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Double Exposure: National Portrait Gallery and Hamiltons

7 Jul

Glamour of the Gods at the National Portrait Gallery is a celebration of Hollywood stars from 1920-1960.  Over 70 vintage photographs are on display here, many of which have never been shown before, from the amazing archives of the John Kobal Foundation.

The studios used these photographs to transform their actors and actresses into style icons and heartthrobs.  These iconic images helped to shape incredible personalities, acting as powerful ‘posters’ to publicise new films and draw in audiences.  Not only is the range of stars overwhelming (James Dean, Joan Collins, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others) but the range of photographers is also impressive including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise.

Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) by John Engstead. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition records decades of film history.  John Kobal began collecting film photographs in the 1950s. Over time, his passion burgeoned and he tracked down many of the photographers behind the portraits, arranging exhibitions, publishing books, and seeking to give them the recognition they deserved.  Luckily for us, Kobal was an obsessive, realising the importance of these artists when no one else did and bringing them to the forefront, together with the stars they were photographing.

Whereas today we like our ‘celebs’ to be real people, the Hollywood film studios of this era chose to depict the actors as glamorous, mysterious and inaccessible.  With no paparazzi, these were the photographs seen and admired by the fans.   Appallingly, to enable the photographs to be reproduced as widely as possible, they were stamped ‘copyright free’ meaning many of these important photographers remained uncredited for their timeless works.

Rita Hayworth (1939) by Gene Kornman. Own photograph. 

I know I always commend or criticise slightly strange things – here, I have heaps of praise for the wall labels; they are brilliantly concise with information about both the works and the stars who appear in them.  They are informative and interesting – just right.  It was fascinating to be able to read the real names of these Hollywood icons – Joan Crawford, for example, was born Lucille Fay Le Sueur.

The exhibition is two-tone with walls of light cyan and deep purple – a bold and unusual choice.  Whilst the cyan walls bring out the tonal qualities of the monochrome photos, the purple doesn’t work as well.  These sections are a confusing mass of colour – purple walls with an injection of black (as described by the curator), black wall labels and brown flecked frames.

Own photograph.

There’s no denying that these works are beautiful but, in a way, there are slightly too many here.  The reflections in the glass from the opposite wall are awful and it would be better without these distractions.  A bulk order of non-reflective glass would have been useful.

Alfred Hitchcock with MGM lion (1958) by Clarence Sinclair Bull. Own photograph.

The gorgeous James Dean photo near the entrance/exit is spoiled by the reflection of Rock Hudson vying for your attention.

Own photograph.

It’s a very easy exhibition to walk around – look at the gorgeous photos and admire the beauty of the stars who appear in them.

The works themselves are exciting but the exhibition itself isn’t, other than for bringing these great works together.  Maybe that’s enough though and maybe it doesn’t need to do anything more than this.

I struggled across Trafalgar Square, where people were camping in their thousands to see today’s world premiere of the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, to the National Gallery.   Ever since I was taken on my first-ever school trip, aged 3, I can’t go past without popping in to visit my favourite paintings.  As I continued across the square towards Yinka’s Fourth Plinth, I came across the National’s incredible living wall.  Over 8,000 plants have been used to recreate Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses mimicking the strong bands of colour in the painting.  It’s gorgeous and such a great idea.  This is the sort of innovative thinking that we should see more of.

Own photograph.

Although I had planned to go to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with time being tight, I decided to have a photography day instead and tottered over to Hamiltons for their Herb Ritts’ exhibition.  The gallery is dangerously close to a certain shop that sells certain special shoes with red soles but I managed to resist walking down Mount Street for a peek.

As well as working for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Ritts created hugely successful advertising campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Chanel and Gap.  Many of these photographs, coming directly from Ritts’ private archive, have never been exhibited before.  They are images that Ritts particularly liked and saved for his own personal collection.

Own photograph.

This is a beautiful exhibition with clean-cut, striking works displayed in a crisp uniform fashion.  When I came home and looked back at my notes, I saw I had written an endless list of superlatives.  What else can you say about them but wow?  Aesthetically pleasing with perfectly executed compositions, these are a photographic delight.

Own photograph.

Also included are Ritts’ more well-known works such as Fred with Tires ­– this is the biggest ‘wow’ of them all.  It’s now very well-known and very gorgeous.  Girls, go and swoon to your hearts’ content.

Herb Ritts, Fred with Tires II, Hollywood, 1984. Own photograph.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd October 2011, www.npg.org.uk.

The National Gallery’s Living Wall can be seen in Trafalgar Square until the end of October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Herb Ritts is at Hamiltons Gallery until 12th August 2011, www.hamiltonsgallery.com.

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