Edward Steichen – Fashion Glamour and Modernity at the NGV

Beauty – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 Actress Gloria Swanson 1924 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1924 Condé Nast Publications

The Art Deco movement (1920 – 1940) across all the arts was the first universal style to be based on legitimate principles of design for over 125 years and it embraced the two extremes of historical continuum, from the ancient past to the distant future.

The glamour and modernity of Art Deco fashion will be on show through the world of photography and costume at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from the 18th October 2013 to 2nd March 2014.

Tony Ellwood, Director of the NGV said, “Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion will be the first major Australian retrospective dedicated to Steichen’s iconic Condé Nast work”.

Steichen captured the fashionable concerns of his day brilliantly one that won over the hearts and minds of all his lady viewers at large and he became the fashion photographer par excellence, changing the way others looked at the world.

He revolutionised the genre of fashion photography and changed attitudes across the board, especially in the world of advertising and magazine production with his innovative lighting techniques and crispness of style.  His portraits of movie stars used sharp focus and props to highlight their allure. His Gloria Swanson behind a veil is mesmerizing.

She’s a beauty for all time.

Very Melbourne – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet 1930 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1930 Condé Nast Publications

A fashion image of two models wearing black and white gowns highlights the ease of movement for which their designer Madeleine Vionnet was known and the painterly eye of their photographer.

American based, Luxembourg born photographer, painter, and art gallery and museum curator Edward Jean Steichen (1879-1973) was considered a “packager of personalities’ and he wielded great creative influence during an extensive career.

In 1900, when he was 21 the Smithsonian Institute in America magazine reported that a critic reviewing some of his portraits wrote admiringly Steichen “is not satisfied showing us how a person looks, but how he thinks a person should look.”

Rare copies of the magazine publications Vogue and Vanity Fair will be on view and they clearly demonstrate his fresh, new avant-garde approach. When he was 43 in 1922 he was appointed chief ‘in house’ photographer for Vanity Fair, which expanded his reach and celebrity status. Part of the deal was completing regular fashion work for Vogue.

The show will celebrate and educate our perceptions about Art Deco fashion with a wonderful array of garments and accessories by the leading designers of the day. Chanel, Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Paquin were all names well known at this time.

France’s Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971) pointed out ‘elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress…nor is it, the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future‘.

Her style would become a byword for those seeking modish elegance.

Anyone for Tennis? – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 On George Baher’s yacht. June Cox wearing unidentified fashion; E. Vogt wearing fashion by Chanel and a hat by Reboux; Lee Miller wearing a dress by Mae and Hattie Green and a scarf by Chanel; Hanna-Lee Sherman wearing unidentified fashion 1928 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1928 Condé Nast Publications

When he photographed his models Steichen had his own technique, one that allowed him to design with his camera so that the models and the clothes they were wearing found and enjoyed a relationship with their setting.

Mastering reflection was the first step toward an image making revolution that began with the development of the mirror in antiquity and climaxed with the triumph of photography.

This recently new art form is very much in the spotlight in 2013 with museums and art galleries all over the world presenting a diverse, creative and compelling set of images in exhibition showings that stimulate the senses, influencing both our ideas and emotions.

Taking Centre Stage – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 White (center Gwili André) 1935 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1935 Condé Nast Publications

In terms of history photography as an art form is still in its infancy, with photographs captured either with a fleeting moment to think about, or reflect on their truth or, thought about deliberately, then chosen and constructed carefully to invite and provoke a response.

Drama – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 Actress Mary Heberden 1935 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1935 Condé Nast Publications

Drawing with light is a wonderful definition and comes from the French photographie in its turn derived from the Greek words for light and to draw

The evolution of photography happened gradually through a series of inventions that led ultimately to what we generally know as photography: an ability to capture an image in real time and imprint it onto paper for posterity.

It was during the first decade after World War 1 (1914-1918) that Edward Steichen really came to fame as a fashion photographer. It was after such a hard and bitterly fought conflict when everyone was looking forward to a time when beauty would once again come to be both appreciated and enjoyed.

Humanity was looking for a way back from the edge of extinction and to embrace a future full of promise, light and life.

Across all the art forms, and in architecture, there was a discernable mood and interest in a refinement of taste and style. Steichen grabbed his opportunity and ran with it, having the eye and the talent to do so.

Any motif that expressed the spirit of the age was permitted. Design style drew on developments of avant-garde painting with abstraction, distortion, simplification and floral bouquets.

Japonaise – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 Tamaris with a large Art Deco scarf 1925 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1925 Condé Nast Publications

Zig zags, chevrons and lightning bolts led the way to the world of haute couture where through Steichen’s eye lyrical flowing visions of the human figure found expression through rich bold, yet elegant lines.

Trousers, the emblem of the emancipated woman for day wear were sharply delineated while at night fluid sleeveless tunics concealed the natural curves of the feminine body, cut low at the back, sensuous and seductive.

Gold and gilt chains became the indispensable garment for all fashionable women and if Edward Steichen, photographed you well then, that was the icing on the cake.

During World War II, Steichen who had been gardening in France since he left Condé Nast in 1937, put on the uniform of a Navy officer and devoted his talents to the war effort.

After it was over Steichen won an Academy Award in 1945 for a naval documentary about the war in the Pacific.

He was the first Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curating their now famous ‘Family of Man’ exhibition held in 1955.

It is today an important aspect of the UNESCO Memory of the World.

Collage from Family of Man Exhibition Clervaux Castle, Luxembourg

It was a manifesto of his ideas, brilliantly conceived and constructed and the most ambitious of all his undertakings.

It is without doubt one of the most celebrated shows in photographic history and toured extensively around the world before coming to rest. It’s all about our diversity as human beings.

It has been masterfully restored and since June 2013 Family of Man now has a permanent home in a monument to the past Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg, Steichen’s birthplace.

Steichen would never return to photographing clothes they remained his between the wars experience, although he did keep taking pictures almost until his death, on March 25, 1973, two days short of his 94th birthday.

Tripping the Light Fantastic – Edward Steichen American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23 Dancers Leonore Hughes and Maurice Mouvet 1924 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1924 Condé Nast Publications

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion

National Gallery of Victoria – Summer Show

18th October 2013 – 2nd March 2014

This is a touring exhibition from the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis, which will be augmented by works from the National Gallery of Victoria and public and private collections in Australia.

Video about Edward Steichen

NGV Shop

Two catalogues will accompany the exhibition: Art Deco Fashion, a magazine-style volume that charts the development of the modern silhouette and highlights some of the leading designers of the period, and Edward Steichen: In High Fashion – The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937, a lavishly illustrated 288 page publication that focuses on Steichen’s legendary Vogue and Vanity Fair work.

The opening weekend of Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion will celebrate the Art Deco era with a special day of programs on Saturday 19 October inviting visitors to learn the Charleston and join experts at a free forum that will discuss the enduring legacy of Edward Steichen.

The exhibition has been organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP), in collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria.

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