|audrey by douglas kirkland|
Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon review – beautiful, but unrevealing
By the age of nine, Hepburn had perfected her pose. But after gazing at her timeless beauty countless times, you are left wanting to see beneath the stylish facade
Wednesday 1 July 2015 18.58 BST
Here is Audrey Hepburn as you might imagine her: shot in black and white, eyes full of secret dreams. Her features are a checklist of familiar Hepburn iconography. The edges of her smile taper to a dark smudge. She acknowledges the camera without facing it, and her cropped fringe gives a wide margin to a pair of fine brows. She is entirely recognisable from the images amassed at the peak of her career – and yet this Hepburn is only nine years old.
The photograph, among 35 loaned from the private collection of Hepburn’s sons, is one of the gems of this exhibition, the first organised by a British gallery with the support of the Audrey Hepburn Estate. The image was taken in 1938, shortly before the war and impending Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, where Hepburn was to spend years of her youth. (The malnutrition she endured as a result of this is usually cited by her sons to explain her supreme thinness: in adulthood, she was said to sport a 22-inch waist.) The image opens the show, and the room, devoted to Hepburn’s childhood and early work, contains many quiet thrills.
These were the days when Hepburn hoped for a career as a dancer, to which a pair of cracked leather ballet shoes bear witness. It was while dancing, in revue performances at venues just around the corner from the National Portrait Gallery, that Hepburn was spotted by the photographer Antony Beauchamp, whose stilted, stately fashion shots of her from 1949 later appeared in British Vogue. Such was Hepburn’s lack of presumption that when Beauchamp asked to photograph her, she declined, explaining that she couldn’t afford it.
By then, Hepburn was on her way. Her eyebrows were thickening, the cropped hair sharpening. By the time she was snapped in the foyer of a Monte Carlo hotel in 1951, resting her head tenderly on the shoulder of the writer Colette, she was on the brink of her big break – starring in the Broadway adaptation of the novelist’s Gigi. That photograph, according to her youngest son, Luca Dotti, was one of the few images of herself that Hepburn displayed at home. What is startling, looking around the opening room, even at these impromptu images by unrecorded photographers, is how comprehensively Hepburn occupied a stylised image of herself at such a young age.
You can play a game at this show: scour the three rooms in search of the shots in which Hepburn least resembles the iconography of Hepburn. The pursuit suggests itself, because the images, taken as a collection, are so repetitive. At the height of her fame, Hepburn had a preference for showing the left side of her face. Portrait after portrait is shot from this angle.
Of course, every photographer’s Hepburn is different. Richard Avedon has her bleached out and Warholian, her mouth a black hole between her lips. Irving Penn’s, for American Vogue in 1951, is graphic and sharp. Cecil Beaton, in his first sitting with Hepburn, has her wistful and inscrutable. Most movingly, in a 1991 shoot two years before her death, Steven Meisel has her lift her arms in a halfheartedly balletic gesture that apes the informal shots in the opening room.
In fashion magazines today, where Hepburn continues to inspire editorials, the epithet most often associated with her is “timeless”. That seems pertinent, because if you try to plot a narrative of her development across these rooms, at every step the familiar features of her image intercept the sense of change or growth. The exhibition invites the question of how far Hepburn herself was in control of her image – but it does not muster a satisfying reply. “I am, and forever will be, devastated by the gift of Audrey Hepburn before my camera,” Richard Avedon once said, having worked with her on countless shoots. “I can only record. I cannot interpret her ... She has achieved in herself her ultimate portrait.” Even when Hepburn is staring squarely at the camera, there is the suggestion of secrecy, a thought withheld. The face is almost always half-turned. The smile is almost always a half-smile. Privacy is always somewhere out of the frame.
The exhibition focuses on her movie career, but somewhere here – between the images of her on the set of The Nun’s Story (1959) and on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Hepburn became a mother. For a long period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she made no films at all. Her later interest in humanitarian work – she travelled to 20 countries with Unicef in the last five years of her life – is documented in the final room, but her role as a parent, which she took on full-time for long spells, goes unrecorded.
There are some supremely beautiful photographs in this exhibition. Many helped to change the language of fashion photography. But the collective effect is to leave you wanting to see what the camera couldn’t see.
- Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 July to 18 October 2015.