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Fragile Beauty at V&A South Kensington

By 17th June 2024No Comments

Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection

Below, Hundred Heroines volunteer writer Paula Vellet highlights the ground-breaking women photographers featured in this diverse collection, on view until 5th January 2025.

Fragile Beauty is the perfect title for this exhibition of the extraordinary photographic collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish. It is a piece of theatre to be explored.

American photography dominates the collection and I was pleased to see so many women photographers represented. The display encompasses a huge variety; from photographers of the 1950s to contemporary artists, from the ground-breaking Vogue fashion photographs of Frances McLaughlin Gill (1919-2014) to the contemporary work of Harley Weir (1988-), to social justice images by An My Le (1960-) and Sally Mann (1951-).

I was touched by the sensibility of the work. The curation covers key emotional moments of the last seventy-five years. Fashion trends and political movements, represented in black and white, are juxtaposed with abstract colour and constructed images, capturing pathos and theatricality. The collection speaks to the fleetingness of fame and the ever-present threat of tragedy, balanced by the unifying strength of love, family, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ difference.

Equally, the collection embraces so many issues particular to women. With Diane Arbus (1923-1971) we investigate ‘otherness’; with Cindy Sherman (1954-) the façade of stereotypical femininity. Eve Arnold (1912-2012) captures tragic Marilyn Monroe as well as the iconic heroes of the civil rights movement; Carrie Mae Weems ( 1953-) confronts racism and Black women’s identity; Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) explores the troubled fringes of childhood and society; Sally Mann (1951-) explores motherhood.

Some of the largest installations of the collection are in fact by women, such as the endearingly awkward ‘Beach Series’ (1992-98) by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijiksta (1959-); the moving ‘Crying Man’ series by British filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson (1967-); and the monumental central LGBTQ+ shrine of the collection – ‘Thanksgiving’ (1973-1999) by American photographer and activist Nan Goldin (1953-).

I loved the quietly subversive ‘Church of Scientology 2005-7’ by Taryn Simon (1975-,) the powerful stillness of the Zanele Muholi’s (1972-) self portrait, ‘Labo 1 Torino Italy’ (2019) and the surprising, ghostlike 1971 self portrait of photojournalist Susan Meiselas (1948-). One of the most moving images was the portrait of a faded, 71-year-old Mae West, by the inimitable Diane Arbus.

A stunning personal collection, a privilege to view. Definitely worth a second visit.

By Paula Vellet