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‘Fragile Beauty’

  • Art
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Dakota hair, 2004
Photograph: © Ryan McGinley Studios

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy taste. Luckily, Sir Elton John would probably know his art from his elbow even if he hadn’t become one of the world’s biggest, richest megastars.

For decades now, he has been building a world class collection of photography with his partner David Furnish. It’s been shown all over the world, even at the Tate in 2017, and now it’s the V&A’s turn. 

The exhibition is absolutely rammed full of iconic images by some of the most important names in photography: Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Juergen Teller, William Egglestone and on and on. Like you’d expect from a megastar, it’s pretty dazzling.

The show is grouped into big overarching themes: fashion, reportage, desire, etc. The fashion bit runs the gamut from experimental Harry Callahan cut-outs to stark Irving Penn minimalist luxury via debauched guy Bourdin naughtiness and a beautifully tasteless portrait of Sir Elton’s bejewelled hands by Mario Testino. Style, glamour, cheekbones, cocaine; that’s fashion for ya. 

Things get a little grittier in the celebrity section. There are famous images of Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles,Frank Sinatra, and three incredible photos of Miles Davis’s hands by Irving Penn. But this is where the cracks start to appear. Images of tragic figures are everywhere; Marilyn Monroe forlorn and lost, Chet Baker broken by drug abuse, James Dean beautiful and young, but not for long. Celebrity is a curse, a dangerous burden that can crush you just as readily as make you.

A lot of beauty, a lot of skin, a lot of deep, aching desire.

Fashion, celebrity, excess; the pieces of the Elton John puzzle are falling into place. But the biggest piece is desire. Here you find the most intimate images of the collection; men frolicking at Fire Island by Tom Bianchi, fragile self-portraits by Peter Hujar, stark, joyful skin-to-skin closeness by Ryan McGinley. A lot of beauty, a lot of skin, a lot of deep, aching desire.

But Elton and David cast a wider net too. Their collection of news photographs is a potted history of political ire and societal turmoil, from 9/11 to Harvey Weinstein. But really what they’re interested in is photography itself, its power, its beauty. That’s why there’s so much Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus, why the cool compositional perfection of Egglestone is here, and the vulnerability and youthful abandon of McGinley, the grim rebellion of Larry Clark, because photography has the power to capture the fragility, the temporariness of everyday life, and that’s where the beauty is.

Nothing exemplifies that better than the amazing immersive installation of brutally tender, intimate, sexual, sad Nan Goldin images. These are hauntingly bare documents of love and laughter and sex and youth and abuse. Incredible.

There’s a huge amount of work here. Lots is very good, including the more art-focused work by people like Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Reneke Djikstra, showing how photography can conceptually leap way beyond the bounds of documentary and fashion.

But there’s also a lot of guff. Richard Avedon I find profoundly unappetising, portraits of celebrities generally leave me cold, and most of the fashion work does nothing for me. But you can’t deny these are the best photos by some of the biggest photographers. 

My initial, gut response to a celebrity collection is why should I care? I don’t need to applaud a millionaire for having good taste, I care about art, not what art tells me about a celebrity’s buying power. But the works here are inextricably linked to the narrative of Sir Elton John and David Furnish. This exhibition is a portrait of Elton, of an icon, through portraits of other people. This show spills out a story about style, fashion, the crippling excesses of success, the endless, head spinning allure of sexuality. It’s because it’s Elton John’s collection that this exhibition works. Without that link, it’s just a bunch of very good photos. But with it, it becomes a story, and an iconic story at that.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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