Horst: Photographs — Fashion and Surrealism
The Dali Museum, One Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg, through September 6. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Fri.-Wed.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Thurs. 727-823-3767, thedali.org
I want to buy a copy of Vogue.
This should make you laugh. As I write this, I'm wearing a seen-better-days oversized men's sweatshirt with port and chocolate stains on the chest and varnish streaks on the right wrist. My hair is a halo of brown and gray frizz and I think I put mascara on but don't remember when. In short, I am not the sort of woman who lives and dies by fashion magazines. So why the sudden desire?
I blame Horst P. Horst, the fashion photographer who shot Vogue covers and spreads — and a myriad of other stunning photographs — over a career that spanned 62 years. A few moments with his photographs — both magazine-sized originals and oversized reproductions of transparencies — and you realize that saying, "Horst made women beautiful" isn't accurate. No, Horst saw the world as his toolbox to showcase women, and he used every tool in his disposal to show the world different images of feminine beauty.
You can make all the arguments you like about the beauty and fashion industries and how they place unrealistic expectations on women, and you would be right. However, that fades when you look at Horst. Inside the exhibit at the Dalí — I've visited twice now — the notion of fashion as a form of tyranny is overwhelmed by the visceral, emotional impact of Horst's portfolio.
Brushing aside, for only a paragraph or two, the technical skill and artistic eye Horst brought to the party, we can examine how he staged his shoots to showcase women and fashion. Horst moved to Paris in 1930 and began his career. The Dalí markets this as a fashion exhibit, but at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibit's permanent home, it has a broader name: Horst: Photographer of Style, and I would argue even that doesn't give a accurate sense of the breadth of Horst's work; it's simply how many know him best.
Yes, Horst photographed women. Yes, he photographed women for fashion magazines. No, he didn't photograph unconventionally-sized ladies. Yes, he retouched the photos (you can see his notes on two proof photos). However, when you look at his work, you don't think, "I want that body" or "I'll never look like that" — and not because the shots didn't create a standard of beauty — they did. However, what you think when you look at a Horst photograph is, "I want that life."
Muriel Maxwell (American Vogue cover, July 1, 1939), 1939
Horst P. Horst © Conde Nast/Horst Estate
Case in point: The Muriel Maxwell photograph. Maxwell's applying red lipstick using the mirror inside her red-and-white striped handbag. The red lipstick features prominently in these Vogue covers, and you'll notice many of the plates for the series of enlarged cover shots detail the brand and shade as well as the clothes. Now, head downstairs to the gift shop and you'll find a reproduction of that bag and an assortment of similar sunglasses. We want the look, not the body. Horst photographed style, and he knew how to showcase it in a way that made women understand that beauty sprang from style, not size or shape.
To create that look in his photos, Horst used everything at his disposal. Susanna Brown, curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum, calls Horst "messy" — many of his photographs had brilliant composition but, in the proofs, you can see props strewn about or edges of things that would later get cropped — but details how he would create worlds inside studios, then place the women in the worlds. Instead of Photoshop, she says, Horst used studio effects to create worlds like the one see in the Bacchanale shot. Coco Chanel hand-stitched the costumes Salvador Dalí designed and Horst created the atmosphere — note the crutches — and shot the photographs. No, he didn't have digital editing, but Horst, Chanel and Dalí working together to create an ekphrastic? That's quite a toolbox Horst had at his disposal.
"He didn't need it," Brown says. “He wouldn't have needed things like Photoshop.”
I reject that. In Horst's Dreams of Venus — created as part of Dalí's Dreams of Venus pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair (in the adults-only section) — a woman wears lobsters, shellfish and a skin-tight black bathing costume (of sorts; she's also topless, mostly). Brown tells me Horst drew the black garment on the negative because fashions of the day didn't offer him the look he wanted. I can think of nothing better suited for Horst's special effects than Photoshop. True, I cannot see him needing to adjust light levels in the digital photo editing program, but as for the retouching notes to thin eyebrows and special effects like drawing clothes on a nude model? The Knoll brothers designed Photoshop for a master like this, and I suspect, had he worked much past 1992 (he stopped taking photos due to failing eyesight), he would have embraced it.
Horst also understood the expectations of beauty placed on women and played with these expectations in his work. In his 1939 "Electric Beauty" he shows a woman undergoing multiple head-to-toe beauty treatments simultaneously: Her feet sit in a bath of some sort, she has one leg covered in what appears a depilatory, her face has a mask (not unlike an executioner's mask), and she holds what looks to be a hair dryer. She's teetering dangerously close to electrocution, but even more so, she looks as though she's undergoing torture rather than a beauty ritual. Driving home this point is the backdrop: A riff on Hieronymus Bosch's Temptation of Saint Anthony triptych, a Flemish work that deals with St. Anthony's spiritual anguish.
One thing Horst was not, whether he was painting a stretchy black costume on a topless-esque, lobster-adorned model, creating a world where every women could be beautiful or making a statement on the things women do to be conventionally pretty? Subtle.