New York

Cecil Beaton

Sonnabend Gallery uptown

Cecil Beaton’s show of portrait photographs at the Sonnabend Gallery was so vapidly chic that it quickly gave rise to a play of ideas. Beaton’s portraits fall into very clear categories involving interesting oppositions. There are hideous, arrogant, nasty society women as against men who are much more likely to be forthright, dignified, and, in one way or another, attractive. Both these types are opposed to sitters—men and women—of creative and intellectual accomplishment. One takes offense when one realizes that to Beaton these human varieties apparently imply credentials exchangeable at par for invitations to the cocktail party of the age.

The social implications are, of course, neither unconscious nor insignificant nor amusing to Beaton. His principle of an irreducible impressiveness-quotient is in no way a civilized or civilizing thing. He does not reveal in his sitters anything like a common layer of innate human significance—not even among his “worthies.” They do not even share much secularized grace, but instead tend to mask their uncomfortableness with one another, and their presence together tends to make Beaton’s own ego the implied keystone of the whole affair. Social power translated into elegant flash is the limit of Beaton’s capabilities. His is an art of abashment and the snow job.

Beaton’s characteristic method is to pose his subject amid the paraphernalia of the sitter’s life—a hangover from Old Masterism that better American photographers dropped by the First World War. Real style does enter the finished product. What is vulgar is the implication that for Beaton there must be as much style as the thing will hold. The main idea is to pose the figure arrogantly—according to whatever specific variety of arrogance he or she is an expert at—and then let in some pseudo-evocative blurring. I suppose the blurring is recognizable as minimal evidence of artistic intervention, and yet it lacks the honest irony of the vaseline-coated Hollywood lens, mostly because it doesn’t seem to have the hard, exaggerated lighting developed in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s to play against.

The most rewarding portraits are those of people of creative achievement. The various Sitwells, for instance, can posture and contort anybody else under the table, yet they contain within their wan bodies something intensely substantial and spiritually massive. Similarly, while the Johnny Weissmuller expires quickly into scandalous voluptuousness, the Jean Cocteau, with the subject posed as a sailor, is a penetrating and enduring work. It could be argued that even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, but I don’t think Beaton’s unevenness is accidental; the best portraits are those of sitters who seem morally superior to the artist.

Beaton’s strange alternations between admiration and jealousy, between honorable and covetous awe, do however add up to something. They comprise a unified outlook based on the understanding that pull in society is the ultimate measure of human achievement: artists and intellectuals may achieve dignity by their selective admission into ultimate reality—the life and world of the “Best People.” Compared with Beaton, Noël Coward was downright humble. Previously I had not noticed in Beaton’s work how his attitude can backfire. Time has to a certain extent reshuffled the deck, and what looks rudely obvious now is that creative men and women are the world’s upper crust and that the hosts and hostesses are the real spongers. Beaton’s work demonstrates that any accurate account of reality is revolutionary. The only reason why Beaton is not really an artist is that in this sense his limitations are far more valuable than his narrow, though intriguing capabilities.

Joseph Masheck