From Gossip to War Glamour

Photography turning war into theater


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In July of 1940 The New Yorker published a curious note about Cecil Beaton visiting Gertrude Stein on the eve of France’s entry into World War II:

Miss Stein was at her villa in the south of France, when war was declared. Cecil Beaton was her house guest that week-end. At 11  p.m. a friend telephoned the news to her. “Gertrude,” was the awesome message, “war has been declared. We’re at war” . . . “War, war, what do we care about war here,” Miss Stein shouted into the phone. “Something terrible has happened. Cecil is lost in the woods.”

Eventually Beaton found his way out of the woods, and returned to London where he became a photographer with the British Ministry of Information capturing not only the quotidian moments of soldiers and sailors, but also somber images of London’s destruction during the Blitz. Until the 1940s, Beaton’s photographic career was centered on fashion and celebrity portraits for Voguemagazine. A self-taught photographer, his images drew from his love of theater and costume, presenting highly staged scenes with theatrical backlighting that gave each subject the gentle godlike aura of the era.

The son of a successful lumber family, Beaton studied at Cambridge and planned for a career in theater. In the 1920s he fashioned himself a dandy, circling the bright young things of London society. He took up photography as an occupation against theater’s limited possibilities. “Photos are the only thing — just to make money. It is difficult to get a permanent job with scenery and dresses,” he wrote in 1925. His camera would eventually give him entry into the narcissistic worlds of upper class London and New York, photographing celebrities and royalty with equal skill, turning their presence into photographic art just as the glamorized images of celebrities were filling the new industry of fashion and gossip magazines.

In 1938 Beaton was forced to resign from Vogue after scrawling an anti-Semitic joke in tiny letters along the border of a photograph published in February 1st issue of the magazine. Once the joke was found, the editors had to recall all the copies and print another edition. “I regret this ill-mannered expression of my irritation and annoyance caused by some bad films I had just then seen” he wrote in his resignation letter which was published in the New York Times. In many ways, his wandering from the French woods and into a position in the Ministry of Information revived his career taking him well beyond Europe in the 1940s to the outer boundaries of the British Empire and beyond.

But the story of Beaton is always hinged on the war as being a transformative moment for him — a move from the frivolities of celebrity glamour to the realities of conflict and destruction. “Hitler has been responsible for enlarging my photographic horizons,” he once wrote. And this is the story of Beaton that has survived for many years now, more acutely since his death in 1980.

The current show at the Imperial War Museum “Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War” does nothing to dispel this narrative. Taking us through several decades of Beaton’s career, from his early photographs of costumed friends and family to his fashion and high-society portraits in the 1930s, the show is anchored around the photographs of the 1940s both in London and his travels in the Middle East and Asia. This timeline of his work is meant to show us the change in vision and content. His photographs of his college days and the late 1920s present his early interest in the relationship between the camera and theater, or rather the camera as another form of theatrical performance. In one image, Beaton is attired as a woman, with makeup and wig, which the wall text strangely describes as a “costume” rather than “drag.”  But costuming is indeed what dominants much of Beaton’s images throughout his career, as the camera was often a tool for turning the everyday into theater.

These qualities don’t change with the war. While his photographs of the London Blitz are often flat and uninspired, he can at times turn the bombed out buildings into studies in destructive design. The ceiling in one image captured at an upward angle turns the hanging fragments and metal into a darkly imagined mobile, or a backdrop to a modern Greek tragedy. Such images show how he his interests in theatrics extended into the bombed out London landscape.

One of his most famous pictures, that of three-year-old Eileen Dunn sitting in her bed at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, her head bandaged and her gaze is poignantly directed to us as she holds tight to her stuffed animal. This photograph appeared on the cover of Life magazine in September of 1940, and did much in provoking American sympathies for the war. Who could resist such a wide-eyed little girl’s expression of fear and sadness amidst war’s destructive forces? It is a portrait that feels highly staged as much as it feels intimate and emotional. But there is something about that little girl’s gaze that strangely removes us from the moment. Beaton’s penchant for the staged moment turns Dunn’s face into its own brief performance that creates a distance between her hospital bed and us. There is little difference between Dunn’s image and the kind of staging and lighting Beaton used in his earlier photographs of King George and Wallis Simpson or of high-society matrons of London or New York. What makes Beaton’s images compelling is how they turn each sitter into an icon.

The real talent in these war photographs comes from his portraits of service personnel. In encountering these photographs it is difficult to see how his aesthetic vision changed much during the war. These images of military service men and women are always handsome Brits, looking as if they are extras on a set for a Hollywood war film than actually in the combat zone. This is to say, Beaton gives us a seductive glamour in these portraits as if the sailors and soldiers are calling us over for sex. Come have sex with me, says the sailor sitting shirtless at a sewing machine in the morning light as he gazes at us. Or the portrait of a sailor on leave, reclining against a steel girder, with his slight smile and relaxed posture inviting us over for a chat. There are other postures and gestures between military men, lighting cigarettes, reclining in the midday sun that all evoke a kind of heroic eroticism, underscoring Beaton’s own erotic gaze on these men.

His women present more powerful presences. Take his photograph of a Wren in the Women’s Royal Navy Service who stands arms crossed, fully attired, but attracts us with her confident gaze. The rope looped in an abstract design against the wood panels behind her is clearly Beaton’s theatrical prop that turns the scene from a work place moment into a something more akin to a fashion set. This looping rope we find again in the arms of a welder who stand in the doorway of a workshop looking off to the distance, the light illuminating her face and gloves, turning the scene into a kind of quiet Baroque painting of light and shadow. What strikes you in Beaton’s war images is not the action or labor of the military (his aristocratic aspirations found little interest in labor) but rather moments of relaxed gestures that offer an idealized aura of glamour.

Partly this aura comes from the Information Ministry’s own efforts to present a certain view to the British and American public. Beaton’s photographs were often censored before they were even taken with precise Ministry guidelines of what were acceptable topics. The wall text tells us “through photography and other projects, Beaton contributed significantly to British propaganda at home and overseas, bolstering morale in difficult times.” But the Ministry knew Beaton’s aesthetics would conjure the needed moral, turning the war into its own glossy heroism.

Beaton rarely got too close to combat and his images lack the gruesome realities of battle that you find in Frank Capa’s jarring work. Instead we get icons of war, men and women captured in moments of staged realities. Flying Officer Neville Hill, for example, standing next to his fighter plane, his well groomed hair and white kerchief could make us forget that his real work was not about standing in front of the camera looking sly and devilish. Work can be found in Beaton’s other images of his travels through the Middle East, through Syria and Iran, and into China. In these travels, which make up a good portion of the show, he captures labor as a frenzy of exotic bodies, often stylized such that humans and landscapes merge into one. He creates patterns of workers and the landscape that reveal a photographer at a distance from the world he traveled through. One striking photograph taken in Cairo in the early 1940s presents a man and girl looking up towards a billboard of three Hollywood idols: Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner. The passerby’s nearly blend into the white walls, as the looming auras of the actresses overshadow them.

Perhaps the title of this show is meant to be slightly ironic. This is not the theater of war, but rather war as theater, offering us icons of war quite fitting for the Imperial War Museum. The museum is housed in the former Bethlem mental hospital, which in its early years was known for its chaos and cruel treatment of the insane (this is where the word “bedlam” originated). Today its grand façade is still surrounded by the former hospital’s flat green garden but its entrance is dominated by two massive warship guns that protrude upward from the front lawn, pointing their canons toward the quiet neighborhood of Lambeth. The canons take on an odd sculptural presence, their destructive use easily forgotten by their simple cylindrical silence amidst the green gardens.

Founded as a memorial to the dead of World War I, the museum has gone through decades of celebration and neglect including a bombing by an anti-war activist in the 1970s that destroyed part of the structure and numerous books in its archives. But since the 1980s there has been a resurgence in government support, expanding the museum to five different locations across the country, securing large grants even as arts organizations struggle for funding. Here you can relive the London Blitz in a recreation that draws busloads of school children each year. The main hall is a well-lit collage of war craft from decades of conflicts: Planes suspended from the ceiling, armed vehicles half destroyed, tanks peppered with machine gun fire, and a recently installed video installation on the conflict in Afghanistan. This is a museum of war nostalgia, and war iconography, where the objects of combat present their own strange aesthetic value.

In this way, the museum has become an anchor to a recent nostalgia for the London Blitz. Inhabiting forties Britain has become a small industry in the UK over the past few years, with Blitz parties held monthly in an East London bomb shelter (complete with big band music), television films set in the era, and a newly launched reality series on BBC entitled “Wartime Farm” that recreates the challenges of feeding a hungry island “during the long wearing conflict” as its website contends.

Which leads me back to Beaton’s war imagery, which is less and less about war the more you consider it. The last section of the exhibition takes you through his work in film and theater in the 1950s, with displays detailing his production and costume designs for the 1964 musical “My Fair Lady.” This was an odd way of leaving a show about war, I thought.

And as I exited that last small gallery with photographs of Audrey Hepburn, I confronted the room-sized canvas of John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed” (1919). Sargent’s painting arrests you with nearly life-sized soldiers, blinded and staggering in a line amid a barren landscape peopled with other blinded soldiers lying about. All the men have suffered a mustard attack, their eyes bandaged closed, their blindness a metaphor for the destruction of war, but also for the spectacle of trauma that soldiers witness. Sargent’s murky painting illuminates war’s physical and psychological destruction by underscoring that these soldiers have seen things we can’t even imagine. They don’t regard us or draw us into the haunting landscape. They can’t possibly look at us but, rather, we sit in the unfamiliar sidelines as mere spectators. “Gassed” was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee and won the best painting of the year by the Royal Academy of Art in 1919. While it may hold a number of symbolic meaning about the absurdity of World War I, and war in general, I found it a more compelling image of war than Beaton’s glamorous portraits and lyrical landscapes of London’s destruction. It is a strange exit from Beaton’s photograph, for the painting shows us how his images rest so much on a heroic romanticism, on images that turn war into something that is familiar and understandable. And even glamorous. Beaton’s photographs turn us back upon ourselves, such that we aren’t really looking at war images, but rather an idea of war that mirrors our own world. • 1 October 2012