Whether hanging from a suspension bridge wearing a police cap, posing in artful drag, or coaxing others’ poses from behind a camera, mid-century photographer and designer Cecil Beaton was never boring. In an era when New York teemed with novelty, glitz, art and fashion, Beaton still stood out, and with old world manners and a surrealist eye, helped both to capture and define a movement. The Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Ave., at East 103rd Street) presents a selection of Beaton’s works through Feb. 20 in the exhibit “Cecil Beaton: The New York Years.”
The hallway leading up to the exhibit’s entrance, with walls playfully sketched on by Millree Hughes, sets a quirky tone for the exhibit. The antechamber to the main gallery showcases a series of self-portraits and New York City impressions, recalling Beaton’s pen-and-ink drawings of dancers, drag queens, buildings, and the Carnegies that formed a cultural map of Manhattan. Combined with an asymmetrical font used to write the names of Cecil and his subjects, these personal photographs make both the background and foreground intrinsically Beaton, hinting at the fine line between commerce and art that he tread throughout his career.
The central interior of the exhibition focuses on the pillars of Beaton’s work—fashion, celebrity photography, and costume design. Although slightly hindered by a foggy Anita Jorgensen lighting design, the exhibit’s layout is spread out but cohesive, benefiting from the common thread of commercial rose wallpaper designed by Beaton himself.
From creating ensembles for the stage and for the screen production of “My Fair Lady,” to photographing the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote, Beaton’s work proves extremely varied.
Whether whimsical, somber, or simple, Beaton’s works are united by an underlying distinctive style. In “Gabrielle Chanel, 1956,” Beaton portrays a solemn, but stylish, 82-year-old Coco Chanel standing on her own spiral staircase. The piece shows a graphic flair similar to that of M.C. Escher. Some of Beaton’s 1940s photographs for Vogue flirt with impressionism.
Perhaps most impressive is Beaton’s uncanny ability to capture subtlety, imbuing glamour with humanity and—like his admirer and subject Andy Warhol—combining popular culture and art. He catches a pensive glance from Julie Andrews, a relaxed smile from Marilyn Monroe, and melancholy innocence from actress Helen Hayes. Beaton triumphs in catching the vulnerability beneath the showmanship. A heart-wrenching photograph of three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne, clinging to her teddy bear while lying in a hospital bed, highlights his knack for finding emotional resonance beneath his stylized composition.
Beaton’s accessible high art appeals to a contemporary audience both through its more modern medium and its representation of a romanticized golden cultural era for New York. Beaton manages to communicate the essence of the city through portraits of the artists who have shaped it, capturing all of its glamorous complexities with his artful lens.