Right places, right times

EXHIBITIONS : James Abbe took his camera from Twenties Hollywood to Stalin's Russia. The results are on show at the NPG, along with a mixed bag of new acquisitions
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The Independent Culture
A LOW-KEY but not undistinguished exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery presents the work of James Abbe, a photographer who made his name with glamour shots and then turned to a later career in photojournalism, taking memorable pictures of political upheavals and world leaders. This makes him sound like a frivolous artist who became serious. Well, anyone who covered civil wars in Mexico and Spain, saw the rise of Hitler's Germany and met Stalin in the Kremlin would have graver feelings about life than a person who stayed in Hollywood.

But I'm not sure that Abbe was at his best when reporting events. He was a young woman's photographer. This is not to disparage him: rather the opposite. Abbe's image of Stalin is gripping because Stalin is gripping, because Stalin himself had such terrible presence. If the American snapper responded more to starlets, who can blame him for that? And many naughty and probably silly girls who found themselves at the front of the entertainment industry must have been thankful to Abbe for presenting them with such vivid and happy grace. Indeed, happiness is both a theme and a virtue of Abbe's art. He doesn't so much cater for the pleasures of people who went to the early cinema or to the Folies Bergere. Rather, he understands the superb fun of dressing up and showing off. Abbe does not represent the audience: he's on the starlets' side, almost as though he were one of them.

Since Abbe's day, glamour photography of film stars has moved in the audience's direction, towards a glossy voyeurism. I suppose that Abbe could be pleasant and intimate with his subjects for two reasons. First, he was obviously a nice man, as successful photographers so often are. Secondly, he was present when theatrical traditions coincided with the birth of cinema. His retrospective is called "Limelight", a title that nicely recalls the period. Abbe himself was born in 1883. He worked first in Virginia, doing various photographic odd jobs (including portraits of college girls), was a portraitist of stage stars in New York after 1917, then took himself to Hollywood in 1920. Perfect timing. It's as though, in the film of our century, Abbe got himself into shot at just the moment he was needed.

For he did give a genuine service to his models. Abbe had the kind of professionalism that drew on a mannerist love of clothes - not boringly smart clothes but costumes with sequins and feathers - and a feeling for maquillage, so puritanically decried as adding art to nature. And then he had a sense of poise which he must have imparted to his young girls and a brilliant way with lighting. (For once, we can use the word "brilliant" with accuracy.) Looking at the pictures of Fanny Brice, Irene Castle, Lillian Gish, Betty Compson and especially Colleen Moore, one feels that Abbe had concentrated a whole choreography of stardom into his individual prints. Of course much was lost by this approach. He was not really a portraitist and seldom made convincing photographs of men. That was one reason why he was disadvantaged as a war reporter. Being a newspaperman, I would never criticise a photographer who goes off to a war. But Abbe's talents were really with different scenes.

As usual, the NPG has an interesting selection of new acquisitions on display. Again as usual, a high proportion of them are photographs. They are efficient rather than inspired. But Andy Warhol's photo-based silkscreen portrait of Joan Collins appears to be a genuine response to her vulgar personality, and it's interesting to compare his approach with Abbe's. Richard Clark's oil portrait of Derek Jarman is painted on a smallish piece of card and is all in grey tones, making it look like an ancient photograph. There's a very large portrait of Stephen Fry by Maggi Hambling. It's done in charcoal, and is sufficiently impressive to make me think that this might be her best medium.

There's a sad contemporary interest in Gordon Stuart's portrait of Kingsley Amis, which has always been in the artist's personal collection and has never previously been exhibited. The canvas was painted in Swansea in 1953, the year before Amis's first book was published. Odd to think that Lucky Jim was meditated with the aid of a pipe. Yet here's the young writer puffing away like a veteran. Mr Stuart tells me that he had mixed feelings about Amis, who was two years his junior. However that may be, he caught his air of fierce disenchantment and - for want of a better word - the post-warishness of the Amis character. The army meant a lot to him for years after he did his bit of service. There's a khaki strain in the post- war British novel. It finds its latest and best expression in the undervalued The Anti-Death League of 1966. A pity that Stuart didn't tackle Amis again, at that desperate stage of the novelist's life.

! 'Limelight': National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055), to 24 Mar 1996.