PRINT October 1986


EDGAR DEGAS ONCE CHAFED James McNeill Whistler, who wore a cape and sported a monocle, by saying, “My dear friend, you dress as if you had no talent.” Cecil Beaton adopted a similar pose during a career that enabled him to photograph Lillie Langtry in the beginning and Mick Jagger at the end. Unquestionably an artist of special refinement, he posed almost fatally as one who was ”artistic.” The pose has kept his name alive as a character who played various hothouse scenes in Mayfair, Hollywood, and among the Manhattan and Palm Springs hoi polloi of the Depression ’30s. The summer’s immense Beaton retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery in the Barbican Centre, London, reconstructed this sense of his foppish theatrics, and yet, with much unpublished material and new comment, it proposed a thoroughly new vision of them. As a photographer, Beaton emerged as an intricate strategist, whose work has strange depths and a bright future. I came away thinking I was in the presence of another legend, and that Beaton could be the Scarlet Pimpernel of photography

To be sure, Beaton’s fleecy society sketches, illustrations, costumes, and interior decors betray the stamp of the froufrou, which is not so much the genuinely lighthearted as the sententiously arch and casual. He penned these things often at the last minute and feverishly as if they were annoying distractions from the real business of life’s party. They have an artistic merit on the nether side of inkings by say Ludwig Bemelmans or Marcel Vertès, two forgettable illustrators of the period 1935–55. As for his photographs, he disingenuously announced that they were just as offhanded, which did much to hinder their recognition. This sometime playwright and constant poseur insisted that he held his photography in low esteem because it came too easily to him. Behind his denial of professional expertise, however, lay the implication of a natural vision, which has to be considered against the grain of his public legend.

In Beaton’s view, one did not admit that one worked hard to realize images, even those that became famous. But this disdain for manual input—the activity of a tradesman—was just one more item in the effortful calculations of his pose. When Condé Nast demanded that he give up his old folding snapshot Kodak for a huge and strenuous camera, and that he study lighting—get sharp—Beaton tended to lose his touch. The distance in time from which he emulated the great genteel amateurs of British 19th-century photography only emphasized the deliberately throwback character of his position in the 20th century. He skirted perilously close to the border between the amateur, in the earlier, aristocratic sense of the word, and the dilettante, in ours. But he had a spontaneous need to enjoy himself, which was of the moment.

Unlike his drawings, photography demanded that his enjoyment be filtered through a machine, which tempered the results at a certain remove from his immediate desire. The characteristically good Beaton photograph visualizes people and situations much more delicately in the flesh than if he had drawn them from observation. Elegance one would have expected. but delicacy—not just in the early, soft, pictorial manner, but in his response to human beings: this feature freshened the show. Whether consciously or not, the sitters function as performers in a scenario constructed by the photographer. Often, there’s a contrast between foolish trappings or silly circumstance and the reflectiveness of his subjects—but it’s not as if Beaton himself draws the distinction. He rarely elaborates his ideas at the expense of the subjects’ inwardness, an atmospheric zone into which they are allowed—or encouraged—to retreat. The image does its work as a composite of garrulous surrounding and laconic presence. Each exists side by side but also as a reserve of the other. The poise, even the gravity, of the figure is never so extreme as to foreclose the possibility of personal collaboration between performer and director. Edith Sitwell appears as an alabaster figurine, dwarfed, with her black maid serving breakfast, under the looming canopy of her 18th-century four-poster bed. As was intended, this 1930 scene is reminiscent of a genre piece by Johan Zoffany, one of Beaton’s preferred minor masters. But this rococo fantasy also behaves as a document of a very particular milieu. Not only was this Sitwell’s home, and those her furnishings, but the picture formally displays her idea of class (and race) relationships, animated by her vitreous little smile that shared in Beaton’s game.

The Sitwells were Beaton’s earliest important patrons, and his pictures of their family catapulted him from the wings of fashion and media to the center stage of British and then American Vogue. He needed no lessons in effeteness and preciosity from the Sitwells: Baron Adolf de Meyer was his pictorial mentor, and young men often painted and powdered their faces at Cambridge, from which Beaton had recently emerged. But he did gain the Sitwells’ connections, as well as their support at his debut exhibition. That event, in 1927, launched a very curious photographic career, in which a revivalist sensibility intersected with Modernism, the whole alibied and supported by the main-line fashion work. Beaton had a genuine temperament as “a couturier, a historical revivalist and a social observer with a too-particular sense of both past and present,” as Ian Jeffrey and David Mellor, the show’s curator, observe in the Barbican catalogue.1 But if extravagant artifice was Beaton’s occupational specialty, he would nevertheless overplay it, or catch it out, as if to expose it. In the same way, the contextual froth of the Barbican installation, plastic flowers and phony obelisks, though festive was deliberately chintzy and not entirely celebrational. Matter-of-fact photography made it possible for Beaton to let show the slip of representation as supposedly part of what was there, what was merely given. Sometimes this could be subtly qualified, as in the glimpse, among older things, of a ’20s baroque screen in the Sitwell bedroom. More often. the saving glitch appears in the person of the photographer, or of the photographer’s assistant, agents of production actually within the scene produced.

One such scene, from 1949, contains a man on the left who kneels holding a metal surface that reflects sunlight on the vertical figure of 19-year-old Princess Margaret, on the right. They are separated by a corridor which plunges deep into the pictorial space, but are functionally associated in a joint activity. In that it accentuates what has been staged, this photograph might be thought improper for an official royal portrait. But the deference of the man, who simultaneously aids the picture and cleverly helps nature illuminate the princess, restores the image to its task. Take away the extra and the poetry would quite frankly go with the wind. Beaton, by his “indiscreet” framing, achieves a witty homage that also acknowledges his own role in the charade.

An esthetic principle of the Modernist was to unmask or otherwise denature representational modes, apparently in the name of truth-telling. As part of its shifting equivocal strategy some Modernist work ironically compares representational modes, as in collage. Timorously in this spirit, and despite his vegetal historicism, Beaton appears as a Modernist without portfolio. Practically on his own, he questioned the theatrical solitude of the fashion and portrait styles. He often personally intervened within the dramatic metaphor of the pictorial space. By the logic of the scene, he could have been relied on to be near Picasso when the great artist posed, but he shows himself actually with him, in the mirror. The conceit is not only that the Englishman collaborates with Picasso, but also that his presence can’t literally be removed from the picture—which is now, liquidly, a composite, a double portrait. Yet for all that he gets into the act with Picasso, Beaton is strangely enough not intrusive. (He’s out of focus and in small scale.) The photographer reveals himself seriously regarding (an active process) not only the (nominal) subject but himself, posing passively. The desire to participate in both psychological ways is hardly surprising in an artist who perceived himself to have a chronic, lifelong problem. He premised his life on certain tense, basic denials: of his middle class social origin, always, and of his homosexuality, intermittently.

As everywhere noticed by good friends, Beaton was possessed by a continuous diffidence within his extroverted persona. At the same time, though a conservative man who desperately sought the respectable, he was compelled to flaunt what, for society was a pronounced deviance. Exhibitionism was central to his identity, and he made a spectacle of himself both in the social whirl and in self-portraits realized by timers or mirrors. Anyone who talks about his photography must at some point discuss its taste for masquerade. This man, who designed ballet, theater, and film costumes for others, was frequently in costume himself, and available for the camera. In youth, aside from the clothes of kings or princes, the outfit of choice was that of the opposite sex. British popular entertainment has long stressed female impersonation, a staple that is considered very funny The falsetto screeches of the Monty Python troupe and Benny Hill arc late examples of the idiom. Women, imitated negligently by these fellows, usually appear as pea-brained, lowbrow, frumpish creatures. Since the “real” gender orientation of the players has been established in other skits, such male vaudeville can be called heterosexual female depiction. Beaton proposes an instance of it himself when, in 1932, he shows those notorious skirt-chasers the Marx brothers as a chorus lifting its pants legs to expose absurd, bony shanks. But there is another kind of drag masque taking place in many of his scenes, those that express sexual cross-dressing as a true social ritual in which homosexual signals are meant to be exchanged from like to like.

Beaton’s early portraits of himself and his upper class bohemian friends depict so many pseudo-females that they perhaps outnumber the real ones. Both pictorial types, in any event, are generally dressed in pearlescent ballroom getups, and have a would-be sexual fragrance that is also naive, as if kids were trying out mummies gowns of yesteryear. The ideal female personage in Beaton’s early photography is virginal, the Madonna, a role in which he cast his mother and then, later, Lady Diana Cooper. Mellor is surely right to stress the centrality in Beaton’s adult mind of his infant adoration of a postcard photograph of Lily Elsie, an Edwardian actress, which he encountered once when his mother was opening mail in her bed. This episode Beaton used as the founding myth of his vision. The first task of his photography was to present his mother as a distinguished society woman, or, rather, as an actress in that guise. Outside their cliques and raunchy parties and their performances at the Amateur Dramatic Company, sometimes attended by “dirty old men” come down from London, the Cambridge group was at risk in the everyday homophobic pressure around it. Beaton was sensitive to this pressure, and even, in part, sympathetic to it. In 1923, he wrote in his diary,

I’ve never been in love with women and I don’t think I ever shall in the way that I have been in love with men. I’m really a terrible, terrible homosexualist and try so hard not to be. I try so terribly hard to be good and not cheap and horrid.2

Seven years later, he resumed wearily,

if any pretence was necessary it needed as much and more to pretend one was a gay and coy young girl than to be a strapping and healthy young dog. I told Charles [James] that I have always hated fairies collectively...they frighten and nauseate me and I see so vividly myself shadowed in so many of them.3

The conviction that one’s behavior within a group is self-incriminating when seen by outsiders releases anger toward the group, but the group, nevertheless, is the only milieu that feels hospitable.

In the ’30s, Beaton seems to have felt professionally trapped in his escapist routines. Paradoxically, some of the trouble that brewed between him and American Vogue later in the decade revolved around his notions of Edwardian revival as a la mode, and the staff’s sense that this was literally old hat. He associated the Edwardian moment, by this time, with monarchy, and his portraits of the Queen Mother (then the queen of George VI) as a belle époque matron achieved fabulous postcard currency in the British Empire during World War II. The Americans liked royals very well as celebrities, but were certainly not in awe of their fashion consciousness. So the dissension between the editors and the photographer was part a dispute about fashion style and part a cultural conflict, a small Anglo-American spat. For Beaton, however, the affair could have had other, internal meanings, in which the professional stakes merged with ethnic loyalty and a sexual confusion summoned by the word and role of “queen.” Like mother, as she could have been fancied, the nonsexual queen was good; but to him, “queens” were the contrary. Here was his personal antithesis between the sacred and the profane, in which the memory of the former was counterfeited by the infamous mimicry of the latter.

The rhetoric of the fashion trade required Beaton to show women reduced to objects and emblems, devoid of human character. But at the same time, it was possible for him to view such objectification for what it was. As his remark about his difficulties in pretending to be either “a coy young girl” or a “strapping young dog” indicate, Beaton could perceive acting—his own no less than anyone else’s—as a sad ruse. In a photograph called Mock Puppet Theater, 1936, showing two pretty models on a small proscenium, their arms, heads, and even pigtails weakly pulled by strings, these feelings are allegorized. It is a very strange picture to have appeared in Vogue because it can obviously be read as antifashion. The subjects are literally acting out their status as only mannequins. Once again, Beaton uncovers by masquerade, that is, by overt subterfuge intending to fool no one but still to drive home a point.

He was often keen to photograph strong women in socially exposed positions, personalities who had, as the cliché goes, some “male” decisive manner to them, like Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Wallis Simpson. It was as if they represented an attractive composite of masterful and yielding behavior, the perfect subtext for his particular invocation of the media portrait. The mirrors in many Beaton photographs work as a kind of advertisement, I think, of the split he sensed in himself and in several of his sitters. The mirrors operate as devices used to consult his own demeanor and to make visual the dualities to which he was attuned in human character. Sometimes he could achieve such an effect by literal cutting and pasting, as in a ca. 1936 photomontage of Katharine Hepburn. The more one looks at this twin portrayal, with Hepburn frowning on one side, cheerful on the other, the more its initial coquettishness fades into an anxious mien. The poised, rippling fingers and the lines around the mouth are repeated on left and right, acting as apparent mirror reflections, but they don’t come out even. In fact, the accent on symmetry is a transparent miscue. The photograph is still a play on the mirror, however, and the mirror is central to Beaton’s outlook, conceptually as well as physically. Its obvious Cubist and Surrealist implications have their way in his scenarios, though they need not be dwelt on, and, in any event, are put to other uses. Rather, the mirror motif time and again invites the question of where to look, and of how to look, at the face. In a totally mirrored room, in 1931, Adele Astaire poses with her photographer among infinite versions of herself, all of which convey her one pose, but from more angles than she could prepare for. This kind of multiplicity adds nuance to selfhood because it offers a spectrum of different moods to the same face. (There are many actual multiple exposures of heads in Beaton’s portraiture, as well.)

Such effects climax in a remarkable picture entitled Mirror; Bed and Camera: Self-Portrait with Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Faridkot House, Delhi, 1944. The caption has a seductive, not to say bacchanalian, tone, belied by the sedate though confusing appearance of four figures, all of them reflections, floating below, as if seen from a height. The lower and more legible gentlemen, separated decorously on their bed by a holster, are relaxed and affable as they look up at themselves in the mirrored ceiling. Not so the upside-down gentlemen reflected in the mirrored wall. Its glass panels cross through them, blur their bodies, give Beaton four hands, and produce on Mountbatten’s face and figure a stiff and sullen bearing. What starts off as a kind of in joke about offbeat familiarity turns into a darker, more questionable scene altered in the twinkle of a mirror. László Moholy-Nagy during his Bauhaus years, could not have produced a more surprising formal invention, and yet it mustn’t be forgotten that Beaton’s picture shows the Supreme Commander of allied forces in Southeast Asia—that his image belongs, of all things, to the category of war photography.

The thousands of pictures this master of fashion produced while working for the British Ministry of Information and the Royal Air Force are finally like those of no other war photographer, and yet are startlingly right and true for the English, or, rather, the English Tories of the time. He had been told to stress “might,” “force,” and he gave the MOI trouble by rendering instead the smartness of the soldiers, or, more often, the officers and their masculine charm. In photographs taken throughout the various theaters to which he was sent, after documenting the blitz, evacuated children, and airfields at home, the atmosphere sparkles softly and the touch is incredibly light. He is resolutely undramatic, unforced, in the African desert and the Middle East, and he adopts the attitude of the privileged visitor (which he was) in India and China, where his Rolleiflex focused on genre details in hospitals, viceregal life, the natives and their condition, training, and the relations between men and their machines (the latter braced by fragile struts and cranked by hand). In comparison with these works, those of the Edward Steichen team and W. Eugene Smith in the Pacific stand out all the more as pictures of operatic juggernaut and sweaty inferno. Theirs was grandiose John Ford or Life magazine propaganda—the sweep of materiel, and everywhere determined fighting men with high-precision and dangerous jobs to do. Beaton’s military on the other hand, have misadventures, but there’s nothing tragic in their lot, and actual violence is peripheral to the moment in which they’re photographed, a sensory moment in the lives of displaced,unflappable, insular men who seem to belong together, or get on with each other, as in a club. In fact, Beaton did land in one old-boy net-work after another, as he went from post to post along a circuit of former collegemates and acquaintances. On one level, these are modest pictures, seemingly tentative glimpses only of an unimpressive war effort. But on another they are quite presumptuous, because they operate through pleasure, one man’s epicurean savoring of the phenomena of place and the animation of human features, regardless of the charnel magnitude of the events in which everyone was immersed.

By his own account, and that of many others, the war drastically changed Beaton: that is, sobered him. But this was true only up to a point. The look of his war photographs is provisional and fragmentary, but this was also the mode of the street photography that he’d been practicing for the last ten years. These street pictures were taken for his own benefit during his annual business trips to the States and on his European jaunts. They were jeux & d’esprit, holidays from the serious frivolity of his fashion work and the lettuce of the socialite and royal portraiture. As soon as one came upon the street work in the Barbican Centre, it felt as if a window had been opened to let in some of the air of the times. Like many other fine street images of the ’30s, they have much type in them, signage, and they deal with media, parades, the selling of newspapers, headlines, advertisements. Walking the streets of the metropolis, the photographer takes in the blazoning of sports, murders, politics, and his accent is that of one attentive to the visual noise it makes. Such, too, is the import of a self-portrait from 1937, in which he shows himself in a hotel bed, swamped by strewn pages of the Sunday New York Times—the idea being that here is a person avid to keep tabs on the world. The newsprint becomes not only bedclothes but costume, in a cascade so farcically excessive as to deny any possibility that Beaton was a serious reader. In fact, his personal indifference to the events of journalism and of history, or to the lives of anyone outside his camarillas, was so marked as to make this image one of his most willful masquerades.

When it came to personalities, Beaton was impressionable; but when it came to any moral consciousness of the public issues around him, he had little. In pursuit of amour he thought nothing of traveling in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during the time those regimes were rounding up their Jews and helping Franco to annihilate the Spanish Loyalists. He no more perceived the despair of the Jazz Age than the anxiety of the French Popular Front. Instead of swimming among the most glittering and gilded youth of his era, as he thought, he identified with the most pampered, selfish, and reactionary in their political values. The Depression hardly figures in Beaton’s diaries, but racist epithets do. He was surprised that anti-Semitic phrases he penned into a Vogue illustration in 1938 created a violent tumult and that he was sacked because of it. But he was truly shocked that some of his friends rallied to his “cause,” as if it had been political conviction that motivated him instead of arriviste snobbery. Vivid as are many of the personal observations in his diaries, we get the idea of someone with deficient social radar. In terms of career strategy, his celebration of the defecting Windsors, though profitable, ought not to have put him in good odor with the royal family, but he was in fact shortly thereafter, in 1939, placed at the summit of his career by the patronage of the queen. This was certainly the great arrival, which brought with it major dividends of power, in Mellor’s words, ”as a writer of history, a manufacturer of popular memory.”4 Mellor goes on to say that "the advent of the twentieth century, of mechanization, of total war, of all the kinds of ways in which that invades the structures of everyday life is a great threat to Beaton, and what he can throw against that is the memory of what came before. The memory of the idyllic childhood, specifically of a childhood. . .composed out of society ladies and actresses.”5 Such was the personality, repute, and outlook of a man thrust into a virile world of killing, a man who would make the major photographic statement about the way the English waged World War II.

Of course, it was a uniformed, hierarchical world, like the English class system, where people know their place. But the place had changed. RAF trainees jog past a sphinx on the grounds of one of the great houses. A 1941 fighter pilot reads a Penguin paperback, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, in a wicker chair in what looks like the hall of a resort pavilion, its far windows taped against bomb blasts in a pattern that reminds one of the Union Jack. City children, taken to the country out of the path of bombers, have a pathetically disoriented look, to which Beaton clearly responded—it mirrored his current life. In one 1940 photograph, German explosive has severed the head of a shop-window mannequin of the old-fashioned, rose-bud, angelic sort, which rests upside down amid shattered ruins. The amalgam of the city’s destruction and that of the painted plaster flesh symbolizes the threat to the old order, and is figured here through Beaton’s earlier technique of laconic presence with busy environment. But in this altered context the effect is grotesque. What makes it so is not just the visual pandemonium of the scene but its synecdochic concision. Passersby thought there was something indecent in the spectacle of a man arranging a broken doll’s head in blitz-torn London. Sensibly, they grasped neither the childishness of his fixation nor the guile of his metaphor. Of the things that had gone, this object meant little, yet he made it signify much. In fact, to continue as he had in these prickly circumstances suggests flagrant innocence or subtle irony—perhaps a combination of both. Certainly, one is struck by the perpetually small, psychological scale of Beaton’s vignettes, when compared with, or as representative of, cataclysm. Here was someone at the center of it and he kept on thinking of the margins. At first this tactic appears to misfire as fatal disproportion, until one takes away one’s American lens and sees British understatement.

Beaton was close enough to the French to be at home with their indication of a street environment as a “decor.” But decor, with Beaton, means something artificial, an inanimate support (or perhaps contradiction) to a narrative idea. In Hollywood, he had included props, scaffolds, and lights as attributes of the stars’ work and as antidotes to their aura, which was the rationale for shooting them in the first place. Yet prosaic setting did not diminish his subjects, since Beaton was so obviously susceptible to them as animal beings. Princess Natasha Paley could pose before upended bedsprings and neither lose her dignity nor suppress a clear, unforgettable disjunction. On that score, no one has ever equaled the bad taste displayed by Beaton in 1941, when he made a fashion model pose against a bombed-out arcade. The war—just then going very badly for England—was reduced to a mere backdrop fora gesture of insufferable chic (or, rather, the backdrop made the chic insufferable). Of course, the Vogue photograph was meant to say something else, for its caption states, ”Her poise unshaken, she reads about the other fire of London in which the earlier Temple was destroyed.”6 News pictures of government leaders visiting the ruins were part of the media context of the image. So this immaculate woman, in the Digby Morton suit, was taking their place on behalf of the patriotism of the fashion world.

The odd thing about the Beaton war photographs is not their self-conscious private artistry—the MOI held this royal photographer on a relatively loose tether—but that such war images were realized with a feminine sensibility Beaton represented that point of view unabashedly in a totally male-oriented environment. An outrageous figure of war photography develops: one who deliberately fails in news initiative, who is averse to seeing action, and who would anyway faint at the sight of blood. But I will not call this man timid. Robert Capa was a brave combat photographer, but even he would never have dared to invite Dwight Eisenhower to join him on a bed to have their picture taken. The complaisant Mountbatten belonged to the highest strain of English ruling class culture, a strain in which Beaton had found a place. The photographer expressed a self-image of that culture when he depicted the military caste and colonial elites—though locked in a desperate historical struggle which they were eventually, after the war, to lose—as if in no crisis, or, better still, impervious to challenge. If the sangfroid seems a little exaggerated, it’s because Beaton himself doesn’t believe in this deluded prophylactic situation. As he put it ironically in a letter, "everything looked so idyllic, like a wonderful picnic party with mules and jeeps bringing up the tea things and if someone’s head got in the way of a bit of shrapnel, well it was just too bad. But accidents do happen at picnics.”7

What Beaton left out reinforced the propaganda message of his war photographs, just as his fashion images were undermined by certain of his inclusions. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Women would not have had such a genius for decoration if they were not resigned to playing a subordinate role.” The themes of decoration, power, art, fashion, and history are entwined in Beaton’s career with more twists than a pretzel. Nothing could have been more out of date, after the war, with America’s political ascent, than for Beaton to insist as he did on reviving his revivals—the Edwardian fictions that had made him original in the ’30s. Fashion photographers had often looked for ideas to cultural models not only of high social prestige, but ones known for forcing the pace of visual and perceptual change—the Modernist avant-gardes. But most often, fashion can only accommodate such modern-isms when they are thought to be ”safe,” and that is generally at a point in time when the conceptual heat in art has moved on to something else. From cultural perspectives, art-conscious fashion is decidedly arrière garde, and the kiss of fashion is the goodbye kiss to the “ism” in question. A prominent sector of fashion photography on one level, is a hyperbolic, after-the-fact, and obtuse version of 20th-century art movements, and fashion photographers, despite their pretensions to high, aristocratic style, are defensive and compensatory in their relation to art. Behind all of fashion photography there was once, wrote Alexander Liberman of Vogue, ”an ideal of decency, an ideal of furthering the civilizing influence of culture and taste.”8 When fashion photography is arresting, however, it’s not because of its dead “civilizing” (read imperious) mission, as Liberman imagined, but because of its living vulgarity. This had once been Beaton’s forte, with his youthful burlesque turned skeptical around their edges. On the other hand, his postwar fashion moves, with straight decorative coquetry and despite the grand pop victory of two Oscars (color costume design and color art direction) for the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, led only to farce.

Beaton’s life was ridden with farce, as so often when he drove himself to arrive in fields where he had been long accepted, had little competence, or was not welcome. This ensured a youthful vigor but did not guarantee any peace of mind. The two great love affairs of his life reveal him as a victim who needed to be toyed with by uncommitted partners. But his photographs of the second of these, Garbo, grace the one field where he was truly luminous: portraiture. In all his other enterprises, the payoff was in getting attention; in portraiture, the pleasure was in yielding it. There’s a difference between necessarily paying attention, as in much of his commercial portraiture, and giving attention, a voluntary and generous observance of the ones he cared for, or who excited, amused, or touched him. These included his young sisters and Buster Keaton, Walter Sickert and Marilyn Monroe, Mrs. Mosscockle, Cole Porter, Garbo, and, of course, himself.

The Garbo portraiture is interesting because here was a woman who refused to confirm Nietzsche’s remark about her subordinate role and who yet entered history as an indefinable object of display Beaton’s slack pictures of the dreamy Garbo do little visual justice to her, even as their intimacy stressed his involvement with her. But the episode is revealing of the demands of the portrait mode. Though a portrait depicts, a picture with a person prominently in it is not necessarily a portrait. And a portrait may not be much of a picture. For much of his career, the photographer thought to resolve the simultaneous demands of pictures and portraits by active visual fields that would keep the eye engaged right up to their edges. If the activity told of the sitter’s history, so much the better. With the Garbo portraits there is no decorativeness of dress or ambience, and not even much of a figure to speculate about. There is only a face. Great portraits act unforgettably as carriers of temperament,such that the picture seems absorbed by that temperament, or selflessly given over to it, whatever the rhetoric of the pose or weight and duration of the scrutiny This memorableness isn’t to be confused with familiarity, and it’s a measure of Beaton’s achievement here that some of the faces of his celebrities are as memorable as those of his unknowns.

In Beaton’s diaries, the most acute wordplay evokes the look and manner of people through their organismic display and odd accents in fugitive moments. The Duke of Windsor’s face

now begins to show the emptiness of life. It is too impertinent to be tragic. . . .The eyes do not correspond. He looks like a mad terrier, haunted one moment and then with a flick of the head he is laughing fecklessly.9

An aperçu of this kind, in which the spirit of the diary takes chilling visual form, is the previously unexhibited A Pair of Photographs of the Hon. Stephen Tennant, 1971, noted in the catalogue as "taken on a visit to Wilsford with David Hockney.” Seen close in his vulgarly overdecorated boudoir, propped up in his chaise longue, a cocktail glass in the left hand, an outsized dark fan flipped open like a turkey flutter by the right, Tennant is blurrily pictured amid the hoopla of the aged poseur. He appears in profile as a bohemian Mussolini, with long, stringy hair, and cuddling a monkey doll. Seated next to him, on our left, all but his blond head lost in shadow and movement, is the young David Hockney Tennant was a high-born relic of the exquisite Cambridge days, and a lifelong respected friend of Beaton’s; Hockney was the photographer’s heir apparent in the same fields. It’s as if Beaton was lingering in the memory of his past by virtue of this mad, festive sorrow while the future attended as cipher. The scenario recapitulates the binary structure of many of his portraits. Hockney plays the servant to Tennant’s Edith Sitwell—and so it goes: the assistant shedding light on the princess, the war correspondent on the bed with the Supreme Commander. Long before he had any contact with My Fair Lady, the relationship of Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins foretold the archetypes of Cecil Beaton’s life, and of his life in art. Certainly he had reason to identify with both of the subjects in this double portrait. Certainly too, in this late, ultramannered photograph, a masquerade that is yet unnervingly frank, he embodied the knowledge of a lifetime.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and writer who lives in New York. His next book, The Privileged Eye_, will be published by the University off New Mexico Press in early 1987.



1. Ian Jeffrey and David Mellor, “The Tyranny of the Eye: The Theatrical Imagination of Cecil Beaton,” in Cecil Beaton. London: Barbican Art Gallery. 1986, p. 101. A catalogue of the exhibition.

2. Quoted in Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton: A Biography, Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1986, p. 40.

3. Ibid., p. 134.

4. “Beaton at the Barbican: An Interview with David Mellor by Susan Butler,” Creative Camera 5, London, 1986, p. 30.

5. Ibid., p. 31.

6. Cecil Beaton, Barbican Art Gallery catalogue, p. 202.

7. Quoted in Vickers, p. 277.

8. Polly Devlin, ed., The Vogue Book of fashion Photography 1919–79, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, p. 8.

9. Quoted in Vickers, p. 340.