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Review: Horst P. Horst's elegant photographs stand test of time at Dali Museum


If you are of any age and follow fashion, you're familiar with the work of photographer Horst P. Horst (1906-1999). Or at least one example of his work, the famous Mainbocher Corset, even if you don't follow fashion. From the 1930s into the 1950s, he was the preeminent fashion photographer for Vogue, then transitioned into bringing glamorous and famous people and their homes onto the pages of that magazine and House and Garden, also a publication of the Condé Nast Corp., which owned the best lifestyle magazines in the world. A retrospective of Horst's work at the Dalí Museum gives us a broad view of his talent and recognizable photographic style in 180 examples, mostly of his work in fashion.

Why a fashion photographer at the Dalí, devoted to the famous Spanish surrealist?

Because Horst was steeped in the movement. He grew up in Germany and embraced the avant-garde art movement, then in 1930 migrated to Paris, which was its epicenter. Though he studied architecture under Le Corbusier, he became more interested in photography when he met Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a Vogue photographer. Horst became his assistant and lover and quickly picked up his skills. He became so proficient that by 1931, the French edition of the magazine was using his work.

A gallery exhibition made him famous. Handsome, clever, gracious and, most importantly, very good at his job, Horst fit right into the dazzling prewar Paris scene. The list of his sitters is a who's who of tout Europe: Noel Coward, Count Luchino Visconti di Madrone, Duke Fulco di Verdura, Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and Cole Porter are just a few. Several photographs from 1934 illustrate how deeply Horst was accepted by this group early on. He took them for the society pages of Vogue, and they show guests at an elaborate costume ball hosted by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg.

The galleries documenting those years, when black and white photography dominated, reveal his special gift for lighting and the chiaroscuro effects he produced. A striking example from 1936 is a model leaning on a balustrade wearing a dark fitted suit with exaggerated shoulder pads that were dubbed "canoe paddle sleeves." Backlighting and a well-placed spotlight put her in dramatic silhouette, emphasizing her high cheekbones. The sleeve seems to float off her body.

Mingled throughout are informal photos such as those of his friend Salvador Dalí and Dalí's wife, Gala, on vacation at their home in Port Lligat, Spain, in the 1950s. But most of the well-known people appear in formal portraits. Designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were great friends of his, and their portraits as well as their clothes are represented. The latter was closely associated with the avant-garde, and she is shown in one of her fantastical suits and hats, leaning into an oval portal surrounded by a filigreed carving that gives the impression that we're seeing a reflection of her in a mirror.

Horst's eye for beauty led to the discovery or promotion of models who became the most successful in the industry. We see Lisa Fonssagrives through the years, becoming ever more beautiful. A young woman named Lud became a Horst favorite when she delivered some packages to his studio, according to Joan Kropf, the Dalí curator who arranged for the show to come here. For several years, she was at the top of her game; then, said Kropf, she ran off with a circus performer.

The war years changed everything. Horst had shuttled between Paris and New York for years, working for both French and American Vogue. He preferred Paris because it was more beautiful and exciting but moved to the United States more or less permanently in the late 1930s. He applied for citizenship in 1941, joined the army in 1943 and became one of its photographers, though we don't see examples from that period in this show.

An indication of Horst's connections in the intersecting worlds of fashion and art, even from his base in New York, is a 1939 photograph of costumes for a Leonid Massine ballet. Dalí and Chanel collaborated on them. One model wears a leotard and a pouf of tulle which covers her face; another wears a long tulle tutu. Both are supported by crutches borrowed from Dalí paintings. It's a wonderful still image, but apparently the costumes were too cumbersome for actual movement and were never used.

Though most of the galleries exhibit Horst's work in black and white, he was an expert with color, too, and Vogue was using lots of it beginning in the 1930s. The catalog for the show explains why Horst's color photography, especially his many Vogue covers, have rarely been on display. "There are few vintage photographs to exhibit," it says. "Color capture took place on a transparency, which could be plated and printed on the magazine page without the need to create a photographic print."

For this show, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Condé Nast created new large-scale reproductions of some of his color images, and they are striking. They're grouped in later galleries, although most were created in the 1930s and 1940s. One of his most memorable is a model in a bathing suit lying on her back, her legs in the air and crossed at the ankles. A big red beach ball seems to balance on her toes. It became the magazine's cover for May 1941, and the ball was the O in the Vogue logo.

Important to note is that Horst wasn't always the prime mover in his editorial work. He answered to editors and creative directors. He sometimes chaffed under their control. Another interesting industry insider detail in the exhibition is the prevalence of retouching. Some of Horst's photographs have his marking to indicate where he wants changes made. We see two versions of that corset image. In the original, the undergarment gapes on the model's left side. In the retouched one, it has been altered to fit her contours perfectly. And her waist appears to be a bit more nipped.

Under Diana Vreeland, who became Vogue editor in 1966, Horst flourished. She commissioned him and his partner, former diplomat Valentine Lawford, to chronicle "the beautiful people, their homes and lifestyles." Though we don't see them in the exhibition, people like me who saw them in the magazine remember what a voyeuristic treat it was to see the coverage.

A fun component is a gallery devoted to the studio, with a huge camera similar to one that Horst used, studio shots and a short film promoting the fashion industry in which Horst is filmed setting up a shot while an editor fusses over the model, then magazine staff review the finished product.

Horst also created noncommercial, noncommisioned photographs. A series of male nudes in poses influenced by classical statues is in one gallery, and we see a few photographs taken during extensive travels as well as nature still lifes.

As Horst grew older and styles evolved, his wasn't as much in demand. But in the 1980s, after his work was exhibited in galleries, interest from collectors grew. His original prints were (and are in this show) 8 by 10 inches, which seem small by today's standards, so he reprinted them as large-format platinum-palladiums, an expensive and elegant process that would have more appeal. Those chosen for this show prove how well Horst has held up over the decades.

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.

Horst: Photographs — Fashion and Surrealism

The exhibition is at the Dalí Museum, 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg, through Sept. 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $24 adults, $22 seniors, $17 students 18 and older with ID and youths 13-17, $10 kids 6 to 12. (727) 823-3767.

Review: Horst P. Horst's elegant photographs stand test of time at Dali Museum 08/04/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2016 1:55pm]
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