REVIEW: Horst, Photographer of Style, V&A, London

Horst working in the studio.
Horst working in the studio.

The V&A’s retrospective of the 60-year career of Horst P. Horst is a marvellous exhibition, beautifully curated and presented. Alongside dozens of instantly recognisable images (the Mainbocher corset one, the nude with the harp), and a fabulous display of his Vogue covers – he shot more than 90 – are lesser-known male nudes, travel photography, and the interiors Diana Vreeland commissioned him to do in the 1960s. The accompanying book is full of great reproductions and essays (if a bit academic, and slightly coy about his life and loves as a handsome, popular and well-connected gay man.)

Horst worked for American, British and French Vogues, as well as for House & Garden and Vanity Fair. Caroline Seebohm’s excellent biography of Condé Montrose Nast, The Man Who Was Vogue (thank you @hollytorious) describes how Horst’s career began: in the late 1920s, the young Horst Paul Bohrmann left his native Germany to study architecture in Paris with Le Corbusier. He met Condé Nast’s Art Director Mehmet Femy Agha (aka “The Terrible Turk”), who suggested he try taking photographs in the Vogue studio in Paris. Horst said he had never taken a photograph in his life. But he went to the studio, where there was “an assistant who knew all about lighting and the exposures and all the techniques. I just posed the girl and bravely clicked the shutter.”

Male Nude, 1952. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate. Mainbocher Corset (pink satin corset by Detolle), Paris, 1939. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate
Male Nude, 1952. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate. Mainbocher Corset (pink satin corset by Detolle), Paris, 1939. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate

His photographic skills developed quickly, and in 1932 Condé Nast himself invited Horst to New York and hired him as a staff photographer at $60 a week. Nast also fired him a few months later. But that doesn’t seem to have made much difference in the long run. In 1943 Horst became an American citizen. A touching item at the V&A exhibition is his US army dog tags – Edna Woolman Chase, Editor in Chief of Vogue, was named as his next of kin.

The fashion and portraits are gorgeous, and this exhibition gives plenty of interesting background and context for Horst’s shoots. As a study in composition alone, his work is unparalleled. However, for me (as a former H&GArt Director) the most intriguing section is the interiors and lifestyles he photographed for American Vogue from the 1960s onwards.

Horst photographed the homes of Andy Warhol, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Truman Capote, Gloria Steinem, Jacqueline Onassis, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Paloma Picasso, and many more. His style was bold, confident, and, frankly, more modern than most interiors photographers can get away with these days. His 1966 photographs of Cy Twombly’s home, with the artist, his wife, their little boy and dog, are still some of the most enchanting interiors-portraits ever published. His visit to Port Eliot, also in 1966, captures a poignant strand of changing England: the Lord and Lady of the manor (Peregrine and Jacquetta Eliot, then aged 25 and 23) – he in trainers, she with bobbed hair – in their stately home with 7,000 acres of land and century-old Irish linen.

His eye for detail was one of his (many) strengths. ”The cravats around the carafes of wine at the Rothschilds’ house in Mouton,” said Diana. Vreeland in 1984 – “the Duke of Windsor’s red leather dispatch box marked ‘The King.’ When those pictures came in, I went berserk. I’d be intoxicated for hours.” (Note to self: get hands on a copy of Horst: Interiors, by Barbara Plumb.)

Horst, Photographer of Style, V&A London, until January 4, 2015

© Fiona Hayes 2014

*You can watch an archive interview with Horst here