Four days before Fashion Week, London cares only about one exhibition. There might be a slutty choice of greats elsewhere before Christmas—William Morris at the National Portrait Gallery (October 16), Constable at the Victoria and Albert Museum (September 20), Rembrandt at the National Gallery (October 15)—but these offer less filth, less pizzazz, less potential for danger than the V&A’s retrospective of Horst P. Horst.
The godfather of fashion photography, the long-term collaborator of Chanel and Dali, the man whose six-decade career from the 1930s is—bar Irving Penn and Richard Avedon—peerless in his influence. Horst (1906-1999) defined how women were lit and shot and dressed and draped. The danger, then, is this: Will the museum do justice to this don of light, form and feel? Will his outrageous gift for contrast, for splicing the classical with the surreal, sing in this vast Victorian space? Will it, forgive me, be hung like a Horst?
We begin small and dark: a long, black-painted darkroom, bestrewn with tiny, black-framed pictures. We meet our snapper first as a whippersnapper—shot by who knows?—with his brother, back in the motherland, long before the German schoolboy ditched his given name Horst Bohrmann for the nifty palindrome.
We meet him next in 1931 as a young man, this time shot by his fashion photographer lover, George Hoyningen-Huene. With Horst’s Brylcreem-ed flaxen hair, lederhosen devoid of irony, and the wide-eyed glint of alarm, he looks mere moments from a thigh-slapping rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
And it did belong to him. Even in the 1930s at the genesis of his long relationship with Vogue, the sheer drama of his work obliterated the competition. Early in the decade we find stilted monochromatic portraits, stiff and flat, people as 8th-grade charcoal renditions of Grecian urns. But with war approaching, Horst exploded, gripping the viewer’s gaze with compositions as dynamic and atmospheric as would soon be conjured by Hitchcock.
In one we find the model Lud on a checkerboard rug, a huge shadow looming above her head, cast from the up-lit, as if death is taunting. Given that she, as Vogue’s Bettina Ballard reminds us, “cut off part of her breasts and thighs for a better figure,” it is testimony to Horst’s brazen chutzpah that he demands we look elsewhere.
We discover his humor too—in particular his satire on the cosmetic treatments of the day. In the section celebrating Horst’s surrealism, heavily influenced by colleague Salvador Dali, replete with examples of trompe d’oeil in his still life, we encounter a tetraptych, “Electric Beauty and Variant Poses” (1939). Tape wound round a model’s face and head. Mummified. Horst’s hypocrisy is undeniable: to mock those seeking to construct beauty on the eve of a World War is precisely what he too was doing.
Classical nudes follow: model Lisa Fonssagrives, naked from behind, draped on drapes, putting fornication into the 1940s. As shadows fall and flesh goads, we all but hear the frenzied rutting amid the sirens. These erotic numbers—our model once again naked, crouched by a harp, or breasts peeking through sheer, petal-strewn gauze—were too racy for Vogue, we are told. I suspect a different motive for the magazine’s no-show: How does one flog clothes from a nude?
We see Horst’s technique expanding around this time: compressed perspective allowing another device. In his 1946 portrait of the model Carmen Dell’Orefice—still working today—she kneels by a single bed in a sheet-like dress, the blurred stall in the background suggesting the unmentionable: a lunatic asylum.
For all Horst is celebrated for his portraits of women—the monochrome, the vampy, campy shading—it is the headshot of a man that impresses most. Dali (in 1946), eyes closed, in reverie. It is the most blissful image imaginable. But it is not, of course, Horst’s most famous: that accolade belongs to “The Mainbocher Corset.” Brilliantly, the V&A hangs the original alongside the retouched version. In the latter our model’s toned back—shoulder blades like geological maps—is bound tight with the satin. Horst preferred the original, the slight gap suggesting invitation.
“It’s a shame they don’t have the corset here,” bellows a fellow visitor. He misses the point: The cloth isn’t the star, the shutter is. But this image, now reaching the cheap iconic status of La Gioconda, referenced and re-worked a thousand times (Madonna, Jean-Paul Gaultier, all have fed off it), is nothing in its sado-masochism compared to what we find a few steps away.
Costumes for Dali’s “Dream of Venus Pavilion” (1939) is brutal: a woman in a cut-out body stocking, a pearl necklace from which hangs shelled oysters draped over her breasts like off-cuts from FGM, and a lobster eating her crotch. Does Horst hate women? He does not know them. His obsession with their backs tells us this.
But he wants us to know those we think we already do. In the most crowd-pleasing section of the exhibition—dubbed Stage and Screen—hang his pictures of celluloid legends.
There is Marlene Dietrich in 1942. Horst dispensed with Josef von Sternberg’s famed angled lightning for a softer glow, much to her annoyance. Here we see why: She looks human, vulnerable, her face made potato, flattened. She only wanted the camera to lie. There is Joan Crawford in a huge black hat, her face, said Horst, “is all make-up, a mask not a face.” But by God he captures that mask with gothic allure.
Meet Rita Hayworth in 1947, peaking out of the darkness, a tiny glimpse of her parted lips, light just hitting her Carmen-curls and bare shoulder. And, horribly, Bette Davis, perched on a huge, oversized prop chair, soon after playing murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter—the great dramatic actress reduced to a silly doll. I hate it. I hate him for taking it. But his determination to show subjects afresh won him the fame and opened the doors. Vivien Leigh must surely have approved of the one portrait in which she does not look vulnerable: a military jacket, a confrontational gaze.
These are the highlights. The lowlights are all the later elements for which he will eventually be forgotten: the dreary landscapes; the lovely and pointless interiors; the obvious patterns from nature; the male, headless porn-y nudes; the color portraits so garish as to see where David LaChapelle was inspired; and even the 90-odd Vogue covers up to 1963.
And then, as you exit, as the man who captured best the fashion of the early to mid-20th century continues to seduce, a 1930s Horst-esque faux-fur stole confronts you in the gift shop. As if, after all the above, one would want anything that reeked of lifeless imitation.