New York

“On the Edge: Photographs from 100 years of Vogue

NYPL Humanities and Social Sciences Library

Given Vogue’s sponsorship and publication of some of the greatest photography of the last century, it stands to reason that “On the Edge” would prompt a reassessment of the magazine as an ongoing curatorial project. Unfortunately, this exhibit fairly reeks of scent inserts and self-importance, though it gives occasion to reflect on the relation between fashion and the world of “high” culture.

Surrealism, in its interface with commerce, its obsession with fantasy and dream, provided a venue for the interaction of “high” art, fashion, and photography. As fashion magazines gained momentum in the ’20s and ’30s, Surrealist collaborations, such as those between Salvador Dali, Meret Oppenheim, and Elsa Schiaparelli, briefly transformed women’s fashion into a kind of performance art, celebrating the excesses and enthusiasms of the moment in the rarefied world of the avant garde. Long after this sort of collaboration faded, it lingered on in magazines, ever more compromised by commerce and hype, like a Weimar cabaret star finding a second career as a Vegas lounge act.

“On the Edge” would have made more sense as a book than as an exhibition: as a show it was cluttered, and pretentious, and at the same time strangely unaffecting. The brilliance of Vogue has always been its absolute investment in a world that knows neither past nor future, only the thrill of the very next moment, the very next “look.” The disposability of a magazine accounts for a great part of its charm: the image takes on an added poignancy when it exists in a throw-away medium. Which is why memorializing a fashion magazine seems to me like sending one’s Pekingese to the taxidermist—yes, you can do it, and maybe it will look great mounted, but it’s not going to be what it was. Like a That’s Entertainment! of fashion journalism, “On the Edge” was chock full of brilliant recycled imagery set in a ridiculously simpleminded, quasi-historical context. It was a great way to spend your lunch hour, so long as you didn’t spend too much time on the captions.

The show’s images were broken down by decade, with brief asides about changes in the magazine’s editorial direction. Each decade introduced a new vision of woman: in the ’30s, she’s relaxed; in the ’40s, she works; in the ’50s, she’s all artifice and poise. In the ’60s she’s a youthquaker. In the ’70s she’s predatory and strong and so on and so on. The captions were perfectly banal, the imagery transcendent. Many of these pictures can stop you in your tracks: Cecil Beaton’s color photograph of women in Charles James gowns; Lee Miller’s “snapshot” of a woman with an Afghan hound; William Klein’s photograph of Brigitte Bardot in the squalor of her dressing room. And though they exist, as fashion exists, to create desire, to stimulate one’s appetite for consumption, each photo in this show managed to play with your mind in marvellous, scary ways that have nothing to do with clothing, or for that matter, with the historical importance of Vogue.

But collectively, these photographs—presented in the tomblike recesses of the New York Public Library, as surreal a venue for fashion as any invented by Dali or Cocteau—lack the black humor, the resonance, and the risk of the Surrealist project and of Vogue’s long history of association with avant-garde movements. It’s all deadly earnest. Though On the Edge: Images from 100 Years of Vogue, 1992, features a remarkably good introductory essay by Kennedy Fraser, this essay was in no way in evidence at the exhibition. Its presence—or the presence of any convincing curatorial voice or vision—was sorely missed.

Justin Spring