Channeling Avedon’s Muse

Fei Fei Sun made history as the first Asian model to grace the cover of Vogue Italia (January 2013 issue) and fittingly the fashion team lead by photographer Steven Meisel used legendary model China Machado as inspiration for the editorial. China was the first non-Caucasian model to grace the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1958.

Leading model Fei Fei Sun enchants in retro-inspired looks, channeling Avedon’s muse. Fashion editor Lori Goldstein did choose a selection of sumptuous pieces from the likes of Valentino, Miu Miu, Gucci and Giorgio Armani for the Chinese beauty to wear. Guido created elegant coifs while makeup artist Pat McGrath was responsible for the brunette’s dramatic eyes.

Franca Sozzani told: “We put Fan Bingbing on the cover of L’Uomo Vogue and we dedicated an entire issue to China. In the past, we’ve done many shoots with Asian girls, with photographers like Peter Lindbergh or Steven Meisel or Craig McDean.” She called this cover by Meisel “extravagant, eccentric, and elegant … showing a new chic mood in fashion and how the Asian girls have a classy and special beauty.”

 
 

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V.I.P.’s (Very Important Portraits) by Roxanne Lowit

Roxanne Lowit is one of the pioneers of behind-the-scenes fashion photography as we know it today. “For the first 10 to 15 years I was the only one shooting backstage at all the shows. I had no credentials to begin with but quickly realised that that was my métier, that’s what I found most fascinating.”

The revelation came when she was gifted an Instamatic camera while still attending the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York studying Textile Design. At the time Lowit was a keen painter, but with this new tool discovered a more efficient way of capturing the spirit of her subjects. “I wanted to paint the people I admired but nobody had the time, so I thought I’d take a photograph of them and work from the photograph,” she says. “However, once I took the photograph I realised that I didn’t need to capture the whole soul in a painting. So I traded in my paintbrushes for a camera.”

Her background in textile design became her backstage pass when she was invited by the designers who worked from her patterns to photograph the completed garments before their shows. Eventually word got out that Lowit’s images were something worth publishing, and in 1978 she was contacted by Annie Flanders from the SoHo News. “She heard that I was going to Paris so she said ‘if you get a real camera I’ll use your pictures when you get back’. I learnt how to put film in a real camera on the plane on the way over. Next thing I was on the top of the Eiffel Tower shooting with Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol. It was all downhill from there because how could it get any better?”

But things did get better, much better. After that first trip to Paris doors flung open for Lowit and her career as a backstage fashion photographer gained swift momentum. As industry insiders came to know and love her, the invitations to the parties flooded in, which was where much of the magic happened in front of Lowit’s lens. The 80s were heady times for fashion and she was always there, stationed in the fray, ready to catch the fanfare, frivolities and outright excess as it happened. “It was phenomenal,” she recalls. “We had the Supermodels and all those designers who loved the Supermodels. There were great parties – Elton John was always there and all sorts of celebrities started coming to the shows and parties.”

These days Lowit finds the more homogenised collections produced by contemporary designers as a result of an increasingly commercialised fashion industry much less inspiring, but revels in rising to the challenge all the same. “I usually play a game with myself, how good can I make this look?” she laughs. “But really it’s just about taking a great picture and finding a great moment. It’s always exciting to think, where am I going to go and what am I going to shoot next?”For the fashion designers themselves, as Lowit recalls, it was a time of tremendous creative freedom, where their unique artistic vision was nurtured by the industry and experimentation was encouraged. The shows, it seems, were less about selling clothes and more about the artistry, theatre and spectacle of it all. “It was so much more creative back then. You didn’t need a name at the end of the runway to know who it was you were watching,” she tells me. “When you saw long red nails with vampish clothes and great big hair you knew it was Thierry Mugler. When you saw flower dresses and a girl on a horse you knew you were at Kenzo. Stripes and knits, you were at Sonia Rykiel.”

Lowit gets a kick out of shooting just about anyone who gets a kick out of being shot. “All the pictures I’ve taken are important to me. They’re all like my children. It’s always the next image I look forward to. But looking back I think my favourites are the ones where the people just enjoyed having their picture taken – they were just having a good time. That’s really when I can capture something great.”

 
 

Roxanne Lowit, Andy Warhol, Jacqueline and Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, Jean Michel Basquiat

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

Yves Saint Laurent

 
 

Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld

 
 

Helena Christensen, Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour

 
 

Diana Vreeland

 
 

Ralph Lauren and Diana Vreeland

 
 

Salvador Dalí, Janet Daly and the recipient of a kiss

 
 

Helmut Newton

 
 

Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton

 
 

Peter Lindbergh, Arthur Elgort and Patrick Demarchelier

 
 

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino

 
 

Patrick Kelly, Iman, Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell

 
 

Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista

 
 

>Manolo Blahnik and Anna Piaggi

 
 

Lauren Hutton and a chauffeur

 
 

Elton John in concert wearing the Donald Duck costume, Central Park, New York

 
 

Shalom Harlow

 
 

Amanda Lepore

 
 

Halston

 
 

John Galliano

 
 

Annabelle Neilson Rothschild and John Galliano

 
 

Backstage from Dior Show, Paris

 
 

Kate Moss and John Galliano

 
 

Kate Moss

 
 

Ellen Von Unwerth and Mario Testino

 
 

Herb Ritts, Christy Turlington and Steven Meisel

Portraits of a Red Haired Lady

Hand-painted dress and platforms by special order, Dior Haute Couture

 
 

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt, 1907

 
 

 The first of two portraits Gustav Klimt painted of Bloch-Bauer, it has been referred to as the final and most fully representative work of his golden phase. Klimt took three years to complete the painting; preliminary drawings for it date from 1903/4. It is made of oil and gold on canvas, showing elaborate and complex ornamentation as seen in the Jugendstil style. Klimt was a member of the Vienna Secession, a group of artists that broke away from the traditional way of painting. The picture was painted in Vienna and commissioned by Adele’s husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. As a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in the sugar industry, he sponsored the arts and favored and supported Gustav Klimt. Adele Bloch-Bauer became the only model who was painted twice by Klimt when he completed a second picture of her, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, in 1912.

 
 

Sweater and skirt, Calvin Klein

 
 

Woman with a Fan (Madame Lunia Czechowska), Amedeo Modigliani, 1919

 
 

Amedeo Modigliani painted this–one of ten portraits he did of this sitter–one year before his death and three years after he’d met the lovely Lunia Czechowska (1895-after 1970). The Polish woman and her husband, Casimir, were old friends of Modigliani’s patron/dealer Leopold Zborowski. Despite the facts that Lunia was very much married in 1916 and “Modi” would shortly become involved with Jeanne Hébuterne, or that the two women became so friendly that one took care of the other’s out-of-wedlock daughter, only his death caused the artist to cease attempting to seduce Lunia.

Here he shows his firm friend posed gracefully, her seated body in its yellow dress forming lithe curves against the scarlet background. Later in life, Czechowska vividly recalled sitting for Modi as he drank cheap brandy, sang, lapsed into Italian and, eventually, fell so far into the act of painting that he became oblivious to the presence of another human being. And then, there she was on canvas, left with ” … the impression of having the soul laid bare and of being in the strange position of being able to do nothing to disguise her feelings.” In hindsight, it all sounds rather more seductive than a physical seduction.

 
 

Corset, Bottega Veneta

 
 

The Cripple, John Currin, 1997

 
 

Norman Bryson opens the brilliant, anxious essay he wrote for the lavish book on John Currin with an admission: ‘When I first saw Currin’s The Cripple, what I sensed was not only the cruelty that lay within the construction of the image, but a nasty stickiness in that cruelty, a way it had of making you connive in its own malevolence.’ He goes on to explain that the ‘figure’s misshapen and twisted body evidently originates with the painter, whose attitude towards the deformation he inflicts seems to include enjoyment.’

 
 

Silk-organza petal dress with jewel brooch, by special order, Armani Privé

 
 

Ballerinas, Edgar Degas, 1884

 
 

In this pastel, Edgar Degas revisited a theme he had already tackled in his work in the 1870s – ballerinas resting. He also went back to his regular studies on the effects of contre-jour, lighting which “reduces to silhouette”, suppressing details, erasing the distinctive features of a face or a body, making them anonymous.

But while still employing the old formulae, Dancers was innovative in its size and composition, and without doubt, is the best example of what has been called Degas’ “classical period”. Around 1884, the painter, in fact, simplified his compositions, reduced the depth of his pictorial space, lowered the viewpoint to make it more natural and concentrated on one, single character or group of figures. At the same time, he abandoned the often caricatural approach of his previous works. In doing this, he was responding to a desire expressed by critics and the public: to protest “against the confused mass of colours and the jumble of indecipherable lines that are destroying contemporary painting”. From this point of view, Dancers is effectively a manifesto.

 
 

Sheer dress, slip-dress, hat, mask and belt, Louis Vuitton

 
 

Man-Crazy Nurse, № 2, Richard Prince, 2003

 
 

Man-Crazy Nurse #2 plays the role of the ultimate femme fatale in Richard Prince‘s celebrated series of nurse paintings. Her full-blooded lust barely concealed by her primly buttoned and starched white uniform, she clutches a standard-issue hospital clipboard as if checking off the names of the men she has devoured. Casting a side-long glance, this libidinous nurse seems to have her next patient/victim in sight. Prince’s lushly expressive brushwork, which floods the canvas in shades of fleshy pink and blood red, serves as both a come-on and a warning.

Prince painted Man-Crazy Nurse #2 in 2002, the year he started working on his nurse series, and it was included in his first exhibition of these works at Barbara Gladstone Gallery the following year. In this body of work, Prince appropriated the covers of pulp romance novels from his collection of vintage books and transferred them onto canvas using an ink-jet printer, which he then layered with vigorous skeins of color. He veils his nurses with surgical masks that both add an element of mysterious allure, and turn them into potentially menacing masked bandits. In some cases he retains the original title, while in others he substitutes another novel’s title, and heightens ambiguity by blocking out the elements that provide any narrative mooring for his protagonists. The original covers often included handsome doctors or patients, or scenes of lovers caught in rapt embraces, which Prince subsums into a hazy fog of luridly colored paint.

A voracious bibliophile — an obsession which he has documented in various artist’s books such as American English (2003) — Prince has for years amassed an extensive collection of secondhand books and memorabilia, ranging from titles on film noir and trash literature to letters, manuscripts, publicity pictures, and first editions of favorites such as Lolita.

 
 

Photographs by Peter Lindbergh, Harper’s Bazaar, May 2008

The Unpaintable Beauty

John Singer Sargent in his studio with his painting Portrait of Madame X, photographer unknown, 1884

 
 

Madame X or Portrait of Madame X, John Singer Sargent, 1884

 
 

Madame X or Portrait of Madame X is the informal title of a portrait painting by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau. The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities. She wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance.

Madame X was painted not as a commission, but at the request of Sargent. It is a study in opposition. Sargent shows a woman posing in a black satin dress with jeweled straps, a dress that reveals and hides at the same time. The portrait is characterized by the pale flesh tone of the subject contrasted against a dark colored dress and background.

For Sargent, the scandal resulting from the painting’s controversial reception at the Paris Salon of 1884 amounted to the failure of a strategy to build a long-term career as a portrait painter in France, though it may have helped him establish a successful career in Britain and America.

Renowned for her beauty, Gautreau represented the parisienne, a new type of Frenchwoman recognized for her sophistication. The English-language term “professional beauty”, referring to a woman who uses personal skills to advance to elite status, was also used to describe her. Her unconventional beauty made her an object of fascination for artists; the American painter Edward Simmons claimed that he “could not stop stalking her as one does a deer.” Sargent was also impressed, and anticipated that a portrait of Gautreau would garner much attention at the upcoming Paris Salon, and increase interest in portrait commissions. He wrote to a friend:

“I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”

Although she had refused numerous similar requests from artists, Gautreau accepted Sargent’s offer in February 1883.Sargent was an expatriate like Gautreau, and their collaboration has been interpreted as motivated by a shared desire to attain high status in French society.

 
 

A figure study of  Madame Gautreau in watercolor and graphite, John Singer Sargent, circa 1883

 
 

Little progress was made during the winter of 1883, as Gautreau was distracted by social engagements, and was not by nature inclined to the discipline of sitting for a portrait. At her suggestion, Sargent traveled to her estate in Brittany in June, where he commenced a series of preparatory works in pencil, watercolors, and oils. About thirty drawings resulted from these sessions, in which many poses were attempted.

Gautreau was bored by the process of sitting; here, too, there were social engagements, as well as the responsibilities of tending to her four-year-old daughter, her mother, house guests, and a full domestic staff. Sargent complained of “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.”

 
 

Nicole in Oscar de la Renta photographed by Steven Meisel, 1999

 
 

Julianne Moore photographed by Peter Lindbergh, 2008

 
 

For Spring 2008 Christian Dior Haute couture collection, John Galliano’s primrose path of inspiration had, he said, wended its way from John Singer Sargent’s Madame X  through to the gilded swirls and bejeweled geometrics of Gustav Klimt.

An Intimate Moment with Onlookers

Sitzende Frau mit hochgezogenem linken Bein (Seated Woman With Bent Knee), Egon Schiele, 1917

 
 

In 1917, Egon Schiele painted his wife Edith Harms, and titled his creation Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up. The portrait displays Edith sitting on the floor, resting her cheek on her left knee. The fiery red tones of her carefree hair produce a striking contrast with the vibrant greens of her loosely fitted shirt. Her look is bold and intense as she appears to be staring directly at the viewer. Her casual pose and attire create an intimate moment with onlookers.

The suggestive nature of this portrait was not an uncommon trait in Egon Schiele’s work, as he admired the controversial artistic manner of his mentor, Gustav Klimt. However, making eroticism the major theme in most of his artwork got Schiele in trouble with the law. He was imprisoned in 1912 for obscenity in his paintings, an incident that did not deter him from his erotic artwork, (although it may have motivated him to put clothes on Edith in Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up). Schiele created approximately 300 paintings and more than 3000 works on paper during his career. His life was cut short when he died of the Spanish Influenza at just 28 years old; his pregnant wife died of the same illness a mere three days later.

In a review of a 1997 Schiele Exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art in New York wrote: “Egon Schiele invested his art with an emotional intensity that, coupled with his radical formal innovations, characterized the Austrian contribution to Expressionism.” The review further added: “His preoccupation with sexuality and existential explorations of the human condition convey him both as a product of his time and an artist who achieved aesthetic maturation when he was barely post-adolescent. The very aspects of Schiele’s art that precluded its popularity during much of his lifetime–ugly distortion in place of accepted notions of beauty, unveiled eroticism, and personal angst–are those for which it is considered most compelling today.”

 
 

Julianne Moore photographed by Peter Lindbergh, 2008. Dress, Lanvin by Alber Elbaz