Horst P. Horst is arguably the pre-eminent fashion photographer of the last hundred years. His career with Vogue, beginning in 1931, spanned several decades and placed him amongst the twentieth century cultural elite. The Victoria & Albert Museum is currently hosting an extensive exhibition which celebrates his work. Although Horst is best known for his fashion photography, the V & A also focusses upon his other interests, including travel, interiors and the nude. It is an immersive exhibition, which includes sketchbooks, dresses, letters and- of course- photographic prints.

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In 1949, Horst was one of the first photographers to document the recently discovered Iranian temple of Persepolis. Lumitrix enthusiasts will recognize the temple from Dave Watts’ highly acclaimed work, shot fifty years later, demonstrating the timelessness of both artists. American Vogue used Horst’s work to run a cultural expose entitled ‘People and Ideas: Persepolis’. Horst had already begun to consider the importance and influence of the ruins. The V & A showcases Horst’s travel diary, in which he likens elements of Persepolis to Classical and Renaissance sculptures.

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Classical and Renaissance sculpture was a huge influence upon Horst’s work. Whilst based in Paris, Horst frequently visited the Louvre, where he closely studied statues and columns. This fascination comes to the fore in Horst’s images of the nude, such as ‘Lisa Fonssagrives behind harp’ (1939). Lisa was a model that Horst had plucked out of obscurity, and they worked together on countless occasions. Lisa’s story demonstrates the rise of the professional model, as the photography industry boomed. Horst treated his photography with the same gravitas given to classical works. When art critics examined sculptures, they would be sure to examine the back of the piece for consistency. Similarly, Horst’s nude photography proved that his models looked great from all angles. Models really were becoming the modern muses.

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Horst’s artistic interests can be charted by using one of his favourite motifs: the hand. In true classical style, he would study, draw and sculpt model hands, in order to better understand gestures for his photographs. Such attention to detail is visible in ‘Hat by Talbot’ (1940), again featuring Lisa Fonssagrives. By the 1940s, Horst’s attention had also turned to a more contemporary artistic movement: Surrealism. Throughout the 1930s, Surrealism broke out of its avant-garde niche and began to influence fashion, advertisements, and film. ‘Hands, hands, hands’ (1941) used one of Horst’s best-loved subjects to combine both ancient and modern influences.

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From 1940, Horst collaborated with the master of Surrealism: Salvador Dali. Horst shot this iconic portrait of Dali in 1943. The V & A displays letters that the two men sent each other, as part of their working relationship and friendship. Yet Horst was no stranger to famous friends. The V & A contains a photograph from 1934 which shows Horst enjoying a party with Coco Chanel. They maintained their friendship, with Horst capturing her portrait in 1937. Horst declared that: “The centre of the circle, the star of the show, was Chanel.”

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By the 1960s, Horst’s focus had shifted again, as interior design became a fixture within top fashion magazines. Vogue launched a regular ‘Fashion in Living’ feature, whilst Horst also found employment shooting interiors for ‘Home and Garden’. Horst’s own décor choices were also featured in magazines, and included a screen created from Polynesian fabric- a present from his friend, Coco.

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‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ charts the evolving interests of the twentieth-century fashion industry- interests that Horst both documented and drove. From the rise of the professional model to stylish interiors features, Horst worked at the cutting edge of fashion for many decades. Although he worked in an industry driven by consumerism, Horst allowed artistic inspiration to permeate his work. By continuing to engage with Classicalism and Surrealism, Horst ensured that newly emerging fashion photography was taken seriously as an art form.

'Horst: Photographer of Style' is showing at the Victoria & Albert Mueum, London, until January 4th 2015. 

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