Wednesday 28 January 2009

Cecil looking at Henry and Christopher and Augustus

Between the two World Wars, Cecil Beaton (1904 - 1980) was one of England’s best known photographers. His fame resulted from two facts; he regularly recorded celebrities and he always ensured his portraits were published in magazines which had a massive circulation.

Beaton adored royalty and cherished members of European aristocracy, yet his gritty character never dissuaded him from writing exceptionally negative comments about the nobility in his tell-all diaries.

Beaton accepted the fact that he was a committed snob. He was only interested in ‘cultured’ people, those who lived privileged or extraordinary lives. The portraits he made as a war photographer frequently seem more like decorative and romantic compositions. He staunchly avoided what he considered to be 'ugly subjects' so his military images often come across like campy fashion shots of wartime. However, as a challenging artist, Beaton never let his affection for celebrating ‘taste’ deflate his personal preference for surreal, and even bizarre, photographic oppositions.

One of Beaton’s astonishing gifts was his ability to visually dramatise reality. The Gallery owns two of his exceptional photographic portraits. Beaton’s double portrait (above) of the curator Henry Geldzahler and his partner, the painter Christopher Scott, was taken in 1969, the same year in which David Hockney completed his double portrait (Abrams Family collection, New York) which was used as the photograph's hilarious back-drop. The conceit of this photograph is simple – replicate an already novel painted composition as a pictorial re-staging by using the painting’s actual subjects. In the painting both men are made to look like a zombie couple, not the adoring partners that their friends knew them to be in life.

Hockney had spent January and February of 1969 completing his huge double portrait, which the painter described as ‘St Henry radiating light visited by an angel in a raincoat’. Kynastan McShine of the Museum of Modern Art commented that the painting was 'the scene of a contemporary annunciation' (see: Peter Webb, Portrait of David Hockney, London, Chatto and Windus 1988, p103). However, Beaton’s photograph has more humour than Hockney’s portrait because the painting’s sitters are participating in a staged, and stagey, homage to Hockney's own painting of them.

Notice how comfortably the two men inhabit their trad-boho clothes in Beaton's shot. He was totally skilled at transforming the occasion of a photograph into a session of collaborative fun. Beaton's portraits on the wedding day of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II resulted in the most memorable photographs of any British royal wedding simply because he made that special photo-event into a theatrical performance with royal players.

Cecil Beaton’s compelling image of Augustus John from 1955 is a very telling portrait of an artist's personality. In England, during the early years of the 20th century, Augustus John was considered to be one of the nation’s finest painters. John’s drawing skills were extraordinary and his small-scale oil studies of his family are brimming with verve. Later, John told Cecil Beaton that ‘my wall decorations keep changing and evolving like life itself’ (see: Michael Holroyd, Augustus John, London, Penguin Books, 1976, page 717). The photographer knew that John had struggled for decades on his huge, and never to be completed, triptych of Gypsies.
Beaton simply asked the painter to sit in front of his mural. In the resulting photograph Augustus John looks frazzled, preoccupied and even physically unaware of Beaton’s presence. Five years later, in June 1960, John began his final oil portrait of Cecil Beaton who told the photographer ‘I think … this is going to be… the best portrait… that I have ever… painted’ (ibid, page 719). Sadly, John never completed his portrait of Beaton.

Image credits:
Cecil Beaton England (1904 – 1980)
Augustus John 1955
gelatin silver print
197 x 188mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1979

Cecil Beaton England (1904 – 1980)
Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott and their portrait by David Hockney 1969
gelatin silver print
317 x 458mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1979

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