Between a frock and a hard place | The Times, 14-02-2007

Kate Moss is the poster girl for a fashion show masquerading as art. Joanna Pitman is unconvinced

By Joanna Pitman

The Face of Fashion National Portrait Gallery

The most successful commercial photographic enterprise of the 19th century after portraiture was probably pornography. In those days it had to be sought under the counter, but in the 20th century pornography emerged into the light, and eventually, by the 1980s, had made it on to the walls of galleries and museums. Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano and others created fetishistic tableaux that exposed gallery audiences to such titillations as whips, pierced body parts, kinky shenanigans with animals, and even armless, legless and hermaphroditic nudes.

The relentless attention paid to perverse sex began to be spread so liberally around the media and the art world that these photographers were in danger of making sex boring. Into the breach stepped fashion, as Face of Fashion, the National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, makes clear — its opening nicely coincides with the current circus of London Fashion Week.

Nowadays the really up-to-date obsession is not sex but consumption. Fashion photographers have moved lust from the bedroom into the designer boutique. Object fetishism is the new safe sex. Fashion photographers, whose job it is to stoke the combined fires of sex and consumption, have put a lovingly glowing face on it, turning handbags and shoes into items of worship. In their fanatically styled and lit compositions the objects come with implicit promises. Infatuation centres on a fur stole, a diamond collar or a pair of thigh-high boots. The consumer hopes that the aura of the photograph is included in the price.

The NPG has decked its walls with photographs by six fashion photographers: Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Corinne Day, Steven Klein, Paolo Roversi and Mario Sorrenti. The curator, Susan Bright, has diligently sought out a mixture of portraits of famous people from the editorial pages of magazines, and commercial fashion images in which a sultry teenage model invites you to admire her brassiere.

In the black fabric-covered catalogue — a fetishistic item in its own right — Bright informs us: “Art and fashion have always flirted with one another, each holding alluring benefits and temptations for one another. Art, on the one hand, is perceived to have authority and gravitas; fashion, on the other, has street credibility and glamour, not to mention greater financial rewards.�

The National Portrait Gallery longs for street credibility, glamour and especially for greater financial rewards. The last fashion exhibition it had was the Mario Testino show five years ago, which turned out to be, financially, the biggest exhibition in the NPG’s history. Now, with Kate Moss as its poster girl, and a strong urge to show off its familiarity with transgression, this show is set to give Testino a run for his money. Bright’s message that art and fashion are currently coming together sounds like special pleading. She doesn’t need it. She has been shrewd. there are relatively few images in Face of Fashion that depict vacant-looking models hawking handbags.

So presenting this as a “fashion� show is disingenuous, but clearly designed to get the youthful crowds in — it opens at the same time as the V&A’s frocks-and-pop Kylie extravaganza. The artists featured at the NPG happen to make fashion photographs, but this is, above anything else, a show of portraits — of Matthew Barney, Tilda Swinton, Juliette Binoche, John Galliano, Sting and others, a collection of images of people of interest in keeping with the traditions of a public gallery that has collected photographs by fashion photographers for years.

In their cavernous photographic store, run by the splendid head of photography, Terence Pepper, there are hundreds and hundreds of beautiful fashion portraits by Irving Penn, Horst, Avedon, Bailey and many others.

The range of these images varies widely in style and content, but the common theme is the current celebrity status of the model. Whether these people all deserve to be celebrated or not is another question altogether — I am deficient in the arts of model worship, and I had never heard of some of the more adolescent girls photographed showing off their best deadpan stares.

But there are chunkier characters to enjoy, such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie photographed for W Magazine by Steven Klein on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith , their portraits nicely implicit of racy misbehaviour. We have Madonna, again by Klein for W Magazine , cavorting topless with whip in black PVC hotpants and fishnet tights in front of a black stallion. We have Kate Moss photographed by Alas & Piggott for Numero , dressed in nothing but an artfully tied silken cord.

There’s an unhappy looking performance artist called Shannon Plumb, who presumably agreed to be tied up very tightly and very painfully indeed with rope for more than 12 hours and photographed naked by Mario Sorrenti. The image is shot after the ropes have been removed, leaving deep lacerations still cutting into her livid pink flesh. The image of pain infliction is utterly repulsive, and the link with fashion here eludes me entirely.

You may have noticed a desire by the curator to place the show in the fashionable let’s-be-naughty category. But happily, bondage and sexual perversions do not dominate. Corinne Day gives us a classic portfolio of dreary and pallid girls that reinforces her image as the chief photographic polemicist of female grievance. Her models wander around aimlessly, looking hungry and mildly drugged, staring dully at the camera with not a hint of rhetoric or persuasion.

Some might take comfort in the fact that Day habitually refuses to enshrine the beautiful iconic goddess body, but focuses on the postmodern body, which is no longer pure and seldom beautiful.

There are the inevitable portraits of Kate Moss, and some previously unseen ones taken by Day at the start of her career. But these are unremarkable, which may explain why they have never been published.

Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, writes in his foreword to the catalogue, that these portraits “appear to give us an insight in some form into the person portrayed�. Perhaps he is a little doubtful about this in the case of some of the subjects. Others clearly lend themselves more promisingly to insight.

Paolo Roversi offers lyrical and romantic classical portraits of people with texture such as Sting, John Galliano and a splendidly feral looking Tilda Swinton, along with a classic goddess portrait of Naomi Campbell perfectly poised virtually naked on a Parisian street, her mind full of presumptive glory and expectations of admiration.

Alas & Piggott take an old-fashioned delight in the beauties of flesh and form. Their models are portrayed with juicy curves, from which one can assume that bodies are still good to look at and to live in.

The exhibition has been beautifully designed by David Adjaye, and has a number of good pictures and more sparks of interest than one might expect from such a show. But in the end much of it is about style, which, as Degas once commented about the novel, captivates and bores in turn.

Face of Fashion is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, (0870 0130703) from tomorrow until May 28. £8, concs