Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things, National Portrait Gallery - ★★★★ - Until June 7, 2020

The Bright Young Things at Wilsford by Cecil Beaton, 1927. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

In many ways Cecil Beaton and his images created the world of the 'Bright Young Things' that existed between the two world wars. His pictures of young artists, socialites and aristocrats were about reflecting his own social aspirations and aesthetic values. Beaton wanted to escape what he considered his dull middle-class background and to enter his imagined playground of high society and celebrity. The people in these pictures are frequently posed in costumes and are invariably striking an attitude. The subjects' demeanour is frequently an aloof detachment and the settings are consciously theatrical. These photographs are about surfaces, and while there is a striking lack of vitality in the sitters and in their 'fun,' the work is not a conscious commentary on the vapidity of it all. In his diary, Beaton wrote "I don't want people to know me as I really am, but as I'm pretending to be." These pictures bear the same relationship to their reality as fashion photography does to ours. They are clever and often beautiful constructs designed to hide more than they show. It is clear that Beaton was influenced by Edwardian theatrical images and his work at this period echoes the aesthetic of Oscar Wilde: “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.” This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to enter and ponder the world that Beaton invented and shared with his circle of bright young things.

Reviewed by J.C.

 Our Score:  ☆☆☆☆ 

WHEN, WHERE, GETTING THERE:
Until June 7, 2020
Sat - Thu: 10 am - 6 pm, Fri: 10 am - 9 pm
National Portrait Gallery
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/cecil-beaton-bright-young-things/exhibition

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