Even with her back to the camera, it is not difficult to intuit that the woman may be crying. The black-and-white photograph “Mainbocher Corset” by the legendary artist Horst P. Horst, was taken August 15, 1939, on the eve of war in Europe. The image shows a young woman in a slender, form-defining corset, her arms raised halfway, head falling to one side. The composition is beautiful, if freighted with foreboding.
The significance of the photograph goes beyond its aesthetic appeal. The image would appear in Vogue in September of 1939, becoming one of that magazine’s iconic visuals (inspiring Madonna’s famous corseted “Vogue” pose in 1990). Horst, a German working in Paris at the time he took “Mainbocher Corset,” was working under the darkening cloud of Germany’s military advance in Europe, its occupation of Poland, and the imminent circumvention of the Maginot Line into France. The image is of inestimable historical resonance.
“Mainbocher Corset” — the final photograph Horst took before leaving France for the United States, where in 1941 he would apply for U.S. citizenship — is the first framed print in Horst P. Horst: Essence of the Times, the new exhibition at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film. Presenting more than 80 significant works spanning seven decades, Essence of the Times includes vintage and never-before-seen prints of Horst’s revered fashion editorials, brand photography, and portraiture.
“The Horst Estate is excited to welcome audiences to this wonderful exhibition that honors Horst P. Horst as an artist with exceptional taste and remarkable talent,” said Gert Elfering of the Horst Estate. “Fashion was the predominant pillar of his oeuvre, but it should not be reduced to fashion alone — ‘lifestyle’ is more accurate, and this important distinction is reflected in Essence of the Times.”
The exhibition is curated by Rafael Gomes, creative director of SCAD FASH museums, in collaboration with the Horst Estate, esteemed collector Elfering, and Juan Carlos Arcila-Duque, curator of The Art and Design Project Gallery, Miami. As curator Gomes said: “Horst P. Horst is respected not only for his expertise behind the camera lens, but for his commitment as an artist to meticulously curating every detail in his beautiful and artful imagery.”
Born Paul Albert Bohrmann, Horst (1906–1999) is celebrated for striking, unforgettable images with unique compositions that assimilate tenets of surrealism and classicism. With his first Vogue cover in 1935, he redefined the possibilities of fashion photography, inspiring a shift from hand-drawn illustrations to the full embrace of photography by fashion magazines. Throughout his career, Horst was sought after for his meticulous attention to detail and highly stylized aesthetic, with dramatic lighting and theatrical poses.
Horst originally studied furniture making and carpentry under the tutelage of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, before moving to Paris to apprentice for the renowned architect Le Corbusier. In Paris, he met George Hoyningen-Huene, Vogue’s star photographer, who became Horst’s mentor. When Hoyningen-Huene left Vogue in 1935, Horst took over as photographer-in-chief, creating hundreds of vibrant images for the publication across his 30-year tenure.
“Essence of the Times is a jewel, showcasing the many facets of Horst’s magnificent work and enduring influence,” said Juan Carlos Arcile-Duque. “After two decades of collaboration with the Horst Estate, I am still learning more every day about the amazing work of the master of light.”
At Vogue, Horst expertly transitioned from black-and-white photography to new color processes and was admired and supported by important members of the fashion world such as legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. In the 1960s, encouraged by Vreeland, Horst began a series illustrating the lifestyles of international high society figures including Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Guinness, and Baroness Pauline de Rothschild. In 1989, Horst received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and, in 1996, the Master of Photography Award from the International Center for Photography.
Yet Horst never abandoned black-and-white. The new exhibition demonstrates this with a stunning archival print of a polka-dot dress-wearing Iman his 1982 photograph “Iman Abdulmajid in Valentino.” This and many other images retain a remarkable blend of modern and classical power, as remarked upon repeatedly to visitors during the exhibition’s opening on October 6.
While providing a wellspring of inspiration for the public, SCAD FASH also serves as a crucial creative resource for students. “It is such an important moment for students to be able to learn from one of photography’s greatest practitioners and engage with Horst’s historic body of work,” said Gomes.
Students from many top-ranked SCAD degree programs — including photography, fashion, interior design, advertising, luxury and brand management, art history, and graphic design — will have the opportunity to interact with the curators through special programming including gallery tours and exclusive conversations. Situated within SCAD Atlanta, SCAD FASH is an integral part of the SCAD educational experience. The only one not turning her head is the woman in the “Mainbocher Corset.”
Essence of the Times is on view Oct. 6, 2022, through April 16, 2023. For more information, visit scadfash.org.