Review: Hoppe Portraits: Society, Studio and Street at National Portrait Gallery

Performance: until May 30 2011
Reviewed by Katerina Pantelides - Monday 23 May 2011

Margot Fonteyn, 1935.
© 2011 Curatorial Assistance, Inc. / E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection

Dancers’ faces: E.O Hoppé at the ballet

“Photographing Pavlova and the rest of the Russian Ballet gave me the keenest pleasure”
wrote E.O Hoppé in his semi-autobiographical treatise Hundred Thousand Exposures. At the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the Modernist photographer’s work, *Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street*, dancers play a starring role, with a whole section devoted to his photographs of ballet and dance c.1913-c.1940. Vassily Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina and Martha Graham number among the sitters, and a portrait of the sixteen-year-old Margot Fonteyn as a fledgling ballerina with the Vic-Wells Company (later the Royal Ballet) courts swarms of visitors, who examine her young face for signs of future greatness.

Hoppé, whose first exhibition in 1913 at London’s Fine Art Society featured the stars of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, certainly thought that dancers were special, not just for the shapes they created with their bodies, but for the ‘entrancing grace’ of their being. Though he claimed not to be an expert on dance, he attended many ballets and contemporary dance performances, taking his photographs off stage with an impression of the dance still in mind.

‘Portrait and ballet photography are very unlike each other’, Hoppé pronounced, ‘the former aims to reveal mind and character, the latter requires the ability to capture movement, charm, and above all to convey something of the peculiar and highly charged atmosphere that distinguishes this form of entertainment’. While portraiture’s aim is to reveal truth of character Hoppé explains ballet photography is to retain the enchanting illusion viewed on-stage. What distinguishes Hoppé‘s ballet portraits from those of his contemporaries is their evocation of both psychological truth and balletic elusiveness.

This is especially apparent in his portraits of dancers’ faces, which allow us to glimpse details such as the sleepy, downward droop of Nijinsky’s Tartar eyes and Ballet Russes dancer Olga Spessivtseva’s nervous deer-in-headlights aspect. By focusing on the face rather than charting the line of the body, the portraits enable access to the dancer’s state of mind, and perhaps even their soul. Ironically, Hoppé manages to capture the dancing body’s quality of movement through a still-shot of the face: Nijinsky as a young girl’s dream in Spectre de la rose looks petal soft and sensual, while Spessivtseva, a dancer famed for her portrayal of Giselle, appears the embodiment of fragility and ethereality. These facial portraits are far more individual than the full-length portraits with their mannerist balletic poses and compliant smiles, and destroy the myth that dancers are obedient, assembly-line automatons.

As a fervent Freudian, who strove to become familiar with his sitters’ motives for having their picture taken, Hoppé‘s interest in dancers’ faces partially derived from his belief that the successful photographer was also a psychologist. Not every dancer, however, appreciated the fruits of this approach. On seeing Hoppé‘s prints of her around 1916, the exacting prima ballerina Anna Pavlova tore them up, and throwing them in his face, screamed ‘I hate these pictures!’ She then proceeded to direct him, resulting in stylised images that are barely recognisable as Hoppé‘s own, but instead belong to the canon of Pavlova’s self-authored photographs.

Later in 1935, a dancer who could make no such demands on Hoppé was young Margot Fonteyn. Pretty, talented and groomed by Vic-Wells Ballet founder Ninette de Valois to be the first English ballerina, Fonteyn posed for many photographers in 1935, including Cecil Beaton, Bassano and Gordon Anthony. Though Bassano and Hoppé both photograph head shots of Fonteyn in 1935, their pictures could not be more different. Bassano photographs Fonteyn with her head demurely tilted down, emphasising her centre-parting and facial symmetry. The photographer draws upon the dancer’s inherent poise to make her appear serious and sensible beyond her years. Conversely, Hoppé‘s Fonteyn tilts up her face precociously, accentuating the long neck that will make her a future Swan Queen. White globes of studio light gleam in her dark eyes as she stands out from a background that is light behind her dark hair, and dark behind her fair skin. Radiant, willful and determined, she is every inch a future star.

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street is at the National Portrait Gallery until May 30, 2011.
A smaller display of early 20th century ballet photographs Ballet in Focus is at the Gallery until July 24, 2011.**

Photo: Margot Fonteyn, 1935.
© 2011 Curatorial Assistance, Inc. / E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection

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