BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

Angus McBean

BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 01 OCT 06

It was a summer for severed heads. Over the river the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Undercover Surrealism’ projected a phantom parade of unsettling specimens – floating, shrunken, sculpted – from the pages of Georges Bataille’s magazine Documents. Photographer Angus McBean’s particular take on the Surrealist taste for decapitation was altogether more whimsical. His elaborately contrived, and always frankly fake, studio sets (deserts, forests, Classical ruins) were littered with the heads of aspiring starlets and established icons; but his was a gentle universe, slightly skewed. Or so the National Portrait Gallery show was content to suggest, with its strictly chronological vision of McBean’s charmed advance from theatrical mask-maker to favoured photographer of the masque of fame. In fact, McBean, who credited his sitters with nothing more than a longing to look beautiful, turned that urge to his odd advantage: his best photographs invent a version of mid-century glamour that is distinctly twisted, almost alien.

Certainly, as regards his supposed Surrealism, any suggestion that he was a serious adherent would have greatly amused the artist himself. His first eccentric tableaux were made for The Sketch magazine, in imitation of some innocuous faux-Surrealist paintings that William Acton had produced. In 1937 it seems that any mildly inventive bit of visual play at all was enough to be deemed ‘Surrealized’ by the popular press: Vivien Leigh, in cod-Classical goddess garb, awkwardly ponders a few cotton-wool clouds. The British Journal of Photography dismissed him as a ‘charlatan’, somewhat missing the point, for McBean quickly parlayed his editors’ half-witted brief into an excuse for increasingly unruly imaginings. By the time he photographed the actress Dorothy Dickson, whose head appears to bob among the lily pads by an overgrown bank, he had hit on a style as genuinely bizarre as Max Reinhardt’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).

The real revelations of the show, however, were McBean’s close-up portraits. Some of these are too well known: his double exposure of Leigh, for example, now seems to suggest too readily the shadow of her mental illness. And the famous image of Audrey Hepburn among classical columns (taken to advertise Crookes Lacto-Calamine Skin Cream in 1950) only confirms that not even McBean could make her winsome beauty interesting. No: the truly thrilling pictures are those in which McBean is so in thrall to the (usually heavily retouched) flesh of his sitter that he or she starts to seem alluringly inhuman, weirdly emulsified. The strangest of these – Ivor Novello, Louise Rainer, the young Quentin Crisp – seem suspended between reality and some etheric medium of McBean’s making, about to swoon into or out of view.

The vision couldn’t last – Maria Callas was perhaps the final apparition, haughtily announcing ‘I will provide the necessary glamour’ – and in the 1960s it more or less evanesced. McBean put the falling away down to inferior printing (less silver), then the demand for colour, but in truth the decade itself was simply too slack for his exacting aesthetic. (Sadly, he declined to photograph the plays of Samuel Beckett, although the set of Waiting for Godot, with its blasted tree, might have been one of his own, and Winnie, in Happy Days, embedded up to her neck, is a dead ringer for his half-buried Flora Robson of 1938.) No amount of visual punning about Cliff Richard and his Shadows could make up for the essential loss of self-consciousness among his sitters (only Shirley Bassey, in 1959, looks willing to project). The celebrated twin photographs of the Beatles at the EMI building in 1963 and 1969, while graphically striking, really only suggest how annoying they became: rich, smug and hairy.

McBean’s revival in the 1980s, glossed in the exhibition as merely a product of the decade’s obsession with style, might be more productively dated to the mid-1970s, when the musicians who later hired him (Ultravox, David Sylvian) would have seen in his early work an art glamorously at odds with the unformed aesthetics of hippies and punks alike. The proof is in McBean’s gorgeous double-exposure, from 1987, of filmmaker Derek Jarman and actor Tilda Swinton: the pair hover, innocent and glittering, in the shadow at the centre of the second image, where Jarman’s face should be. There is a lineage – very English, ambiguously modern, devoted to glamour as pure effrontery – that runs from McBean’s mainstream Queer Surrealism to the art, music and film of that era, and that can’t really be reduced, as it was here, to a few belated Parisian fashion shoots.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.