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The Vintage Guide To London | December 18, 2017

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Review: National Portrait Gallery exhibition ‘Glamour of the Gods'

Rebecca McWattie
was invited to the preview of the latest National Portrait Gallery exhibition ‘Glamour of the Gods’ – a collection of Hollywood portraits from the Twenties to the Sixties. Here is her review.

Taken from the extensive John Kobal Foundation, the exhibition has toured America and Europe and is a must-see for anyone interested in Hollywood or vintage photography. John Kobal (1940-1991) was not only a collector but a widely regarded authority on Hollywood photography and the techniques used to create images which came to epitomise Twentieth Century glamour. John’s obsession with movies started as a boy and led him to write 30 books on the subject, including biographies on Rita Hayworth and ‘People will Talk’ – John’s interviews with various Hollywood stars. He believed movie stars “could never be manufactured, but they had to be harnessed to burn as a flame which was controlled by the studio.”

Although John had always been a collector of movie memorabilia, it wasn’t until he met Marlene Dietrich in the Fifties that he was inspired to begin collecting Hollywood photographs seriously. Amassing over 4,500 images, John spent over 15 years curating highly acclaimed exhibitions in leading museums around the world – his collection of iconic images, being regarded as the finest historical record of Hollywood photography.

‘Glamour of the Gods’ features stunning images of practically every movie star you could think of from Charlie Chaplin to Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly – the list goes on – taken by some of the greatest photographers of the time including Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell.

In the age before paparazzi, when the media kept a respectful distance, studios would commission professional portraits or ‘stills’ to publicise their biggest stars, or promote their up-and-coming stars such as the young Elizabeth Taylor. These would be released ‘copyright free’ to please fans and ensure they were published and re-published the world over. In an age before internet social media this was an ingenious way to maximise on the popularity and success of their stars and films.

The studios weren’t shy about encouraging photographers to retouch as much as possible – I especially loved the before and after pictures of Joan Crawford – freckles and wrinkles cleverly removed in favour of the ethereal glow we all associate with pictures of that time. Women around the world were now confronted with magazines filled with these other-worldly creatures, not to mention all the advertisements of beauty products promising to assist them. Hollywood’s Golden Age was the beginning of women admiring unachievable and generated beauty, a beauty that was conjured up by a commercial male-dominated world in order to push box office sales.

It’s easy to overlook the weight of John Kobal’s artistic and historic legacy, but these images should not be viewed simply as a frivolous glimpse into a transient and glamorous era but a fascinating snapshot of how Hollywood power helped to create the modern age of vain, idealistic and celebrity-obsessed culture. These images are simply the pretty wrapping on an ugly truth – that any industry with enough money has the ability to change and manipulate society.

There is an accompanying fully-illustrated paperback book published by the National Portrait Gallery RRP £25.

Opening times, until 23 October 2011:
Daily 10.00-18.00 (closure commences 17.50)
Thursdays and Fridays until 21.00 (closure commences 20.50)

How to book: visit or call 0844 248 5033 or visit the Gallery in person.

Become a member and see Glamour of the Gods for free. Standard ticket price £6

Nearest tube: Leicester Square/Charing Cross