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Cecil Beaton


by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
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The fizzy Cecil Beaton show at the Museum of the City of New York focuses on this clever, prolific gadabout’s relationship with Manhattan over almost 50 years of ceaseless transatlantic activity. The result is like going to an A-list, celebrity-studded cocktail party thrown by an extravagant gay host.

A photographer, illustrator, writer, designer and consummate self-promoter, Beaton (1904-1980) was never less than busy -- and he was especially busy when he came to New York City, a place that was fertile territory for his kaleidoscopic talents. This master of perpetual self-reinvention was very popular in Manhattan, parlaying his flamboyant position in emerging Café Society into professional access to subjects for his pictures. Here, his career was able to maintain a feverishly high pitch. To quote the exhibition’s press release, “society figures, media giants, impresarios, celebrities, actors, artists, writers and the merely famous passed in front of his camera in an endless parade of glamour and style.”

From the get-go, Beaton was a top-flight expert at cross-pollinating various worlds (including the then-cloistered world of high gay culture). Beginning with the era of London’s Bright Young Things and dawning of the Jazz Age, when he started using his Kodak to shoot homemade photos of local debutantes and his own sisters, to his pursuit of International Café Society and then the trendy artists and musicians of the Swinging Sixties, an increasingly celebrity-driven society benefited from and adored the proto-campy elegance of Beaton’s suave, Edwardian-dandy persona.

Just as working for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair catapulted Annie Leibovitz to star photographer status, so working for Vogue did Beaton. Only days after the tyro photographer and fledging social butterfly arrived via ocean liner in Manhattan in 1928, crafty editor Edna Wollman Chase had signed him up as a photographer and correspondent for Condé Nast’s popular magazines. It became a long-term relationship, only briefly interrupted in January, 1938, when he was summarily fired for some anti-Semitic remarks he had spitefully encoded on the borders of an illustration published in Vogue. By the early ‘40s though, his reputation sanitized by his WWII photos, he was back in the Vogue fold.

The current show succeeds best at capturing the exuberant glamour of Beaton’s universe, economically encapsulated in one big ground floor gallery, with a scattering of photos installed along the main floor corridor. Wallpaper derived from his 1940s fabric design, “Beaton Rose,” jauntily functions as an over-the-top, party-time backdrop to a potpourri of photographs, sketches and theatrical costumes as well as an interesting cache of Beaton ephemera that includes letters, books, drawings and even photos of the fancy hotel apartments he customized and stayed in when in New York City. (They were rented out at a premium when he was not in residence.) He was a very good writer with a gimlet eye for the foibles of those he courted; his frequently bitchy remarks and his even bitchier diaries and memoirs did lead one wag to call him “Malice in Wonderland.”

Beaton’s black-and-white portraits return to centerstage, iconic 20th-century celebrity personalities and society beauties, some of them -- like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo (with whom he conducted a torturous love affair), the two Hepburns (Audrey and Katharine), editor Diana Vreeland and a seductive Marilyn Monroe -- still in fame’s pantheon. Others, such the best dressed Mona von Bismarck and Natalie Paley (the Russian princess and fashion plate once married to couturier Lucien Lelong), these days may hold interest only to dedicated style queens.

The ever-resourceful Beaton posed Paley against an abstract background: the repetitive coils of metal mattress springs. Then there are his photos of a charmingly energetic Truman Capote in Morocco, an impossibly young, tender Marlon Brando, and the ever-icy Duchess of Windsor, whose wedding to the abdicated King of England was photographed by Beaton in France in 1937. All flawlessly rendered surface, Beaton’s photos remain nostalgic reminders of the more exclusive circles of a smaller, more exclusive, less corporately driven social scene than our own.

His lavishly produced, still-beautiful fashion shoots reveal him as a shameless pillager of art history: for the pages of Vogue he adapted and staged painterly ideas from the likes of Francois Boucher and Franz Xavier Winterhaler, and in the ‘30s he borrowed the prevailing Surrealist vocabulary. In 1951, always au courant, he made a Jackson Pollock drip painting at Betty Parsons’ gallery the backdrop for a Vogue fashion shoot. However, Beaton’s greatest early influences were the scintillating fashion photographs and celebrity portraits created by Baron Adolph de Meyer between 1913 and 1934, first for Vogue and Vanity Fair and then for Harper’s Bazaar. (When the two photographers actually met in the mid-1930s, de Meyer found Beaton vulgar, and Beaton thought de Meyer was insufferably affected.)

During the ‘60s, when Richard Avedon and others such as David Bailey and Slim Aarons were the photographers of the hour, Beaton, still chasing trends, resolutely pursued the decade’s zeitgeist, snapping portraits of Mick Jagger, Tom Wolfe (eternally in his white signature suit) and curator Henry Geldzhaler with his boyfriend Chris Scott (posed before their double portrait by David Hockney). He also took unremarkable, casually composed photos of Andy Warhol, Candy Darling and the cast of the Factory. These pictures, then of the period and now too casual, are far from his best work.

In fact, in the 1950s he had become increasingly involved with and passionate about theater. You can see here that creating set and costume designs for opera, Broadway plays, the ballet and movies increasingly displaced his photography, translating his opulent and rococo style to stage and screen and amplifying his fame. The exhibition includes some of these designs for Noël Coward’s Quadrille (1954), for Balanchine’s New York City Ballet productions of Camille (1946) and Swan Lake (1951), and for Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956), as well as for a later movie version, which probably earned him his greatest popularity with the general public.        

Post-war contemporary art critics such as Hilton Kramer sniffed from on high that Cecil Beaton’s photography was the product of a frivolous lightweight, while ignoring his other achievements. Today, when the merging of nouveau society, art and fashion is a given, what Beaton did to meld those various worlds seems prophetic. More than that, his work is still enormous fun to see.

“Cecil Beaton: The New York Years,” Oct. 25, 2011-Feb. 20, 2012, at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10029.

ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and art historian who lives and works in New York City and is currently completing a book about Baron Adolph de Meyer.