11 January 2012

Mr. Beaton Takes New York

"Self Portrait on the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City” Cecil Beaton (ca. 1929)

During my holiday break I ventured up to the Museum of the City of New York to view the exhibit “Cecil Beaton: The New York Years.” Beginning in 1928, the British photographer, designer, and society darling would live on and off in the city for 40 years, taking up residency in the best hotels (whose rooms he would decorate) while working for American Vogue and Vanity Fair.

The exhibit is like Beaton himself—a perfect blend of gossip and art. One is drawn in immediately by the illustrated walls of the hall leading to the exhibit room (the illustrations, of people and places from the 1920s, are copies from Beaton's diaries) and an entrance covered with Beaton-designed black and white rose wallpaper.

Inside is a large assortment of photographs, drawings, letters, diaries, and even some of the costumes Beaton designed for the Metropolitan Opera. Broken up by subject and time period, the collection is a fascinating look at the world in which Beaton moved, flitting between high society women and royalty to authors, actors, and rock stars.

"Princess Natalia Paley" Cecil Beaton (ca. 1935)

Most of the subjects are recognisable: a baby-faced Marlon Brandon, a smiling Greta Garbo (rare indeed), a rigid-looking Wallis Simpson, a glowing Marilyn Monroe, an elfish Cole Porter. One of my favourite photographs was of a woman I wasn’t familiar with and whose image graces the exhibit’s catalogue. The Garbo-like Natalia Paley, a cousin of the Czar Nicholas II, is posed in front of the wiring from a box spring, which just adds to the photo's glamorous deco look.  

The books in the display cases (diaries that Beaton published) made me make a mental note to check out some of Beaton’s writings. The man who said “Perhaps the world's second-worst crime is boredom; the first is being a bore” should definitely make for an interesting read.

“Cecil Beaton: The New York Years” runs through February 20, 2012. You can find out more about the exhibit here

Photos from Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

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