An usually sunny evening last week saw me visit the National Portrait Gallery to see their current ‘Glamour of the Gods’ exhibition. On Thursday and Friday evenings, the gallery is open until 9pm as part of their ‘Late Shift’ concept. After arriving early, we had the chance to look round the BP portrait prize show, which contained work by some seriously talented artists and portraits which were slightly less engrossing. Nevertheless, a great start to a perusal of the main event, for me at least.
‘Glamour of the Gods’ is a surprisingly small exhibition, but one that does its job perfectly. The portraits present a beautiful and lingering impression of some of Hollywood’s most illuminating stars from the 1920s to the 1960s. The women and men in the predominantly black and white showcase have become icons not just of the screen but in the worlds of fashion, beauty and art.
We are the privileged viewers of a portrait of Mary Pickford which was later published in US Vogue in 1920. Clark Gable and Joan Crawford’s chemistry dazzles, bouncing around the eggshell blue walls of the exhibition room. Vivien Leigh oozes the poise which is decidedly un-Blanche. It’s all here, and both lovers of cinema and filmic amateurs will appreciate what the pictures represent.
The blurbs that sit beside the images offer a more rounded, telling story. They convey the youth of the actors and actresses and the pressures that they faced in the roles that defined them.
What shone through to me though was the pointed synthesis between sex and vulnerability- the fear and the longing in the eyes of the female actresses. My only criticism of this exhibition is in its title. This isn’t about glamour, but about sex. And no portrait demonstrates that better than Ernest Bachrach’s image of Marilyn Monroe. Captured whilst filming Clash by Night in 1952, Monroe couldn’t appear less glamourous or more coquettish.