When one thinks of Audrey Hepburn, one thinks in terms of images. That iconic soft focus picture from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Hepburn gazing enigmatically yet invitingly into the camera; the audacious expression and equally bold black jumpsuit which has come to represent Funny Face; the expression of glee as she rides on a moped driven by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.
The National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Portraits of an Icon’ exhibition traces how different photographers have depicted Hepburn throughout her career, but fails to capture the spirit of the actress. The camera seems fascinated more by her features and her potential to create a striking image than bringing out the enchanting quality which defines her screen performances – rather strange, given that many of the portraits were linked to some of her best-loved films.
Hepburn was famously shy, admitting that she was as far from the extrovert Holly Golightly as could be imagined. On the evidence of these photos, there is a correlation between her timidity and her level of fame. Early photos from Hepburn’s days as a chorus girl capture a spark and joie de vivre which is suddenly lost as her film career flourishes, almost as if a veil is drawn over the eyes. While some might argue that the ambiguous expression draws the viewer in, the number of portraits with this guarded expression suggests that something else is at play. The most effective portraits are surely those which tell a story; it appears that the story here is of Hepburn trying to protect something of herself from the media.
Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Quadrilateral is the starting point for this sprawling exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Rather ambitiously, the exhibition aims to explore the currents in abstract art over a the period 1915-2015. Quite simply, this is a doomed enterprise: in its attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of the ideas and trends explored by artists from across the globe, the exhibition gradually loses coherence.
Saturation is a major problem. In the first gallery, every inch is used: prints are stacked on top of another, while TV screens and cabinets displaying magazine covers fill up floor space. By the final gallery, the impact of the works has been nullified: presented with a constant stream of works, we are not given sufficient space to trace the themes and ideas raised by the exhibition. The ‘epic’ nature of the show is all very well, but I cannot help but think that a more selective curatorial eye would have made a world of difference.
The exhibition contains some wonderful work: the hypnotic rhythm of Mondrian’s grids, or the ‘choreographed geometry’ of Oskar Schlemmer. And yet, the thematic connections needed to be tighter. Ideas jostle against one another to sometimes haphazard effect, and the show felt like a survey rather than a carefully assembled, thought-provoking selection. Matters are not helped by some basic errors in accompanying notes, as interesting as their content may be.
The exhibition contains a great deal of food for thought – particularly in tracing the relationship between abstract art and the utopic, modern cities which were springing up during the period. Ultimately, though, I left feeling unsated: as fascinating as this whistle-stop tour may be, I felt that the exhibition lacked a certain amount of depth.