Vogue 100: A Century of Style, National Portrait Gallery, review: 'leaves you reeling'

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'Kirsi Pyrhönen in Mongolia' by Tim Walker, 2011 (detail)
'Kirsi Pyrhönen in Mongolia' by Tim Walker, 2011 (detail) Credit: Tim Walker/NPG

Visiting this extraordinary journey back in time through the fashion bible's archives is like flicking at random through a copy of Vogue that you’re physically walking through, says Mark Hudson 

Few would deny that Vogue is the ultimate fashion magazine, responsible, in large measure, for turning fashion photography from a relatively simple technical process into an art form of almost limitless possibilities. Thanks (or perhaps no thanks) to Vogue, photography has become intrinsic to the way we appreciate and consume clothes, to the extent that people are often now buying the idea behind the photograph, rather than the garment in their hands. The great Vogue snappers, from Bailey to Testino, have become brands, bigger in some cases than the fashion houses whose products they portray.

It goes without saying that this semi-official celebration of Vogue “style” – curated by the magazine’s contributing editor Robin Muir – will feature the absolute cream of fashion photography, although the insistence that the show is about “portraiture” suggests we may be in for a tasteful but slightly dry array of vintage prints. Any such concerns are allayed on entering and seeing a cinema-size moving image of Cara Delevingne blowing bubble-gum at you in one direction and a wall-filling banner of Alexander McQueen cradling a smoking skull in the other.

Peter Schlesigner,David Hockney and Maudie James, photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1968 Credit:  Cecil Beaton/NPG

Around a seamlessly edited array of choice Vogue moments reflected in gigantic mirrors (I didn’t know they made film, but they clearly do), a bewildering diversity of photographic formats and approaches hits you from every direction: from crinkly old black and white prints to luminous light boxes, from Horst P Horst’s timelessly erotic but tiny “corset” image of 1939 to Mario Testino’s large-format Kate Moss flashing her crotch in a gauze skirt and union-jack leather from 2008.

After an initial display of classic images, the exhibitions proceeds backwards in time (a curatorial novelty that’s rapidly becoming commonplace), from now to 1916, a room per decade. The layout of the gallery makes the chronology less than obvious, particularly in the early stages, creating a confusion that’s initially exhilarating – a feeling akin to flicking at random through a copy of Vogue that you’re physically walking through; though one without the adverts that make up most of a real Vogue magazine – this is a Vogue that gives you only the good stuff.

All the great names in photography are here: the marvellous old stager Norman Parkinson with the fabulously elegant Anne Gunning in Jaipur from 1956, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, Steven Meisel, the current god Nick Knight and on and on. Corrine Day is represented by her breakthrough shoot of the teenage Kate Moss from 1993. Generally though generally there’s less of Moss than you might have feared, and the photographers are represented by some of their lesser-known moments. Bailey gives us a sharp-eyed, four-foot square Margaret Thatcher, and a fantastic Sixties story on “Top Coats” featuring Jean Shrimpton and Grace Coddington, showcasing his feel for black and white texture.

Anne Gunning in Jaipur by Norman Parkinson, 1956 Credit: Norman Parkinson Archive/NPG

By the time we’ve plummeted backwards in time through the Swinging Sixties, the Second World War and the Jazz Age to a collection of hand-painted covers from the very first editions, we’re reeling. The impression is of extraordinary brimming creativity. Just as you feel you must have encountered every talented person of the past hundred years, here’s another roomful more: not just snappers, but creative luminaries from Matisse to Martin Amis, Francis Bacon and Joan Crawford, captured in images that take you straight to their respective historical moments.

The journey back through the decades to the exit, following history in its actual direction, is less dizzying, but in many ways more revealing. The exhibition’s conceit (this being the National Portrait Gallery) is that these are portraits of individual models by individual photographers. In fact, they are elaborate collaborations involving stylists, editors and make-up artists, in which the model’s appearance is simply the focus for a kind of baroque hyper-fiction, whether it’s Tim Walker’s image of Helena Bonham-Carter crashed in a glass elevator in a field of sweet-peas or Nick Knight’s shot of Australian model Gemma Ward marooned in a mirrored neon labyrinth.

While you might assume the trajectory of 1916 to 2016 would be from the absurdly rarefied to the democratically down-to-earth, the reverse is the case. Up to the Fifties, the models often remain anonymous; by the Nineties, the supermodel “movement” (a term used without irony) has turned them into monstrous global brands. The fact that Naomi Campbell and Margaret Thatcher appear simultaneously in this fashion-oriented version of history feels significant.

The Fifties are the grittiest decade, the post-war austerity era, when we are told, “social equality of a kind reached Vogue”, expressed in images of London street traders by Irving Penn. The Seventies, rather than the Sixties feel like the turning point away from Penn’s stylised fashion-version of social realism, with the technology enabling ever larger and more fantastic imagery, exemplified by Helmut Newton’s decadent Riviera tableux.

By the Nineties, the notional egalitarianism of the post-war years has been turned inside out in Juergen Teller’s image of Posh and Becks asleep in a Manchester hotel corridor. The grandchildren of Penn’s costermongers have become a new, almost arbitrarily ordained aristocracy, the couple’s supposed “ordinariness” offset by the fact that they could buy the likes of you and I several times over.

The room devoted to the 2010s is the most disappointing. Mario Testino’s melting portrait of Kiera Knightley (extraordinary as it is) and Patrick Demarchelier’s patently retro-flavoured image of One Direction in suits don’t feel like they represent the times I’m living in. But then, if you want the “reality” version of reality, don’t go to Vogue.

This knockout exhibition may look like it’s primarily for those interested in fashion, but looking back on it, I can hardly remember any fashion in the sense of something someone might actually wear. It’s all about storytelling, image-making and personalities. On this showing, Vogue is about selling dreams rather than selling clothes. But that probably always has been the essence of fashion. 

Feb 11-May 22. Tickets: 020 7306 0055; npg.org.uk