Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vanity. No Fair. Just Vanity.

You can take it that I wasn't wholly impressed with my former inamorata's solo show at the National Portrait Gallery. It's not that there weren't nice pictures in good frames with lots of pretty colours, but Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 really does justify the inanity of the title.

If I'm being fair, the first section of work - from VF's inception in 1913 to its very timely demise in 1936 - is fascinating and thoughtful. The celebrities caught by such luminaries as Steichen, Beaton and Man Ray are really ordinary writers and artists - from Thomas Hardy to Virginia Woolf - with clearly no interest in media stardom and glossiness. They stare off into the distance, pondering something other than whether Steichen has lit them right.

These pictures - black and white, plainly set - are studies in art and psychology; no doubt one could say that the subjects are projecting a view just as later stars would do, but this is overly cynical. The interest is interior, in the subject's thoughts. There are early examples of personalities and style taking centre stage, such as in dear, crazy Isadora Duncan's Greek-tragic pose in shadows on the Acropolis, taken by Steichen, but they do not dominate.

The change in the modern incarnation of VF (1983-present) is immediately obvious, hideous and damaging. Yes, we are living in the era of the beauty-shot and VF had to compete in glossiness, outrageousness, star wattage (Deneuve and Loren in one picture! Surely the camera must blow!?), but it is at least as much a perpetrator as a victim.

This has produced some artistically arresting or high-powered images - the Hollywood covers, whose grasp of longevity in the movie business is acute; Ronald Reagan and Nancy dancing away; that Demi Moore shot. The majority on show, however, are vapid and worse - faux-important. Hilary Swank striding across a beach like a thoroughbred after a Derby victory has nothing on Steichen's layers. What does a naked Mariel Hemingway tell us? Does a slightly wacky photo of Jack Nicholson do anything for the art? VF has made itself the medium for classy self-creation of a celebrity's image - and we buy into it.

Perhaps worst is the deification of the photographers in VF's personal stable. Annie Leibowitz is not that good an artist, given that her main achievement is assembling celebrities and shooting them glamorously. At least with Mario Testino and Bruce Weber (two other VF regulars) you get what you see, without any undeserved aura of importance. If the point is that there is no interior, it's self-defeating and vacuous. Leibowitz is simply the official recorder of the bullshit.

I do like VF as a magazine, especially its extended political and cultural articles, and I do enjoy the glossy campiness of the celebrity portraits. But when this least worthy part is granted the sort of seriousness that an NPG exhibition confers, it sinks too far into its own hype.

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