I am very fond of the National Portrait Gallery, and particularly enjoyed their Hoppé exhibition earlier this year. So I had high expectations for their latest offering, which the gallery describes as “a celebration of Hollywood portraiture from the industry’s ‘Golden Age’” from 1920 until 1960. The platinum prints, which came from the John Kobal Foundation’s extensive archive, were created using the original negatives to stunning effect. The premise of the exhibition was to show how such photographs contributed to the legacies of the stars they depict.
On entering the exhibition I was met by a dazzling array of iconic images. They effectively capture the opulence of the lifestyle which Hollywood promised. This aspirational quality is part of what makes these photographs so alluring. They reflect the capitalistic ideals of individual success and financial gain, which are likely to appeal to a Western audience. The subjects of the photographs all look impossibly beautiful, and part of the exhibit shows how they were altered to remove perceived imperfections. This culture is still very much alive – indeed, the women’s magazine industry provides an apt illustration of this point.
The portraits are arranged chronologically, and chart the development of this art form from the 1920s through to the 1950s. One of the most striking photographs from the 1920s section is a promotional shot of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert for Flesh and the Devil. It shows Gilbert placing a kiss on Garbo’s cheek as she poses, immaculately made up and looking seductively past the camera. There is a clear tenderness in the way she caresses him, hinting at their real life romance.
The 1930s section includes the picture of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford which was used on the exhibition’s advertising, but there were others which deserve a mention. I particularly liked a vivacious shot of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire taken for Swing Time.
With the coming of the Second World War, the 1940s marked a shift away from the pure escapism of the 1930s and towards a realism characteristic of the film-noir genre. This section included photographs of Rita Hayworth as Gilda, the “ultimate femme fatale” and Marlene Dietrich, who looks particularly imposing. This decade also contained the dark days of McCarthyism, when several ofHollywood’s leading figures were blacklisted and investigated by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee.
Perhaps the most well known of all the prints appeared at the end of the exhibition. This is where the photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando were displayed. These appear to have combined the ideas of the preceding years by photographing the implausibly beautiful in ordinary settings.
As I left the exhibition, I felt that it hadn’t been quite as impressive as the Hoppé collection, but perhaps it was unfair to compare them. This was a significantly smaller display, after all, with a broader remit. Either way, it certainly made for a very pleasant afternoon activity.