A Review of Cecil Beaton: Performance at Sotheby's S2 Gallery, London

 
The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

 

‘He is sexy, yet completely sexless. As a model he is a natural.’ Indeed, when it came to Mick Jagger, English fashion photographer Cecil Beaton hit the nail on the head. In S|2’s latest exhibition in London. Performance by Cecil Beaton is a rare opportunity to view a selection of photographs taken on set of the sexually explicit gangster-crime film of the same name. Shot in 1970, the content of the film was so violent and controversial, Warner Brothers were forced to re-edit before it was suitable to be released to a British audience. Still seen as a cult classic, Performance represented the new wave of the swinging 60s: the rise of youth culture, political rebellion and of course copious amounts of drugs. The film was famous for representing London as the epitome of decadence and sin. This was the time when The Kings Road became the hit place to be for fashion, music and the arts: the bohemian lifestyle, the aspirational dream.

Beaton had a knack for identifying the Movers and Shakers of the time having been part of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s: a notorious group of socialites, which included Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. Amongst the icons of the sixties, Jagger included, Beaton was something of a master, a figure to be looked up to.  One of his first encounters with Jagger was in Marrakech – the perfect backdrop for the project they would embark on together 3 years later considering as much of the set, designed by Christopher Gibbs, was inspired by Morocco. Beaton immersed himself on set with the actors, who also included Anita Pallenberg and James Fox, capturing their most intimate moments.

 

 
The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

 

As the majority of the photographs are located within the boudoir, the exhibition includes a mock up of this exotic lair within the ground floor. Gibbs’ North African aesthetic was distinctive for it’s time: layers of Afghan carpets adorn the floor, muslin, velvet and multi-coloured plastic beads hang from the bedframe and potted plants hint to warmer climes. Many of the fabrics were imported from Tangier whilst the bed was inspired by the children’s story, The princess and the pea where layers of mattresses and soft cushions are stacked on top of each other. It’s a hedonist’s paradise and one could only imagine the perfect setting for Pallenberg and Jagger to become acquainted!

Both actors are of course, devastatingly photogenic – their gazes actively court the viewer through the picture pane, the affect of which is almost disconcerting. Yet, Jagger himself is main icon in the show. He poses with ease: his bee stung lips and seductive stare still have the power to mesmerise. In one image, he sits in front of an intricate sequined background, a silk scarf hanging from his neck. His face is out of focus and yet his gaze prevails, drawing attention to his androgynous beauty.

 

The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

One of the most touching photographs of the series is on platinum print – a stylistic departure for Beaton. The photograph, which is in black and white, has a soft, blurry-grainy quality – almost dreamlike. Jagger lovingly lies on his front over Pallenberg’s back, the two of them naked in a loving embrace. Their expressions are docile and calm - content within their pose. The rich textures of the bed linen with it’s patterned throws and piles of embroidered cushions, combined with the pockets of light shining through the materials help capture this overwhelmingly romantic scene.

The photographs aren’t without their fair share of grit, however. The only image of James Fox has an almost post-apocalyptic setting. He stands in the middle the bathroom; pipes, rubble and water drenched towels are strewn across the floor. A chest of draws, out of focus in the bottom left corner of the frame have been tipped on their side. And yet, he seems oblivious to the chaos, which surrounds him, standing limp and unfazed: his expression is between puzzlement and dejection. He wears an elegant silk and velvet smoking jacket – the ruffled sleeves of his shirt poke out of the cuffs – almost like a new-age dandy.

 

 
The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The set of Performance, October 1968 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

 

 

Cecil Beaton had the ability to capture the very essence of the characters he shot, whether real or fictional. It is evident that he, along with these hip young stars, used the set as his playground: a hotbed of debauchery. There were even unofficial reports that the cast spent the majority of their time completely stoned which may explain Jagger and Pallenberg’s often languid, slouchy poses. But when Mick Jagger’s involved, what else would you expect other than sex, drugs and rock n roll?

25 November until 23 December at Sotheby's S2 Gallery, London

Written by Wilhemina Madeley, a Contributor to Arteviste.com