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Reviews

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

Catherine von Ruhland

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

National Portrait Gallery

Until October 18, 2015

The term 'icon' is bandied about so much these days that its currency is very much diminished. There is a - likely unintended - boldness and a twinkle in the eye, then, behind the title of the National Portrait Gallery's major exhibition focusing on the late celebrated actress, fashion muse, and humanitarian. It all but dares viewers to question the word. Ironically, making your way round this exhaustive homage to the admirable and undoubtedly lovely Hollywood legend, it is difficult not to find yourself unnervingly questioning the very exhibition. On the surface are all the ingredients for the blockbuster of a show it will undoubtedly be. The collection of over seventy five images mounted in chronological order gives sketchy coverage to her childhood years spent between Belgium, as a ballet school boarder in Kent, and the Netherlands including German-occupied Arnhem during the Second World War. A pair of her ballet shoes are displayed, and a 1938 photo of the nine year old Audrey has you looking for the later star amid the pretty child. Theatre programmes highlight her early Dutch stage career before she made her London West End debut as a chorus girl in 1948. (Interestingly, the NPG stands on the site of the Ciros Club where Hepburn performed in 1950: she has come full circle.) Understandably, most of the exhibition is devoted to Hepburn's international Academy Award-winning movie stardom. It concludes with a collection of magazine covers and a handful of photographs depicting her role as an ambassador for UNICEF during her later years. Organised with the support of her sons, Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Luca Dotti, this is a noticeably uncritical presentation of portraits, although that may of course be as much because we view it through the prism of Twenty First Century eyes jaundiced by cheap celebrity shots across our media. What emerges instead is a sense of how Audrey Hepburn's modelling and acting career occurred fortuitously in parallel with major developments in art and fashion photography. What the exhibition lacks in stills from her films (we disappointingly only read of her early screen role EXHIBITIONS in Ealing Comedy classic The Lavender Hill Mob), it more than makes up for in the quality of prints from her shoots with many of the Twentieth Century's most innovative photographers including Angus McBean, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Bert Hardy captured the sweet girl-next-door in Kew Garden and Richmond Park in 1950 for the first photo-essay in a British picture-magazine. Dennis Stock's striking image taken during the making of Sabrina in 1954 has the gamine in thought looking out of a car window, arm on window ledge with three quarters of the image devoted to the framing car. In his 1953 LIFE magazine cover story, 'Audrey Hepburn - many-sided charmer', Mark Shaw wrote: 'Audrey is the most intriguingly childish, adult, feminine, tomboy I've ever photographed. She's many women wrapped up in oneā€¦' The Second World War had prised open opportunities for young women, and in its aftermath their roles in society were being redrawn. Audrey Hepburn represented the epitome of the post-war young woman, her femininity fluid and malleable. Many of her films - Sabrina, Funny Face, My Fair Lady are about transformation. She collaborated with couturier Hubert de Givenchy, and as the Sixties took hold, switched seamlessly to wearing designs by Mary Quant and Paco Rabanne. Her style appeared effortless and achievable in contrast to contemporary stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Audrey appears grounded, reachable, friendly, unthreatening. No wonder that for all her undoubtable beauty, it is women who are flocking to see Portraits of an Icon. And yet, for all that, two thirds through the exhibition, I felt distinctly Audreyed-out. I couldn't quite put my finger on why until I overheard an elderly couple complain between themselves: 'You can't see through the pictures. We don't know whether she had a sense of humour.' 'No, nothing,' her husband agreed. The 'light-hearted joy' in the 'dancing eyes' which so mesmerised the photographer Anthony Beauchamp when he first observed Hepburn as a chorus girl in Sauce Tartare in 1949 is still there in Steven Meisel's 1980s portraits in the final room of this exhibition. And there are some lovely shots of her in her UNICEF ambassador role surrounded by children. But we learn nothing new here. Through all these beautiful and invariably stylish images, Audrey Hepburn remains always an 'actress, fashion muse, humanitarian'. For all we know, she was as dull as ditchwater. It is these very portraits that merge to create the surface level unknowable distanced, shielding icon.