Obituary: Horst P. Horst

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The Independent Culture
"FOR WHOM the visible world exists . . ." Theophile Gauthier's famous epithet for the visually sensitive, the "happy few" who were not necessarily artists, but whose perceptive and emotive responses to beauty seem to make its existence worthwhile, could have been written to describe the photographer Horst P. Horst.

Horst was himself an object of beauty in the years between the two world wars; the Parisian beau monde had never seen the like of the blond creature in lederhosen introduced by the Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene. Horst's Germanic good looks were underscored by the irony of his exile - a voluntary one, occasioned by distaste for Hitlerian aesthetics and Third Reich politics.

An ambition to be an architect had led the young man from humble beginnings in the eastern German town of Weissenfels-an-der-Sale to the studio of Le Corbusier; he moved rapidly on, into the studio of Vogue's exotic Baltic Baron, who was, in the mid-1920s, a contender for the mantle of Adolf de Meyer as portraitist of the extremely elegant and arbiter of fashion. From there to international acclaim in his own right was a journey Horst accomplished with enterprise and originality. His companions proved to be some of the most interesting figures of the times, and the lessons they taught him a whole aesthetic of civilised living.

What a change that Paris must have been from the Hamburg art school where Horst had begun his studies; what a difference between the arts-and-crafts modernism of his sub-Bauhaus German friends and the louche and luxurious tone of Huene's milieu. If the set in which he found himself was markedly homosexual it was also seriously aesthetic.

Through Huene, who must have loved him very much, Horst discovered Greek art, contemporary literature and - especially after his introduction to Cecil Beaton and, more importantly, to Coco Chanel - the neo-Romantic style. This "between time" Rococo consisted of an attitude - casual, amateur, witty, but also romantic, stylish and sensual - and a taste - encapsulated or stimulated by Christian Berard's sad canvases, the furniture of Emilio Terry, and the ballets of Balanchine's Diaghilev years - which we know from Beaton's tinselled creations.

After a casual invitation from Vogue's formidable New York Art Director, Dr Agha, Horst himself began to take pictures for the magazine Huene dominated. Naturally, his first efforts reflected the crystalline Twenties style, neat, sharp, but slightly theatrical in composition. However, Horst's few years in the company of such neo-Romantic fantasists as Schiaparelli, Dali, Berard, and Cocteau had formed new vistas in the former Bauhaus boy's imagination: his pictures rapidly developed the tenebrous oblique lighting, elaborate but solidly constructed Baroque settings, and almost erotic Mannerist poses for which they are still famous today.

Further contacts with Chanel - of whom he took undoubtedly the greatest portrait, lying like a flawless black pearl on a Louis XVI chaise-longue, smoking with an air of tragic preoccupation and despairing chic - and with the young Luchino Visconti added to Horst's repertoire and worldly reputation. This glamour, which he earned by studious, almost plodding hard work and a charm which survived completely intact until his very last days, was deeply envied by others in his profession (Beaton was poisonous about him). To his credit, Huene always wished Horst well, promoted him whenever possible, and eventually left him the archive not only of work they had done together, but of his entire output.

Horst met Visconti at Chanel's. Fascinated by the aloof Italian with the absurdly aristocratic profile, Horst immediately invited him to come to Morocco, where Huene shared a beautiful native-style white-washed house with his protege. This led to a curious relationship of extraordinary intensity and bafflement, Visconti pitting his aloofness and secrecy against his genuine affection and desire. Although the affair did not endure, it is not too far-fetched to see traces of its seriousness in Visconti's film Death in Venice (1971) and its influence on Visconti's erotic ambiguity in The Damned (1969).

Only a very self-confident young man could survive a brush with psyches as complex as the temperamental Huene, the capricious Chanel and the frankly twisted Visconti; it is not surprising to find that, as the Second World War approached, Horst spent more and more time in the United States.

By this point he had emerged as a leading fashion photographer. His portraits of Cocteau, Chanel, Gertrude Stein, Princess Natasha Paley - a pre-Revolutionary dancing-partner of Huene's who emerged as one of the most exotic Thirties beauties - and his glorious couture shots, with their emphasis on polished details, pictorial settings of grave and fragile grandeur, and their exaggerated emphasis of physical distinction, were instantly recognisable. Edna Woolman Chase, Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, liked and admired the young, poised and conscientious German; she gave him many great commissions, as a later legendary editor, Diana Vreeland, was to do after war.

In the late Forties Horst bought a plot of land in semi-rural Long Island, on the estate of America's great exponent of art nouveau, Louis Tiffany, where he designed and built a simple Moroccan-style house. Here he photographed not only models for Vogue and Harpers magazines, but also such visiting celebrities as the Sitwells, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. From the early Fifties, a new companion, Valentine Lawford, shared life in this haven.

If Horst must be catalogued, among the many photographers who have become the subjects of monographs and exhibitions of late, his place is surely that of an appreciator. Through the eyes of a not particularly sophisticated, but eager and sensitive young man, he first saw the glittering, immaculate elegance and intellectual fervour of pre-war Paris. This made a mark on him which shows in all his work, contributing even to his late pictures for Calvin Klein advertisements a curiously French elegance and glamour which few other photographers could have brought to the subject.

Though he became an American citizen during the war, and served in the army of his new country, (dropping his family name, Bohrman, at the time, in favour of a stateless "Horst P. Horst"), he nevertheless remained an example of the fun-as-work ethic which brightened those "between-time" years. Long-lived, healthy and handsome even in old age, Horst also seemed to personify not only the glamour of survival from a fabled era, but the qualities of balanced living, tolerance, industry and curiosity without which survival at any worthwhile level is not possible.

For this, and the firm belief in beauty, talent and a certain refined sexuality which he was always able to put into his photographs (perfectly exampled by the famous one for a corset advertisement, of a gracious back, semi-reclining at once actively elegant and passively gorgeous), Horst will always fascinate. It could be said of him that he not only looked good, but looked well.

Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann (Horst P. Horst), photographer: born Weiseenfels- an-der-Saale, Germany 14 August 1906; one adopted son; died Palm Beach, Florida 18 November 1999.

Philip Core died 12 November 1989