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Issue 33 March-April 1997 RSS

Blumenfeld: a Fetish for Beauty

JAM, Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK

Held concurrently, ‘Blumenfeld’ and ‘JAM’ were both exhibitions that considered elements of contemporary urban style culture, capturing the mood of the moment through the cutting edge of graphic media, fashion and the fashionable. Sparing us yet more of the 60s and 70s revival that has permeated popular culture over the past few years, the retrospective of Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) offered a peek into the 40s and 50s while ‘JAM’ confronted us with last night. The world’s highest paid fashion photographer, Blumenfeld was also a highly experimental portrait photographer whose unprecedented run of twelve consecutive Vogue covers included some of his most striking and influential semi-abstract images. ‘JAM’ was a multimedia show with over nine selectors and 30 main contributors exploring the collision of high and sub culture that makes London the ‘World’s Coolest City’ according to Newsweek, or, if you prefer, a city with ‘no shortage of sadness and idiots’, as far as Scotland on Sunday is concerned. The participants in ‘JAM’, many of whom were commissioned to make new pieces specially for the event, were largely young ‘unorthodox, eclectic and interactive’ designers, artists and musicians currently filling the fashion and advertising pages of the avant-garde style journals. These were available to browse through over a coffee along with record sleeves and CD-ROMs on monitor and headphone set-ups. At first glance, the polished, old-fashioned-yet-timeless chic of Blumenfeld and the cut and paste juxtapositions of ‘JAM’ would seem to have little in common, being generations apart in temporal and in perceptual reality. However, they were united through a sense of the changing language of fashion and the endless preoccupation with constructing, recording and selling desirable and iconic images of women (and today, men).

While in Blumenfeld’s heyday ‘fashion’ was a dictator and now ‘style’ is a floating voter, both exhibitions manifest the influence of ethnic hybridisation - whether as a result of the Jewish and intellectual exiles moving through Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and New York in the first half of this century or the rise of black music and gay culture in the Post-modern era. Blumenfeld’s generation sought solace from the horrors of WWII in high expectations of tomorrow and the healing power of glamour. His vision was created through the stylistic celebration of beautiful women whose images were constructed through clothes, hair, make-up and darkroom alchemy. Nothing has changed in this respect except better technical control, which now includes cosmetic surgery. Art and music have always been the background to fashion, and contemporary culture could equally well be considered through the fashion scenarios of ‘JAM’ which showcased the work of fashion designers such as Hussein Chalayan, whose mud-encrusted clothing touches on performance art; the sumptuous latex textiles of Stephen Fuller; or the catwalk video of Alexander McQueen, whose eclectic baroque tailoring emerges from a very British mix of discipline and eccentricity (‘more news than new’ to quote William Ewing, actually writing on Dior’s New Look of 1947 in the ‘Blumenfeld’ catalogue). In contrast was the presumably ironic portfolio of ‘anti-fashion photos’ by Fashion Photographer of the Year David Sims and stylist Anna Coburn, and the coolest urban-wear chosen by Blow magazine’s Michael Oliviera-Salac which were exhibited sealed in clear plastic bags like supermarket kippers. If Blumenfeld defined fashion through the conventional motif of an extraordinarily beautiful woman, the predominant images in ‘JAM’ appeared to be anti-glamour, as contrivedly artless as Blumenfeld’s were self-consciously arty. But this is an established convention rather than an unorthodox backlash to the extremes of feminine body idealism perpetrated by today’s media.

Lacking the unconventional attitude it claimed to represent, ‘JAM’ seemed less a celebration and more an attack on the relentless urban cacophony of grungedom. Did those familiar with the world of ‘JAM’ go to the exhibition or were they too busy being, in the words of Antoni & Alison painted on the gallery walls, ‘Hip and Cool’ and therefore somewhere more ‘Happening and Trendy’? Can either the sociable sleaze of a night club or the solitary thrills of surfing the Internet be made manifest in an exhibition space? Perhaps it is fair to mention that the multimedia effects of ‘JAM’ were not ready at the time of the press viewing. Contemporary style exhibitions like ‘JAM’ and the V&A’s ‘Street-Style’ before it, show that urban style culture needs its street-cred context in order to seduce. The paradox of ‘JAM’ was that the very potency of ‘the latest thing’ is its exclusivity. If anything goes and anyone can participate, the marker of exclusivity fades and an unorthodox subculture becomes anodyne pop culture, leaving behind only the memories of those who did it and the images that recorded it. Among all the images in these two exhibitions, it is a photograph by Blumenfeld that best celebrates the infinite look and reckless attitude of youthful beauty: that of Lisa Fonssagrives modelling a simple white dress painted with square motifs. She teeters high on a ledge of the Eiffel Tower, the iron girders of the structure shadowing her billowing dress and uniting her vibrant beauty with the masculine symbolism of the tower. Secured only by an elegantly outstretched arm she looks fearlessly down where all Paris is at her feet. It was stunning in 1939 and is still so 60 years on.

Susan-Marie Best

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Issue 33 cover

First published in
Issue 33, March-April 1997

by Susan-Marie Best

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