I confess to being confused and frustrated by Vogue100, the exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery and celebrating 100 years of the British edition of Vogue. Of course, Vogue has been and remains an important definer of taste and style, and indeed a cultural phenomenon, over the past 100 years. And of course, Vogue has been a platform for a number of photographers and stylists who have created for its pages images which are icons of the C20. Many of them are included in this exhibition. One thinks, for example, of Horst’s 1939 image of the Mainbocher corset – “Where there’s a will, there’s a waist” – or Ronald Traeger’s 1967 picture of Twiggy on a Raleigh motor bicycle. But nevertheless I left both wondering why this exhibition was taking place in this form and in this gallery.
It was of course worthwhile to catch up with some superb images, many familiar but others less so, which helped define the age in which they were taken. And the chronological nature of the exhibition reminds us to what extent Vogue and magazines like it have succeeded in shaping our memories of recent history, even if those are inevitably selective and distorted memories. But there is no getting away from the fact that this exhibition is hagiography, not critical review; it is little more than extended advertisement for Vogue. Which is fine, but not perhaps the role of a national public gallery. Furthermore, the exhibition would be much more illuminating if there was any context provided to help analyse and assess the Vogue view of the world. We are asked to accept Vogue as a key arbiter of taste and style without any critical assessment of alternatives or whether the view of Vogue captured the zeitgeist of the moment, or missed it by a mile. And finally, you could not help but feel that this exhibition is not primarily a portrait exhibition but a design exhibition. So why the NPG?
Having said all that, the exhibition does in fact pose some interesting questions about the relationships between art and photography, art and fashion, art and style, those the questions are not explicitly either asked or answered within the exhibition space. It left me realising the extent to which the fashion and style industry in the modern world have captured much of modern art. There is nothing which the fashion world more desires than the domesticated revolutionary; the artist or designer who can be radical, edgy and provocative without ever challenging the established order of things; safe thrills are very alluring. As such, fashion has been remarkably effective in spotting and annexing photographers and artists who offer exactly those thrills; from Cecil Beaton to David Bailey, from the Bloomsbury Set to Tracey Enim.
We should not be surprised or disappointed by this development. The notion of the artist as outsider, misunderstood, creating an artistic vision unique to the world, alone with his genius and struggling to gain acceptance for his vision (it was nearly always a he), was the product of late C19 Romantic view of art and the artist. It is not the view which sustained for the greater part of human history where the artist worked at the behest of the elite in whichever society they existed, reliant on commissions and operating within boundaries ultimately set by those on whom they relied for income. The world has simply reverted to its historical norm with the difference in the Western world that art is used less to make political points, and more to make commercial ones. This by the way, is not to condemn contemporary art or artists. Just as artists through history have been able to innovate and test boundaries whilst operating within the rules,so they can today. Titian’s reliance on commissions from emperors, princes and churches did not make him a lesser artist.