Saturday, 20 June 2015

AUDREY HEPBURN: PORTRAITS OF AN ICON 2 July to 18 October 2015, National Portrait Gallery, London

2 July to 18 October 2015, National Portrait Gallery, London

This fascinating photographic exhibition will illustrate the life of actress and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993). From her early years as a chorus girl in London’s West End through to her philanthropic work in later life, Portraits of an Icon will celebrate one of the world’s most photographed and recognisable stars.

A selection of more than seventy images will define Hepburn’s iconography, including classic and rarely seen prints from leading twentieth-century photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Terry O’Neill, Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn. Alongside these, an array of vintage magazine covers, film stills, and extraordinary archival material will complete her captivating story.


Supported by Midge and Simon Palley

With support from the Bernard Lee Schwartz Foundation and the Audrey Hepburn Exhibition Supporters Group

Organised with support from the Audrey Hepburn Estate / Luca Dotti & Sean Hepburn Ferrer

The cult of Audrey Hepburn: how can anyone live up to that level of chic?
An exhibition of rare photographs of Audrey Hepburn reveals that even at the age of nine she knew how to work the camera. Bee Wilson celebrates the woman who set a new standard for style

Bee Wilson

The greatest film stars inspire certain labels that stick to them as surely and superficially as school nicknames. Marlon Brando is always a “screen legend”. Lauren Bacall is a “siren” and Montgomery Clift, a “heart-throb”. As for Audrey Hepburn, she was, and is, “iconic”: occasionally, an “icon of elegance”, sometimes a “style icon”, but mostly, just plain “icon”.

As labels go, it could be worse. It is certainly less reductive than “sex symbol” (Marilyn’s fate). Hepburn’s enduring iconic status is a sign of how strong her cultural currency remains. Fashion writers invoke her constantly. When enthusing about sunglasses or little black dresses or gloves, it is still de rigueur to mention that scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Hepburn clutching a paper cup of coffee and a croissant, staring coolly into a window full of jewellery.

Now, more than 70 photographs of the star can be seen in a small but dazzling exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Half are from the personal collection of her children, Sean Hepburn Ferrer (the son she had with her first husband, actor Mel Ferrer) and Luca Dotti (the son she had with her second husband, an Italian psychiatrist). Ferrer and Dotti own their mother’s name as Audrey Hepburn™. In 2013, they granted permission to Galaxy chocolate to recreate her image in CGI. You may have seen the adverts; they had a Roman Holiday vibe, with a young Audrey driving through Italy in an open-top car. Her sons also worked closely with the NPG on the new exhibition. Its title, you may not be surprised to hear, is Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon.

And what an icon she was. As Billy Wilder said: “God kissed Audrey Hepburn on the cheek, and there she was”, meaning: she was born a star. No one has ever worn a white shirt quite as she did. To peruse this glamorous collection of photographs – including work by Cecil Beaton, Yousuf Karsh and Irving Penn – is to be reminded how sublimely photogenic Hepburn was. Others have been called gamine, but only she fully inhabited that identity: the skittishness and innocence. On another face, to have eyebrows so darkly painted and eyes so swishily lined might have seemed overkill; on her it looked natural. She photographed equally well in black-and-white and in colour. Here she is in 1951, in one of her informal black tops, grinning for American Vogue, like a child with a secret. And there she is four years later, radiant in pink Givenchy couture during the filming of War and Peace.

Even in family album snapshots – or at least the examples chosen by the NPG – she has a ballerina’s poise. The earliest image in the exhibition shows her in 1938 aged just nine. She has a Milly-Molly-Mandy haircut and no eyeliner yet, but she has already mastered how to smile for the camera without giving everything away. Richard Avedon – whose 60s portraits are some of the most haunting in the exhibition, accentuating the vulnerability of her swan neck – claimed that he found Hepburn paradoxically hard to photograph. She left so little work for him to do: “However you defined the encounter of the photographer and subject, Audrey won.”
Our continued reverence for Hepburn is interesting because it reveals the extent to which we remain in thrall to beautiful stills. An icon is something lovely and precious but also motionless: symbolic, not real. It is a flat picture of a golden saint before which you kneel, unworthy. As such, an exhibition of photography – rather than a film retrospective – may be the perfect way to pay homage to Hepburn’s charm.

In theory, we inhabit the age of the moving image: Netflix, YouTube, Skype. Yet the Hepburn with the enduring fame and cachet is not, as you might expect, the witty, talky one who could actually act – Katharine – but the one who photographed well. The more you look at the exquisite images in the NPG exhibition, the more you see that Hepburn’s genius for still imagery far eclipsed her achievements in motion pictures. I wonder how many now watch her in Sabrina, a rather odd and stilted romantic comedy in which Hepburn gives one of her many less-than-convincing performances as a chauffeur’s daughter torn between Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Yet we still recall the black slacks and ballet flats she wore in that picture, and her sylph-like waist.

The cult of Hepburn as “icon” has often seemed to be less about devotion to her film work and more a way for other women to put themselves down. Who can live up to that level of chic, not to mention the extreme slenderness? Hepburn herself insisted she ate “awfully well at meals”, but still, her figure would be a dangerous one for others to emulate. “Audrey maintained an impressive 31.5in-22in-31.5in her entire life,” remarked Pamela Keogh in her deeply annoying 2008 book What Would Audrey Do? Timeless Lessons for Living with Grace and Style.

As Billy Wilder said: ‘God kissed Audrey Hepburn on the cheek, and there she was’, meaning: she was born a star
In the exhibition catalogue, curator Helen Trompeteler admits that film “was just one of the ways Hepburn’s image was shaped, and arguably not the most enduring”. She points out that at the height of Hepburn’s career, audiences would often see a film only once, whereas photographic stills were treasured, to be viewed over and over again. Through such publications as Picture Post and Picturegoer, Hepburn’s image reached a huge public. She was on the cover of Life magazine nine times, more than any other celebrity (Marilyn only managed seven). In 1954, Vogue magazine said that she had so captured the public imagination that she had established a new “standard of beauty”. It was the costume designer Edith Head who first spotted that Hepburn was more like a model than an actor. Head worked with Hepburn on Roman Holiday and said “her figure and flair told me, at once, that here was a girl who’d been born to make designers happy”.

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