Who's Who . . . in Milan
By THEA LENARDUZZI
1353. Edward Steichen, Marion Morehouse wearing fashion by Tappé ; masks by the Polish illustrator W. T. Benda, 1926 © 1926 Condé Nast Publications, New York.
While Michael Caines was in the National Portrait Gallery, wondering if he was looking at whom he thought he was looking at and, indeed, who had painted the portrait of the unknown figure, I knew exactly who I was looking at: Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Shirley Temple, Charlie Chaplin, Lee Miller, Katharine Hepburn and many more in one small room in Milan. The photographs are part of an exhibition of Edward Steichen’s portraiture work at the Galleria Carla Sozzani at 10 Corso Como, spanning the years 1923–38, when he was chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
By the time of his appointment, Steichen was already a painter and photographer of global renown. Influenced by modernists such as Matisse and Duchamp, whose work Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz had exhibited in their “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” in New York (founded in 1905, and later known coolly as “291”), he accepted a dare by the French magazine publisher and photographer Lucien Vogel to elevate garments to the highest echelons of modern art. The gowns were designed by Paul Poiret, the Picasso of couture, and Steichen’s photographs of them appeared in the April 1911 issue of Vogel’s Art et Décoration, marking the beginning of a new movement in fashion photography: clothes could be expressions of form – part of an artistic vision or manifesto – rather than merely objects for sale. Without Steichen, would we have had Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber?
Steichen accepted the Condé Nast job, however, on the basis that making beautiful photographs had a strong use value – “I wanted to work with business, like an engineer”. He photographed actors, models, statesmen, sports stars and dancers in highly theatrical poses. Noël Coward, concealed by shadows from the neck down, smokes a cigarette; behind him, atop a vertiginous staircase, is a cat’s proud silhouette. It was taken in 1932, the same year that his play Design for Living premiered in New York. The play’s representations of bisexuality and a ménage à trois were so risqué that Coward knew the censor would not allow it on a London stage.
Narratives in Steichen’s photographs were strong, often dark and reflexive: the model Marion Morehouse peers cautiously round a tree while the designer and illustrator Władysław Teodor “W.T.” Benda squats in a grotesque mask of his own design. Like Steichen himself, Benda is stalking the elusive “American Girl”. (A few years later, e. e. cummings caught Morehouse for himself.)
The Condé Nast years coincided for the most part with the Great Depression, but, while the economy declined, high glamour persisted – even when, in 1936, Vanity Fair ceased to be published separately and was incorporated as a supplement of Vogue. Though Vanity Fair’s readership had continued to grow in the years before it closed, the readers weren’t buying, just looking, and advertisers withdrew.
There may be no more fitting location for this retrospective than 10 Corso Como. Founded in 1990 by Carla Sozzani, a former journalist and fashion editor, the building was designed as a sort of architectural magazine. I browsed its fashion concessions (just looking, sadly), peoplewatched in the cafe/restaurant and flicked through its bookshop (I spent a while here, excitedly pointing out books by TLS contributors to my, less excited, companion), on my way up to the gallery. There, despite the bleakest economic climate since the Second World War, Milan preserves an inviolate space for glamour. And – austerity be damned – this “gla-mooor” (pronounced the Italian way) is free.