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Melburnin’ February 2014

Melburnin’ February 2014

 

by Inga Walton

 

Organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP), Minneapolis, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria, Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion (until 2 March, 2014) brings together almost 200 vintage photographs by one of history’s most influential and revered image-makers, selected from the archives of Condé Nast.

 

Born in Luxembourg, Éduard Jean Steichen (1879-1973) immigrated to America with his mother in 1881, his father having preceded them by a year. An artistic child, Steichen commenced a four-year apprenticeship in lithography with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee when he was fifteen. A nearby camera shop piqued his interest, and Steichen eventually bought a second-hand Kodak box camera in 1895, which led him to pursue professional portraiture. He participated in his first exhibition at the Philadelphia Photographic Salon in 1899, before leaving to study at the Académie Julian in Paris the following year. Steichen began experimenting with colour photography in 1904, and was one of the first people in America to use the French Autochrome Lumière process introduced in 1907. His early pictorialist work, The Pond-Moonlight (1904), used hand-applied light-sensitive gums to create the illusion of colour. Taken near the home of Steichen’s friend, the art critic Charles Caffin in Mamaroneck, New York, it achieved what was then the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction, USD $2.9 million in 2006 (it is currently the fifth most expensive).

 

In 1900, Steichen met Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), now regarded as the most important figure in American photography at the beginning of the 20th century. Over the next twelve years they would collaborate on several projects critical to the advancement of photography as an art form in America, including the establishment of the Photo Secession in 1902. Steichen designed the cover logo for Stieglitz’s seminal quarterly journal Camera Work (1903-17), and became the magazine’s most prolific contributor. They also established the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession in the same building where Steichen lived in New York. The Gallery opened in November, 1905 with an exhibition of 100 prints from members, and by 1908 was simply known as 291 after its address. Later, Stieglitz began to exhibit non-photographic work at 291, such as a series of prints lent to Steichen by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the first time his work had been shown in America.

 

Shortly after his return to New York from one of his visits to Paris in 1923, Steichen was offered the coveted position of Chief Photographer for the leading Condé Nast publications Vanity Fair and Vogue. Steichen’s grasp of graphic design, keen engagement with the avant-garde, and flair for the experimental impressed founding publisher Condé Montrose Nast (1873-1942) and Frank Crowninshield (1872-1947), who would edit Vanity Fair for twenty-one years. It was felt that Steichen had the artistic vision, credibility, and level of sophistication required to revitalise two publications in need of a creative transfusion; he did not disappoint. His fifteen-year stint at Condé Nast, and additional work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, led Steichen to be renowned as the most highly paid photographer of his day.

 

One of Steichen’s most widely reproduced portraits shows actress Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) in 1924. Wearing a fashionable ‘Turkish’ turban, her face is seen in intense close-up, photographed through a piece of floral-patterned black lace. From the same year, an unusual shot of stage and film actress Carlotta Monterey (1888-1970), the third and final wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill, is typical of Steichen’s innovative approach. Monterey wears a diamond head bandeau and pearl necklaces by Cartier, an extravagant white ermine wrap with a white fox collar is draped around her shoulders. All the viewer sees, however, is the clasps on the jewellery, the backs of her earrings, a deep puff of fur, and the precision of Monterey’s ‘flapper’ hairstyle; the camera is positioned behind her.

 

Edward Steichen (American 1879–1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906–23), Actress Gloria Swanson 1924, gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive. © 1924 Condé Nast Publications.

 

Over forty Art Deco garments and accessories from the NGV’s fashion collection (with three additional loans) are evocatively displayed throughout the exhibition space. Examples of heavily embellished evening and cocktail dresses, sportswear, swimsuits, elaborate coats, millinery and shoes serve to convey some of the rarified chic so characteristic of Steichen’s glamorous subjects. Following the privations of World War I, fashion shifted away from the restrictive corsets and exaggerated shape of La Belle Époque.

 

Paul Poiret (1879-1944) initiated this radical change in silhouette by abandoning the corset in 1906. His controversial, loose-fitting ‘kimono coat’ demonstrated the pervasive influence of decorative motifs inspired by the ancient world and the ‘exotic’ Orient during this period. In 1911, publisher Lucien Vogel challenged Steichen to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography. Using gowns by Poiret, Steichen produced what is now considered to be ‘the first ever modern fashion photography shoot’ for Art et Décoration.

 

A sleek, modernist clothing aesthetic emerged, which recognised women’s increased emancipation, reflected the new interest in athleticism, and prioritized movement, functionality, and ease. Steichen had a tremendous grasp of how to position and capture the body, whether it be the casual pose of aviatrix Amelia Earhart (1897-c.1937) from 1931, or the dramatic flourish of Tamaris with a large Art Deco scarf (1925), featuring the dancer and choreographer Helen Tamiris (1905-66). The interwar period also represents the only time in modern fashion history when the majority of top design houses were led by women, including Jeanne Paquin (1869-1936), Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1971), Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975), Jeanne-Marie Lanvin (1867-1946) and Callot Soeurs (the sisters Marie, Regina, Marthe, and Joséphine Callot). In addition to his editorial fashion spreads featuring the latest styles, many of Steichen’s well-known female sitters were also clients of these houses. Their collections benefitted both from his crisp, imaginative, and direct images, and the endorsement of influential tastemakers, particularly Hollywood actresses.

 

Edward Steichen (American 1879–1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906–23), Tamaris with a large Art Deco scarf 1925, gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive. © 1925 Condé Nast Publications.

 

Steichen paved the way for modern celebrity portraiture: bestowing upon artists, writers, composers, architects, industrialists and politicians the same other-worldly aura more commonly associated with film and music stars. Contemporary figures like Princess Youssoupoff (Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia, 1895-1970), actress and film writer Louise Brooks (1906-85), silent star Pola Negri (1897-1987), stage actress Mary Heberden, and cinematic icons Joan Crawford (1904-77), Marlene Dietrich (1901-92) and Greta Garbo (1905-90) rarely looked more radiant as they did when seen through Steichen’s lens. In his biography of the notoriously difficult ‘Swedish Sphinx’, Barry Paris mentions a six minute still session Garbo granted Steichen on the set of The Mysterious Lady (1928), during which he managed nine shots. “She felt an uncommon rapport with Steichen in that brief encounter. ‘Afterward’, he recalled, ‘she threw her arms around me and said, ‘Ah, you should be a motion-picture director’”. Although many of Steichen’s celebrated subjects were well-accustomed to the camera, from Sir Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) to Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), he invariably managed to capture something of their quintessence.

 

Steichen’s output was not confined to photographic work: he continued to paint, designed murals, worked on children’s books, and was a prolific cultivator of delphiniums. As a Lieutenant in World War I, he served with the Air Force and Marines in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France, contributing to military photography. Indeed, the precision required for aerial photographs is credited with fundamentally changing Steichen’s modus operandi. By the time of World War II, Steichen’s work was so well known that he was appointed to the rank of Commander and headed the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, a division of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1945, Steichen was made director of the newly formed Naval Photographic Institute, and given formal control over all Navy combat photography. He directed the propaganda film The Fighting Lady for 20th Century Fox, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature) in 1945. From 1947, Steichen served as the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), overseeing over forty exhibitions until his retirement in 1962, after which he was named Director Emeritus. The following year, he was presented with the newly established Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson.

 

• NGV (International), 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, 3004: www.ngv.vic.gov.au

• Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography: www.fep-photo.org

 

The touring exhibition Stephen Bowers: Beyond Bravura is part of the ongoing JamFactory Icon Series, showcasing the achievements of South Australia’s most outstanding and influential craft and design practitioners. Featuring over fifty pieces from Bowers’ extensive and diverse œuvre, it makes its only Victorian stop at Geelong Gallery (until 16 February, 2014). The Gallery has included its own acquisition, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (2010), exclusively for this showing.

 

Bowers revels in clichés, pictorial and otherwise; embracing, chewing on, and subverting them in equal measure throughout his work. The notion of the artist-as-chameleon is at once both desperately overused and entirely accurate in Bowers’ case. He is the ‘studio artist’ who will comfortably relinquish his position as the ‘individual creator’ and adapt his process to serve the project, without getting too precious about what that entails. Bowers often works collaboratively, most notably with potter Mark Heidenreich whose background in production-throwing, and mastery of technique with large and difficult forms, accords with Bowers’ ambition to work on more challenging ‘blanks’ which provide a bigger ‘canvas’ for his ideas. In 2006, Bowers worked on larger-than-life-size ‘cups and saucers’ with ceramist Philip Hart, and with sculptor Andrew Stock in 2008 for a series of ‘Staffordshire’ style dogs and kangaroos, which toyed with ideas of sentiment and cuteness.

 

Those expecting a nice show of glossy ceramics, might well be surprised to see nice glossy surfboards in the middle of the gallery. Bowers’ work with surfboard and furniture designer Peter Walker is typical of his need to pursue other creative avenues. As John Neylon describes it, this “sees [Bowers] embedded in a team process like a contract artist-illustrator working in a nineteenth-century Midlands pottery”. Beginning in 2007, Bowers and Walter have worked together on six boards, two are displayed here: Antipodean Willow Surfboard, and its pair, Mini Simmons Antipodean Willow Surfboard (both 2012). As is typical of his work, there is usually a more challenging angle lurking within Bowers’ seemingly benign approach. “Some images refer to local Glenelg history of surf life-saving and clubs, and to surfing itself. However, given the political mileage made from Australian insecurities over borders and divisions and debates about ‘boat people’, nationalism and patriotism – between the ‘wet’ and the ‘dry’ – between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – some images refer to events and our coasts as a borderline between security and threat”, he remarks.

 

Stephen Bowers, ‘Boarder Lines’ (2010), (front view) hand-made, hand-painted, hollow-core surfboard, Paulownia wood, fibreglass, acrylic paint, 230 x 51 x 7.5 cm.

 

A trainee at the JamFactory workshops in 1982, Bowers served as Head of the Ceramics Studio (1990-99), and returned to serve as Managing Director (2004-10). He has long been concerned with issues surrounding the much-contested issue of Australian identity, cultural resonance, Indigenous displacement, colonialism, and the integration of differing perspectives into the ‘national story’. “I think there is a degree of anxiety about the way in which we, as a nation, are trying to imagine ourselves and forge an identity. This process is full of conflicts, false starts and contradictions, which, in turn, inform my compositions”, Bowers contends. “I work a lot with ideas of tradition and memory, and a key debate of our time is how we come to terms with heritage, continuity and tradition at a time of increasing dislocation, change and disruption”.

 

A strong interest in natural history illustration is evident in Bowers’ faithful rendering of an abundance of botanical and zoological subjects, particularly his ubiquitous cockatoos. Another frequent reference is the kangaroo, filtered through the famous painting by George Stubbs (1724-1806), The Kongouro From New Holland (1772). This important work recently formed the basis of a well-publicised tussle between the intemperate aspirations of Dr. Ron Radford, Director of the National Gallery of Australia, and Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture in the UK, who placed a temporary ban on its export when the work came up for sale. Ultimately, by November 2013, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, had secured enough money to keep the work in England. Viewers will have to content themselves with Stubbs Meets Spode, Blu Roo – A Little Bird Told Me (both 2011), and the numerous other instances where the cheeky macropod rears its head.

 

Bowers’ reverence for the historical tradition of ceramics has led him to adopt the ‘Willow Pattern’ iconography as the basis for much of his work. English potter Thomas Minton (1765-1836) is credited with having devised the popular style around 1790, appropriated from the chinoiserie patterns common on Chinese export ware. Bowers has re-contextualised this static ‘pictorial orthodoxy’ to embrace kitsch, sly humour, and irreverent aspects common to Australian suburban life. A stylistic debt to William Morris (1834-96), the textile designer, artist and writer who led the English Arts and Crafts Movement during the 1860s, and was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is acknowledged in the series of William Morris Camouflage Plates (2011). Pop culture references abound, showing Bowers’ formative interest in comics as a self-taught artist. Prominent among these are the character of ‘Boofhead’ created by Robert Bruce Clark (1910-70), which ran in the Sydney Daily Mirror from 1941 until 1970; the Eternity script propagated by Arthur Stance (1888-1967); and Bowers’ schoolboy obsession with OZ magazine, whose contributing cartoonist Martin Sharp (1942-2013), Bowers eventually met in the early 1970s.

 

Imagery inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (1865), and the accompanying illustrations by Punch cartoonist Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), pepper Bowers’ output. “Alice … is a reoccurring theme, a fugue-like threnody, running or skipping about in the furniture of my imagination”, he says mischievously. One of the most striking works is all the more so for its status as the most discreet and unadorned piece in the exhibition. The plate, Alice in the Antipodes (1994), of wheel thrown earthenware with vitrified ochre, shows Alice clutching an electrical cord on the hunt for a power-point. She draws back a curtain to reveal not another room, but another world, with Stubb’s Kongouro in standard pose. The artist ponders whether Australia is actually the real ‘Wonderland’, far beyond the imagination and control of any explorer, author, or ‘foreign’ administration.

 

One of the centrepieces of the exhibition, True Blue Cup and Saucer (2009), alludes to both the disconcerting inversion of scale Alice experiences during her ‘adventure’, and the famous set-piece of the Hatter’s ‘mad tea party’. The oversize blue and white vessels are covered in characteristically dense and opulent imagery. Bowers references the architecture in and around Adelaide, while Alice (clutching her iPod) brings in her wheelie bin on one side, and contemplates her water tanks on the other. On the saucer section, an anonymous figure in a bear-suit stands in for British artist Mark Wallinger, the 2007 winner of the Turner Prize for his video work Sleeper. Bowers begs the question, “Why does so much of contemporary visual art struggle to find an audience?” Curiouser and curiouser …

 

An insight into Bowers’ process is provided by his long-time collaborator, photographer and film-maker Grant Hancock, who has produced a stop-motion time-lapse film of Bowers painting Camouflage Plate (2013). Over the period of a week, Hancock captured the fifteen-hour process of painstaking and detailed decoration in Bowers’ Norwood studio. This complements a six-minute candid interview with the artist also playing in the space.

 

The exhibition continues to the Watson Arts Centre (7 March-13 April, 2014), 1 Aspinall Street, Watson, ACT: www.canberrapotters.com.au

 

The accompanying monograph is available from: www.wakefieldpress.com.au

 

• Geelong Gallery, Little Malop Street, Geelong, Victoria, 3220: www.geelonggallery.org.au

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