From Harlow to Streep, the cover story of 'Vanity Fair'

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When the former advertising manager Condé Montrose Nast bought Vanity Fair in 1913 and amalgamated it with a title already under his possession called Vogue, he had bold ambitions to transform it into the magazine of choice for America's cultural elite.

But the daring and often experimental content of the magazine, which included a sex column by the novelist D H Lawrence, sketchings by Pablo Picasso and stories by literary outsiders such as Gertrude Stein and Aldous Huxley, only served to inflame the wrath of the magazine's advertisers and traditionalists.

Vanity Fair has since become synonymous with fashion and high society, often featuring the most glamorous celebrities of the age, yet it has never ceased to loose its progressive edge.

Since its inception, it has featured provocative "cover" images ranging from a sultry Jean Harlow pictured a year before her untimely death in 1937 to modern-day portraits of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore, Elizabeth Taylor brandishing a condom, the lesbian singer KD Lang being "shaved" by supermodel Cindy Crawford and most recently the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley photographed naked.

It has also carried unconventional portraits of world leaders, such as the former president Ronald Reagan dancing with his wife in 1985 and George Bush in 2002 with his so-called Afghan war cabinet.

Now, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913 to 2008, which opens on 14 February, brings together rare vintage prints and contemporary classics from the Condé Nast archive to present seminal moments in the history of a magazine.

Sandy Nairne, the director of the gallery, said that the 150 portraits offered "an essential who's who of the past hundred years". David Friend, the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair, added that the magazine could be credited with great prescience for showcasing the work of many Modernists a decade before their bold new genre was accepted as a literary and artistic movement.

"Vanity Fair tried to introduce Modernism before it had a name. The editor at the time, Frank Crowninshield, brought an appreciation of modern art to the magazine and he was himself a collector and co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, so he ended up showing readers the works of Picasso and Matisse," he said.

Among the images to feature in the exhibition is an iconic portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, shot by the celebrity photographer, Mario Testino, six weeks before her death in 1997; a rare unpublished print of the writer Virginia Woolf, dressed in her mother's Victorian dress; and the veiled face of the silent film starlet Gloria Swanson; as well as intimate portraits from the Jazz Age, including studies of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker and Noël Coward.

The images featured in the magazine's "first" period, which lasted until 1936 when it was forced to fold, as well as its second phase, beginning in 1983. In the first period, celebrated subjects including Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin, were shot by photographers of near-equal fame, among them Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen.

But Terence Pepper, the curator of photographs at the gallery, said advertisers were left incensed by some of the work that was being commissioned.

"There were complaints from advertisers about the art that was included in the magazine that was not seen as acceptable, art that was cutting edge," he said.

From the beginning, the magazine was associated with showcasing the talents of British, Irish and American authors, alongside the portraits of H G Wells, James Joyce, Rebecca West, Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw.

Vanity Fair was viewed as combining celebrity with a high level of artistic seriousness. The images of Claude Monet, Augustus John and the leaders of the avant-garde movement, photographed by Man Ray, sat alongside profiles of American's biggest actors, musicians and athletes.

Its relaunch mimicked the same blend of Hollywood luminaries with literary giants, from Arthur Miller to Madonna and shot by celebrated photographers including Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton and Testino.

The exhibition, which is sponsored by Burberry, ends on 26 May 2008.