Monroe, Brando Ooze Hollywood Glamour in London Exhibition: Martin Gayford
A great collector discerns quality before anyone else notices it.
John Kobal (1940-1991) was in Los Angeles in the 1960s at a time when the Hollywood studios were clearing out their libraries of still photographs. Kobal often was invited to take his pick, according to his friend the critic John Russell Taylor. At other times, he was tipped off when the images were being dumped so he would follow and fill his car.
Some of those gleanings can be seen in “Glamour of the Gods: Photographs From the John Kobal Foundation” at the National Portrait Gallery (through Oct. 23) in London. Here are glittering divas and handsome movie heroes from Gloria Swanson to Marilyn Monroe. By Monroe’s era, Kobal’s enthusiasm was running out. He was a star-struck romantic, and in his view the “gods” and “titans” of Hollywood belonged to the ‘20s and the ‘30s.
Those publicity shots he rescued are partly performance art. Joan Crawford told Kobal, “I photographed better than I looked so it was easy for me… I let myself go before the camera.” The result, in an MGM still from 1933 by Clarence Sinclair Bull, was a blend of regal beauty and emotional intimacy.
Crawford and the others were doing what they did best, acting to camera. The studio photographers were deploying, often brilliantly, all the arts of traditional portraiture: lighting, composition, costume and flattery. The latter took the form of extensive retouching.
“Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century,” an outstanding exhibition at the Royal Academy (until Oct. 2), demonstrates the same point in a different way. Robert Capa, one of the major photographers included, once remarked, “It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian.” That was a backhanded way of emphasizing how many masters of the camera emerged from Hungary betweeen 1920 and 1940.
Just why that Central European nation was so photographically fertile is hard to say. What the major figures -- Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Brassai, Martin Munkacsi and Andre Kertesz -- had in common was modernism. They use the same tight geometrical structure and pared-down forms as a painter such as Mondrian, whose studio apartment was the subject of a marvelous photograph by Kertesz.
Line and Energy
Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika" by Martin Munkacsi. The photograph is on show in "Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century" at the Royal Academy in London until Oct. 2. Source: Royal Academy via Bloomberg
If the actual scene didn’t quite have the correct arrangement of lines and surfaces, these photographers might adjust it. Kertesz moved Mondrian’s vase to create the right curve, while Capa may have staged his celebrated and endlessly controversial “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936).
That possibility only bothers those who confuse photography and truth. Like the still of Crawford sans freckles, Capa’s image of a falling Spanish Republican isn’t raw reality. It’s art.
“Glamour of the Gods: Photographs From the John Kobal Foundation” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through Oct. 23. Information: http://www.npg.org.uk.
“Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century” is at the Royal Academy until Oct. 2, see http://www.royalacademy.org.uk. For more on the foundation: http://www.johnkobal.org/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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