Byline: Katherine Bowers
BOSTON — Sleek coifs and surrealism; elaborate costume balls and revolutionary sportswear, and above all, the dueling design geniuses of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. These hallmarks of Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, as captured by legendary Vogue photographer Horst P. Horst and his lover and mentor, George Hoyningen-Huene, are the focus of a comprehensive exhibit, “The Look: Images of Glamour and Style” here at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The exhibit, running through January 6, is curated as a mood come alive. Patrons enter through silver-leaf, Art Deco doorways installed for the show and are greeted by jaunty music, Fortuny and Balenciaga dresses and a parade of portraits of the era’s glittering personalities.
“We wanted to create as much ambiance as possible,” said MFA curator of photographs Anne Havinga. “So when visitors come to the show, they sit back on the white sofas and pretend to have a martini and a cigarette.”
The exhibit includes work from Hoyningen-Huene’s tenure as chief photographer for Paris Vogue — images which are owned by the Harvard Theatre Collection and are rarely on view. Lesser known of the two, Hoyningen-Huene was a Russian baron whose family fled the Bolshevik revolution and settled in Paris. He began his career as a fashion illustrator, creating “pirate” sketches of top styles and selling them to WWD and Harper’s Bazaar. Despite a reputation for being fastidious and temperamental, Hoyningen-Huene’s photographs for Vogue have a cool repose and a spare elegance, as if the temperature in his world never rose above a civilized 70 degrees (a feat considering each shot was a contrived, cramped affair hampered by bulky lights and no light meter).
A 1934 shot shows hostess Toto Koopman descending stairs in a draped, monochrome Augustabernard dress, a Grecian torso tucked in the shadows behind her. Also stunning are his shots of sportswear, including his famous Izod swimsuits shot, in which he transformed the rooftop balustrade of Paris Vogue into the ocean’s horizon.
One of the first to recruit models from his circle of well-heeled friends, Hoyningen-Huene’s early models included Natalie Paley, a St. Petersburg princess who married designer Lucien Lelong and then ditched him for Hollywood. He captured legendary hostess Elsa Maxwell costumed as a country bumpkin with a protuberant clay nose for her Fete Champetre, and snapped Cecil Beaton in drag as racy author Elinor Glyn at another of Maxwell’s bashes.
Horst’s work, with its witty approach and dramatic lighting, dominates the second half of the exhibit. Spinning Hoyningen-Huene’s penchant for classical props, Horst tucks a pair of plaster feet between a real set in a 1938 still life for Vogue. His strongly diagonal shot of feet in pumps recalls Tod’s recent award-winning ad campaign.
Among Horst’s best-known works is his oft-published portrait of a pensive, reclining Chanel, holding a stub of a cigarette and “thinking of a love affair,” as Horst later recalled.
The span of his work — ranging from a shot of Moulin Rouge cabaret dancer Minstinguett to a portrait of Karl Lagerfeld coy behind a fan — leaves the overwhelming impression that he knew nearly everyone there was to know.
“Horst was drop-dead handsome,” said Havinga. “But he was also a very kind and gentlemanly man. He got along with many different and difficult people.”