Horst P. Horst (1906-99) ranks alongside Irving Penn and Richard Avedon as one of the pre-eminent fashion and portrait photographers of the 20th century. His exceptional career spanned six decades, encompassing both the opulence of pre-war Parisian haute couture and the rise of ready-to-wear fashions in New York. Horst epitomized the interconnections between art, fashion and high society and his images graced the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair and House & Garden
The V&A exhibition Horst: Photographer of Style, is the definitive retrospective of his work. It displays 250 photographs, alongside haute couture garments, magazines, film footage, cameras and ephemera. The exhibition includes many of his best-known images, from the seductive Mainbocher Corset (1939) and Round the Clock (1987) to portraits of Hollywood icons, but also shines a light on the lesser-known aspects of Horst’s oeuvre: travel photographs from the Middle East, patterns created from natural forms, and monumental nude studies that evoke classical sculptures.
Horst created images that transcend fashion and time and more than a century after his birth, his photographs remain as expressive and potent as they ever were. He was a master of light, composition and atmospheric illusion who conjured a world of sensual sophistication. He had little interest in fashion per se , but made it his life-long quest to seek out elegance and to portray it in his photographs; he once commented:
For some people the word ‘elegance’ has acquired objectionable, snobbish
connotations. But I myself prefer to regard elegance as an attractive and
admirable – if admittedly rare – human attribute: a form of physical and mental
grace that has nothing to do with pretension or over-refinement or an excess of
money to spend.
The first room of the exhibition focuses on Horst’s earliest fashion studies, created in the 1930s when Paris was still the world’s undisputed centre of high fashion. The photographs (from Vogue ’s archive in Paris and the Horst Estate) reveal his talent for dramatic lighting and his ability to convey the texture of luxurious fabrics. Couture ensembles from the V&A’s collection are displayed alongside the photographs. These gowns were produced by the most celebrated couturiers of the era, including Horst’s close friend Coco Chanel, Lanvin, Molyneux and Vionnet.
The influence of the Surrealism on Horst’s work is also explored, in particular his creative collaborations with Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli. In the 1930s, Hollywood movie stars were assuming the place left vacant by Europe’s vanishing royal families and Horst captured some of the most glittering among them – Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. After the war he embarked on personal projects, producing the book Patterns from Nature (1946), a forensic study of plants, shells and minerals, and undertaking journeys across the Middle East to photograph the ancient city of Persepolis and the nomadic Qashqa’i tribe.
Horst was of the first photographers to embrace advances in colour photography. A selection of 25 colour photographs, newly printed on a large scale from the original transparencies, demonstrates Horst’s exceptional skill as a colourist. The exhibition also includes all 94 of the dazzling front covers he created for Vogue. In the 1960s he began to work on the magazine’s ‘Fashions in Living’ pages, photographing homes belonging to everyone from Jackie Onassis to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Andy Warhol and Karl Lagerfeld. Visitors to the exhibition are immersed in these opulent interiors in a three-side projection space and can flick through the magazine pages on a touchscreen. The final room of the exhibition reflects on Horst’s longevity and legacy, displaying some of the exquisite platinum-palladium prints made towards the end of his life.
Susanna Brown, Curator of Photographs, V&A
Horst: Photographer of Style runs until 4 January 2015 at the V&A. Travel partner
American Airlines; with thanks to Bicester Village, London, and Kildare Village, Dublin; supported by the American Friends of the V&A.