The National Portrait gallery’s exhibition Glamour of the Gods takes us back in time to an age when the actor was on a pedestal; a time when audiences held them aloft and their art form seemed elusive. It’s this exhibition that captures this constructed ‘glamour’ perfectly, with a display of 70 prints from the film industry’s ‘Golden Age’ – 1920 to 1960.
This is in contrast with today, in which we seem to be bombarded with images of actors outside of their controlled airbrushed and well lit environments. In fact for many of us they’re more than just an actor – they’re someone we know everything about from their endorsements of perfume and jewellery to their images of home life splashed across the gossip magazines. It is an aspect I am used to; reading about their marriage, break ups, favourite foods and thoughts on their politics. In fact we almost could say we know our favourite actor as well as out best friends.
The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is a small but insightful peek drawn from the archive of the John Kobal Foundation. What is surprising is how this age is the just the beginning of how stars become more than just a flawless face on the screen – they were on the cusp of being a brand, a commodity. The images in this exhibition are in no doubt as controlled as the covers of the glossies today- airbrushing, lighting and specific angles created ideals for each actor to be seen as by audiences. It is these portraits that became the studio’s chief tool to keep the faces of favorites in the minds of the public. It was the beginning of the PR machine, using the images to promote the actors new film.
From looking at the images you get a sense of how perhaps really nothing has changed from then to today. Actors are still constructed it’s just we perhaps get more of the ‘whole’ image of them; being ‘papped’ with no make up or falling out of bars….
There’s some classic images in this exhibition such as ones of James Dean, Marlene Dietrich and Marlon Brando (above) that are no doubt seared into the cultural conscious of glamour. The obvious stand out image is Greta Garbo, her semingly relaxed pose oozes sophistication whether its her sauntering pose, her dress, her smoking – she screams confidence – and they all play a role in constructing the explicit message of emphasising her femme fatal figure of glamour.
This wonderful exhibition is a great snap shot of actors when they were visions on the silver screen in an industry that was soon to disappear, and when they were adored as the hero’s and heroines they played.
Catch it while you can at The National Portrait Gallery until 23 October!