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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 23 DECEMBER 2011 — In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, a homosexual character proclaims, "Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches."  Waugh was a member of the Bright Young People —  a collection of bohemian-leaning British aristocrats, dandies and hangers-on who were the subject of much newspaper gossip writing in the 1920s. 

That Waugh and the pioneer of modernism in travel writing, Robert Byron, were members of the informal group argues for its importance, even as membership by Diana Mitford (later the wife and political sympathizer of Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists) and others gives socialist writers eager to condemn the excesses of the upper crust the moral justification that so often eludes them.

Cecil Beaton: Cole Porter, 1953
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

It was another famous member, Cecil Beaton, who helped buttress the lighter wing of the Bright Young People. No aristocrat (but comfortably situated, courtesy of the family timber-merchant business), Beaton attended (but did not graduate from) Cambridge and would in time, through his photography, illustration, and stage and costume design, rework the English charm his generation inherited from the kingdom’s empire builders into a new aesthetic of style and glamour more befitting the tastes and fancies of those who oversaw (or tried to ignore) the empire’s dismantling. His work became a visual-arts counterpart to his contemporary Noël Coward’s plays and songs — full of cleverness, craftsmanship and worldliness. And if Coward was a bit harsh on himself when he declared, "The most I've had is just a talent to amuse," that sentiment could be applied more accurately to Beaton.  Like Beaton, Coward (the son of a piano salesman) understood that a better life awaited through the application of brains and wit, the pursuit of social connections and the services of a good tailor. As Beaton would declare, "I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I put it there."  

Cecil Beaton: Truman Capote and Cecil Beaton, ca. 1952
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

It is no doubt due to the fact that the two men had to reinvent themselves for both public and private encounters (as did another contemporary, the English-born actor Cary Grant ), that artifice and superficiality could all too often wash away the emotional grit of their respective works. Or perhaps, like Beaton and Coward, you had to enter the world both English and gay during Britain’s great slide to view stylish good form as the right and proper end to which talent should be applied — because history had left you few other agreeable choices.

As with Coward and many others during the last century, Beaton needed to prove himself in America truly to have proved himself at all, and his successes in doing so are the subject of a new book, Cecil Beaton: the New York Years by Donald Albrecht (Skira Rizzoli, 240 pages), and a companion exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (through 20 February 2012).  Both highlight Beaton’s accomplishments in New York City during his long career, which began on his first visit in 1928, made, "to look for the pot of gold on the other Side of the Atlantic." He continued to work and to play (and to mix the two up as needed) in New York until not long before his death, in 1980, at the age of seventy-six.

Cecil Beaton: ‘Charles James Gowns by Cecil Beaton', Vogue, June 1948

Mounting what is essentially a retrospective in mixed media can be particularly challenging compared with, say, the current Willem de Kooning exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, which is nearly all about paintings hung essentially in chronological order. A retrospective of the kind attempted by MCNY is as much about cultural history as it is about art, and there is always the danger that it can grow talky, as is the case with the current Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn exhibition at the New York Historical Society, on the opposite border of Central Park.

To discover Beaton, you enter through a museum corridor enlivened by a grand mural that is a montage of illustrations done by Beaton for book covers, fashion magazines and other media. The exhibition proper, although confined to one large room, is cleverly segmented — a bit like a preschool classroom — into discrete areas, arranged by subject.  In each of these nooks, there is just enough in each of the media in which Beaton worked to give a good idea of what was going on at pivotal points in the New York segments of his career. The book, authored by the museum’s curator of architecture and design, is largely the same; in keeping with its coffee-table format, it gets the core of the exposition out of the way early on and lets the artist’s work carry the reader through the remaining pages, with textual guidance kept to a useful minimum.

In the exhibition, the photography stands out, in part due to how the stark, monochromatic prints on silver-based paper draw you toward them. There are portraits of the rich and the lovely of the New York and Hollywood scenes, all made while Beaton visited Manhattan.  And although the locations of their making were often comparatively informal (in Beaton’s own hotel suites and other ready-made Manhattan locations), the results are largely polished and elegant. There are particularly good portraits of Marlon Brando; of Andy Warhol, along with eccentric people from his Factory; and of Greta Garbo, who was one of Beaton’s few heterosexual amours.

Cecil Beaton: Andy Warhol and members of the Factory, New York City, 1969
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

In the main, the photographs employ the visual grammar of fashion and celebrity photography of the middle of the twentieth century. That means that they are finely composed and printed images of lovely looking people, but except for a couple of remarkably strong portraits of Marilyn Monroe — showing vulnerability on equal terms with beauty — the heavily mannered style dominates over substance. Images made in that idiom cannot lead us straight to the souls of their subjects, as do the best work of great portrait photographers of the period such as Yousuf Karsh and Arnold Newman, but that was rarely Beaton’s intention. His role was to make good-looking people look marvelous, and in the main, he succeeded. The method and the mission conspire to assure that most of these are not photographs of people showing who they are; they are photographs of people who are having their photographs made.

Cecil Beaton: Marilyn Monroe, 1956
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s


Because the exhibition follows so recently after the retrospective at MoMA of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the brilliant mounting earlier this year at the International Center of Photography of the greatest work by Elliott Erwitt, who is America’s living master, the Beaton photographs that once buttressed the pages of American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar seem humbled in comparison when pinned to the walls of MCNY.

Beaton’s illustrations are mostly good, journeyman’s crafts pieces.  Many are quite fun, but none aspires to be anything more than what illustration can do — which is to illuminate text or simply to share joy over what can be drawn on a sketch pad.  Subjects include Wallis Simpson (the Duchess of Windsor), Elsie De Wolfe and Garbo. They show nothing daring ventured and nothing remarkable gained, but they are carefully and lovingly done. Sketches and actual costumes from the stage version of My Fair Lady cannot help but draw a smile from anyone familiar with either stage or film version of the musical.  Beaton did the costumes for both and the set design for the latter, and who, on seeing either, can forget the design tour de force of the Ascot scene?

Cecil Beaton: Audrey Hepburn in a costume for the film
version of My Fair Lady, 1963
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

New York has always benefited from the observations made about it by outsiders, and it is worthwhile to consider what Beaton, as a foreigner let into the city’s inner social workings, was able to add to the dialogue about the city during his time. His obsession with style and glamour certainly play into one of New York’s strengths, and his handmade persona was quite in keeping with New York as well—that place to which so many who want to reinvent themselves come to find how to do it and what to gain from the effort. But that is about as far as most New Yorkers can travel with Beaton and his Weltanschauung.  Although grounded in a certain communal artifice, New York is not a place where illusion is given leave to displace substance. Style, however acquired and however displayed, must in the end lead you straight to authenticity, or you will get nowhere with New Yorkers, who can spot a poseur from three city blocks distant.

Cecil Beaton's costumes for La Traviata at
the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1966

Courtesy the Metropolitan Opera Archives 

The book and the exhibition show that Beaton, despite his long productive life and varied media, was remarkably consistent in what he created. His vision took him right where it started — to a joy in others, to a love of self and to a celebration of grandeur and elegance.  English charm sits comfortably under it all, poking through at random. That is not a handicap because Beaton’s oeuvre is largely a piece of pop culture, crafted and executed to the highest standards, but pop culture nonetheless. As with so many successful pop culture works, if you take what Beaton did without demanding from it greater than what it attempts to deliver, his work can sometimes be, as he said about New York, "eggs-ill-ahh-rating!"

Cecil Beaton: The New York Years
Through 20 February 2012
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue, at 103rd Street
New York
Tel: (1) 212 534 16 72

Cecil Beaton: The New York Years
Written by Donald Albrecht, Contribution by The Museum of The City of New York

Hardcover: 240 pages
Skira Rizzoli: November 2011
9-1/2 x 11-3/4
ISBN: 978-0-8478-3565-2
US: $65.00
CAN: $68.00

Headline image: Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, 1946
© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Alan Behr is a partner at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He is a co-author of the upcoming book Navigating Fashion Law. Alan Behr has exhibited his own photography at Leica Gallery in New York, and last wrote on the film A Dangerous Method  for Culturekiosque

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