Condé Nast has, like no other publishing empire, excelled in the business of manufacturing desire. Over the past century Vogue has become the premiere aspirational magazine for middle-class women, turning wants into needs with an authority that arguably no other magazine has. Year after year, issue after tome-like advertising-choked issue, it persuades them of the need to wear designer labels and to empty their closets and turn over their wardrobe every season lest they be caught gambolling down 5th Ave in something passé. And since its rebirth in the early ’80s, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast’s other major title, has been busily convincing Americans (and by extension the Western world) that they have a royal class, consisting of glamorous politicians, Hollywood celebrities and socialites. At its heart it’s a gossip rag, pure and simple, but in the hands of Condé Nast it is something magical: A feature spread in Vanity Fair is the closest American culture comes to bestowing a knighthood.
Just how Mr Nast managed to do this is on eminent display at Toronto’s two major museums. The Art Gallery of Ontario is exhibiting the Condé Nast work of Edward Steichen and the Royal Ontario Museum plays host to a touring show of Vanity Fair celebrity portraits.
Condé Montrose Nast began his publishing career as a magazine ad man, and it’s clear in both shows that he knew the value of presentation. He started his magazines at an exciting time in US history: both Vogue (a magazine he bought in 1909 and revamped) and Vanity Fair were launched in the early teens — as the ROM show points out, alongside the 1913 New York Armory Show (a massive exhibit that brought the leading European artistic avant-garde to American audiences and is basically responsible for turning New York City into an international art hub).
If you look at the early contributors to Vogue and Vanity Fair — Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton, among others — you can see just how important this cultural moment was to Nast and just how much he believed in the status-elevating power of art. These artists, the talent and innovation they brought to their work, are largely responsible for making these magazines what they are. This tradition continues to this day and is above all else what separates Condé Nast’s flagship titles from the rest of the herd. At the ROM you can see the leading lights of contemporary photography all under the Nast masthead: Nan Goldin, Helmut Newton, Mary Ellen Mark and, of course, Annie Liebowitz (who I’ve never really cared for, but is particularly spot-lit at the ROM).
Ultimately the AGO’s Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937 is the more interesting and rewarding of the two shows. If nothing else (and there is much, much else), you see the beginnings and development of a visual vocabulary that has, by now, become the lingua franca of, if not representational figure photography in general, then celebrity portraiture. Steichen was already a recognized painter when he began working for Nast, and it’s clear that the two men were a good fit. Just as Nast sought to engage the art world for his mass media projects, Steichen brought in a whole universe of cross-disciplinary references into his fashion and celebrity photography.
What makes Steichen’s work so rich is the kind of conversations that go on: He brings the wider art world into it. Throughout the AGO show you can see a constant stream of references, the surest evidence of an alert and curious eye: John Singer Sargent here, Gustav Klimt and the Vienna secessionists elsewhere. Steichen is also engaged in the avant-garde of his day: symbolism, cubism, art deco, the Italian futurists all find a place in his compositions. But he never becomes tricksy or pedantic. Steichen is looking, conversing, but more importantly, absorbing and processing, so that his photographs go beyond simple vanity shots and become part of a global artistic discourse.
It’s not merely that the photograph of Joan Crawford is glamorous; it’s that the compositional arrangement of blacks (especially the stygian darkness of her dress) — the way these tectonic blocks stutter across the picture plane — has a rhythmic musicality that irresistibly recalls jazz. It’s not just that Noel Coward seems the nth degree of arch in his portrait; it’s the way the planar curves of his suit rhyme with the whorls of his cigarette smoke (which in turn echo in the little cat statuette in the upper left-hand corner) that make him look like a deco building.
By contrast the ROM’s Vanity Fair Portraits 1913-2008 is empty and hollow next to Steichen’s innovation. It’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and celeb worshippers will be pleased. There are some stellar photographs: the Nan Goldin portrait of a very young Rob Lowe shocked me. It’s a typical Goldin arrangement: saturated colour, tawdry flash. Her eye for the exceptional nested in the mundane yields a startling photographic moment. Lowe is shirtless, hair tousled, in mid-blink and in mid-speech, reclining on a bed, and Goldin makes him tragically beautiful. He looks like the most gorgeous twink hustler you’ve ever seen.
But ultimately the ROM show is shallow because Vanity Fair is shallow. It didn’t use to be; before it (and Nast) were ruined by the Depression in 1936, the magazine engaged the leading lights of the New York literary world — Dorothy Parker, for instance. But since its rebirth in the ’80s it has stayed unerringly true to its namesake, as if Thackeray’s novel was a guide to social climbing and not biting satire. If an alien walked through the show they might think that the 20th century was a breezy fun time, untouched by political strife or social conflict; just a procession of famous people looking beautiful.
Ultimately the photograph that sums up the ROM show, and generally what Vanity Fair has become, is a photo of the Reagans: Ronnie in a tux, laughing genially, leading Nancy decked in a bejewelled gown, in a dance in front of a pristine white backdrop. The laugh and the backdrop say it all: The photograph was taken in 1985; the Iran-Contra scandal would break a year later; AIDS was devastating marginalized populations at home; but the Reagans are dancing in an unending field of blissful blank whiteness. Harry Benson took the photograph and it’s exquisitely shot: Papa Nast would be proud.