From Harlow to Streep, the Cover Story of 'Vanity Fair'

Article excerpt

When the former advertising manager Conde 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 Conde 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. …