A new exhibition about Cecil Beaton's career in America brings his singular sensibility into sharp focus, says John McIntyre ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Cecil Beaton, an English photographer, found happy hunting in New York City for more than 40 years, both behind the camera and in the world of the theatre. When he arrived in America after the second world war, Beaton wrote that it was “time to settle down and relish to the full the infinite delights that New York has to offer.” A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York aims to chronicle his engagement with those delights, from his early Vogue photos of the mid-1930s—their figures highly stylised in poses and shadows reminiscent of German Expressionism—to a 1970 portrait of Mick Jagger, as casual and unaffected as a snapshot.
Over the course of his career, Beaton photographed everyone from the English royal family to socialites to film icons, such as Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich (pictured). One remarkable portrait from 1948 shows a very young Marlon Brando, straddling a chair and holding an open book. He looks into the camera with the contempt and beauty of a schoolboy who knows he can get away with anything. Such distinguished characters gave Beaton exceptional source material, but these photographs reveal that he was more than the sum of his subjects.
He lived in a style worthy of those he photographed, in suites of rooms at fine hotels, the Plaza and the Sherry-Netherland, among others. These rooms are featured in the show, shot in rich colour. Beaton decorated the rooms as a way to illustrate his flair for interior décor, but at least in the case of the Plaza, he stayed at a greatly reduced rate, thanks to the largess of his friend Serge Obolensky, who ran the hotel at the time.
It was from the Plaza that he wooed the infamously reclusive Greta Garbo, one of the few women Beaton, who was gay, pursued in a romantic fashion. He photographed her in those same rooms, unforgettable images which ran in a 1946 issue of Vogue. A pair of particularly memorable shots from that sitting is included in the exhibition. One features Garbo lying on the floor with her knees drawn up to her chest, her lips parted in a smile. Another sees her standing next to a window, her expression reflective and composed. “Sometimes photographs are more like people than they are themselves,” Beaton observed after an outing with the actress. His portraits of her capture some essential aspect of her character. They are rare unguarded moments in the life of a very private individual.
But the exhibition ranges far beyond Beaton’s familiar pictures. An array of sketches and photos is devoted to each of several key figures in Beaton’s American life, beginning with Elsie de Wolfe, an early mentor, all the way through Diana Vreeland, who championed Beaton’s work during her time as editor at Harper’s Bazaar and then Vogue. An unexpected highlight is Beaton’s work designing sets and costumes for the theatre. A dark and otherworldly sketch for the 1951 New York Ballet staging of Swan Lake is particularly striking, and costumes he designed for productions of “Turandot” and “La Traviata” are displayed to fine effect.
The sum of these images and items is the sense of Beaton as a singular talent, a prolific artist with a sensibility all his own. And though that sensibility can seem overly mannered at times, the product of another era, Beaton recognised very early the primacy of fame in American life. He understood the public's desire to see the figures they so adored in all weathers and lights, in roles other than those that made them famous. Like any good portraitist, he knew the value of artifice in presenting his subjects, and that flattering images would guarantee continued access. For that, he remains relevant today and should for years to come.
Cecil Beaton: The New York Years is at the Museum of the City of New York until February 20th. A companion book was edited by Donald Albrechy and features an essay by Susan Henshaw Jones. It is available from Skira Rizzoli Books.
John McIntyre is the editor of "Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps" (Counterpoint Press). He lives in Newark, New Jersey.