Culture: Visual Arts

Icons: Kenneth Anger

Icons: Kenneth Anger

If there’s anyone who knows about the seamier side of Hollywood, it’s Kenneth Anger. After all, he was practically born on set. His first role was as a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and that sealed his fate as a Hollywood groupie, both loving and hating those gorgeous fantasy figures on the silver screen.

The darker side of Tinseltown, with all the sordid sexual secrets of the Hollywood stars is in Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon, which is a fascinating read and full of salacious gossip. My, my, who would have guessed that James Dean had such a deviant side to him? Don’t be fooled by the white t-shirts and all-American boyish good looks. A hint is in his nickname, the Human Ashtray, and there are plenty more titillating gems in the book.

Anger’s work as an independent filmmaker merges surrealism with homoeroticism and the occult. He is an influential force for many film directors such as Gus van Sant. Popular visual culture, the music video and queer iconography all owe the American a big debt.

The exhibition at the Sprüth Magers gallery in Grafton Street is Anger’s second solo show here, and full of the actor and filmmaker’s personal collection of photographs, scrapbooks, letters and memorabilia.

Icons is set up in two rooms. The first gives you thrill when entering, with blood-red walls and thick vermilion carpet. Dramatic, bold and inviting, one wall is devoted to matinee idols. Pride of place goes to Rudolph Valentino, and to modern eyes, it’s amazing that he was every heterosexual woman’s fantasy of a dashing hero.

In the photos, Rudi favours a dark-coloured lipstick. He was not a man ashamed to be in full slap, and his eyes droop languidly from the weight of mascara and eyeshadow. In fact, he wears more make-up than Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck put together. There’s a lovely signed photograph of a fierce-looking Stanwyck, who was a notorious skirt chaser in her time, which is well documented in Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

And yet, for all the high camp fun and perfectly arched eyebrows, there’s also a hint of mortality for these screen idols who live forever on film. Amongst the images carefully constructed by the film studios, there’s also a photograph of Valentino’s funeral, with his flower-strewn coffin. He was dead at 31 and now rests in peace at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Anger is evidently fond of cowboys, and there’s plenty of American beefcake on show. One particular favourite is a cowboy who had the best name ever – Lash Larue – not to be confused with Danny La Rue. Lash had incredible skill with the bull whip, and this always featured heavily in his films. His skills didn’t go to waste after his film career, as Lash taught Harrison Ford how to use a bullwhip in the Indiana Jones movies.

In the second room, with walls of a deep blue, hangs a neon sign ‘Hollywood Babylon’. Here we see an homage to the ladies of the silver screen, with fascinating newspaper cuttings dating back to the 1920s. It’s not only joyously camp in the extreme but also a fine piece of cinema history.

A 1925 newspaper tells us that the athletic dancer Joyselle Joyne, “finds a strenuous morning Charleston better than medicine.”

Anyone who is obsessed by the golden era of Hollywood should beat a path to the Sprüth Magers gallery. It’s a beautiful collection and a fine paean to the Hollywood myth.

But what’s missing, which seems strange as Anger is a muckraker par excellence, is that we don’t have any of the seamier, nastier sides of Hollywood. We need the story of the drugs, the breakdowns and the washed-up failures to make this Tinseltown tale more touching and vulnerable.

ICONS is on until 20 April 2013.
Sprüth Magers, 7A Grafton St London, Greater London W1S 4EJ

Words: Fiona Keating

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