For fans of the polished perfection of bygone eras, Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery is a must-see. This small but perfectly formed exhibition celebrates the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood Portraiture, focusing on the stars that were created by and maintained the American film industry from the early 1920’s through to the 50’s. Whilst many of the faces are instantly recognisable – from Clark Gable to Cary Grant, Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe – the exhibition includes lesser-known but equally relevant stars including Evelyn Brent, Lillian Gish, Anna May Wong and Ann Sheridan.
The images, many of which have never been seen before, come courtesy of the John Kobal Foundation Archive, an archive that consists of more than 22,000 black and white original negatives. Kobal, first a collector and later an author, was an expert in the Hollywood mystique and began amassing his collection of studio stills and portraits in the early 1960’s, when the material was overlooked as little more than pop culture ephemera. Viewed through the rose-tinted lens of the future, Kobal’s collection, and by extension the exhibition, provides a documentation of the changing fashions and styles on the big screen, and ensures that the legacy of glamour left by Dietrich et al lives on.
Yet equally, it’s interesting to see how our ideals and perceptions of movie stars stem from this era. A still of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne (taken to publicise their 1944 comedy Together Again) is marked for retouching, their wrinkles and skin blemishes circled by the pen of an eagle-eyed studio hand. The adjacent image reveals the duo in all their retouched glory, all dewy skin and youthful radiance, revealing the complex process behind the creation of an idol. Savvy photographers, including Clarence Sinclair Bull, Ted Allan and Ernest Bachrach, developed flattering lighting techniques and camera angles that enhanced the natural assets of the chosen starlet.
In a pre-Internet era these images were disseminated across newspapers, magazines and early forms of fanzines, and the portraits were used to keep the faces of the studios chosen gods fresh in the minds of their adoring – often bordering on fanatical – public. It was no coincidence that the stars that enjoyed the biggest success on screen (Garbo, Katherine Hepburn to name just two), were also those who worked hardest in the portrait studio. As Hepburn herself once observed, ‘If you are in the business of being photographed, you must like to have your picture taken, otherwise you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s part of your job.’
The notion of idols as gods is rooted deep within Western and celebrity culture, as those with perceived privilege and prestige are upheld as leaders, examples of virtue and positivity. The Hollywood portrait never hinted at the underside of fame of fortune, seeking only to reinforce the notion that beauty and photogenic qualities do a star make. Whether you want to read that much into these images, or just gaze at some incredible images of timeless beauty, Glamour of the Gods should not be missed.
Glamour of the Gods runs until 23 October 2011.
Images via npg.org.uk