IT would be reasonable to assume that an exhibition titled ‘Glamour of the Gods’ might be decadent, extravagant and a tad excessive. However, the carefully selected assortment of fabulous photographs, depicting Hollywood superstars and their most famous moments from the 1920s to the 1950s, couldn’t have been more elegantly and subtly arranged.
The room is intimate and compact. An equally spaced timeline of portraits cuts through the backdrop of alternating turquoise and black. Rock Hudson, the signature face of the entire exhibition, is the first and most prominent of all the portraits in the room. His photograph, taken by Leo Fuchs in 1961, boasts a strong and heroic pose and invites a gentle gaze from the onlooker with Hudson’s eyes falling before him. He is modestly beautiful, a feast for the eyes and a reminder that whilst time ages a person, the memory of their beauty can be captured and maintained by a single photograph – a photograph that can belong to anyone. True beauty, charisma and talent can be memorialised and secured for eternity. Iconic figures become iconic photographs. It is through these photographs and memorable images that stars are worshipped and through our act of worship that they become Gods and Goddesses. The exhibition’s introduction pays homage to John Kobal (1940-91) as ‘the first film historian who sought to understand the vital role that photography played in the creation of Hollywood’s film stars.’
Starting with the 1920s, Lillian Gish is the first face to set the scene for the hedonistic period. Her stance is angel-like. Arms outspread in a dress of thick lace and silk shoes. The photo reveals undercurrents of wealth and excess, mimicking the nature of the decade. Gish is poised, graceful, alluring, and a contrast to Lansing Brown’s Laurel and Hardy Portrait to her right. The Laurel and Hardy photograph, taken in 1925, at the beginning of their career, is mockingly serious and sombre. Their frowns trigger a nostalgic kind of smile. Nostalgia plays a key role throughout the exhibition. Every face is familiar, and the overall effect is undoubtedly very personal. The comedy duo is followed by Gloria Swanson’s photograph for ‘Male and Female’, taken by Karl Struss in 1919. She wears a magnificent headpiece under heavy lashes and pouting lips. The portrait is sensuous, almost as sensuous as the Carole Lombard portrait to follow, taken by William Thames in 1929. Lombard is barely covered by the luxurious robe, which dangles casually over her right shoulder, leaving her left side naked and exposed, Venus de Milo.
The most striking photo of the 1920s display is of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert for Flesh and the Devil, taken by Bert Longworth in 1926. Garbo’s face is turned towards the camera, her eyes searching over the observer’s left shoulder as Gilbert gently holds his mouth against her flawless cheek. The couple are immaculate and the picture quality is sharp. Their off-screen romance is a prominent feature, a God and Goddess in partnership.
The exhibition contains three enlarged portraits. The first is Joan Crawford, then Eleanor Powell and finally Robert Montgomery, all having their photograph taken. These particular portraits capture the relationship between the stars and their photographers, as well as the transitional process of going from film star to iconic figure, to God-like figure. A clever twist to the exhibition.
The 1930s contains a crisp action shot of Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, the startling eyes of Katherine Hepburn, the first colour photo of the exhibition; the exquisite Elizabeth Taylor. The ’40s is, thankfully, without any clichéd and obvious photographs of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, but shows the women in a more unfamiliar, insightful state.
The exhibition draws to a close with the stunning Marlon Brando, taken by Ernest A. Bachrach in 1952, and the notorious James Dean, taken by Floyd McCarthy in 1955. What better way to end the display of memorialised stars than to provide a subtle comment on the rise of youth culture in the ’50s and the continuous rise in society today? As Walter Benjamin insists, history exists as a series of ‘flashes’ that reveal themselves in times of relevance to the present, hence the Godlike existence of these unforgettable faces and their continued importance today.
Glamour of the Gods is running at The National Portrait Gallery until 23 October 2011
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