a world no longer in vogue, a lost civilisation.
Horst P. Horst
When: April 17 through May 10
Where: Aidan Gallery, 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Str., 22, 3rd floor, Moscow
Tel: +7 095 251-3734, Fax: +7 095 250-9166