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Gilded Grit: Cecil Beaton and the Protest of the Baroque

Samuel Love

Traveling to Cambridge for the first time as an undergraduate in 1922, the photographer Cecil Beaton had things other than his studies on his mind. Watching a stranger in a café, he wrote in his diary that although the man was ‘ugly… he looked as though he had grit; for some reason, that was what I wanted’.[1] Legendarily flamboyant, it is not a sentence one expects of Beaton. ‘Could I, in the event of another war, possibly go in the trenches and fight as others had done before me?’, he agonised- ‘I wanted to ride bikes and fight. I often despise people who do these things, but I wanted to be able to do them’.[2] These anxieties arguably shaped not just Beaton’s psyche but that of many young men of his generation, and saw his early work collide with both deeply felt social concerns and the utopianism of concomitant modernisms.

Beaton and Tennant. Courtesy of Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Archive.

Beaton’s fears were, evidently, concerned with the worth of his masculinity, and his wish to ‘go in the trenches’ to prove it indicates the continued cultural dominance of the First World War in the years following the Armistice. In the early 1930s, Patrick Balfour wrote of the ‘postwar man’- describing both Beaton and himself with the caveat- that ‘the very fact of his being alive was against him, for he was… prevented from starting level with the “boys who had died”’.[3] What Beaton saw in his subjective experience Balfour recognised as the fate of a generation, condemned to live in the shadow of the mythologised dead. Beaton’s generation never did go in the trenches in their youth; regardless, Balfour describes them as ‘a rebel army’, and they took instead to London galleries and fashionable magazines to wage their aesthetic war.[4] Beaton was enlisted via his high society connections, befriending the spectacularly wealthy aesthete Stephen Tennant who invited him to Wilsford Manor in 1927 for a weekend party that birthed some of the most enduring images of the Bright Young Things. These photographs, capturing Beaton and company frolicking in the grounds of Tennant’s stately home, have typically been viewed as frivolous artefacts that reflect a privileged naivety. However, naivety was a political, even transgressive, matter under the legacy of the War and the culture of solemnity and mourning it engendered. Turning here to what is perhaps the most provocative in the series- an immensely self-conscious image of Beaton and Tennant fencing, disguised as eighteenth-century noblemen- I argue that these photographs are far from irrelevant to histories of interwar British culture and modernism, reflecting a challenge to modernism’s aesthetic hegemony.

Bright Young Things at Wilsford by Cecil Beaton, October 1927; William Walton, Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Rex Whistler, Georgia Sitwell, Zita Jungman and Teresa Jungman, via From the Bygone.

In general terms, I am not alone in stating this- the groundwork has recently been laid by Jane Stevenson’s Baroque Between the Wars, in which Beaton is claimed for an alternative lineage of artists which exists as the modernist canon’s queer, prodigal sibling. Stevenson views baroque and classicism as cyclically recurring and constantly competing tendencies within European art and, if classicised modernism is ‘definable… as functional, useful, masculine, straight, unadorned, and sincere, then modern baroque is covered by the antonyms… frivolous, prodigal, feminine, queer, decorative, and equivocal’.[5] These are all words that apply to this photograph; I am interested in the reasons why. Through a sociohistorical lens, the photograph can be read as parody or, perhaps more exactly, travesty. Theoretically depicting masculine, warlike action, it is a patently ridiculous rendition of the chivalric ideal of combat as an honourable pursuit that proved its outmodedness in the mechanised carnage of the trenches. Re-enacting it, exaggerating its balletic qualities, Beaton and Tennant defy the desire for ‘grit’ in favour of its complete rejection, parading their refusal to act as their forebearers did. It is inconceivable, looking at this photograph, to imagine Beaton and Tennant in the trenches; this, I would argue, is a point emphatically made.

This is equally the case when the photograph is viewed through an art historical lens. The same modernism which once believed in an industrial future and explored the limits of fragmentation turned its back on radicalism after seeing the bloodthirsty fruition of mechanisation during the War, responding instead to a societal longing for comforting stability which was expressed in the rediscovery of classical ideals.[6] This shift towards classicism created ‘an “aesthetics of healing”’ which was ‘mobilized in the rhetorics of order, rebuilding, and reconstruction… the dream of the past was also about the hope for the future’.[7] However, little has been made of the implications of Beaton’s baroque if we accept Stevenson’s dichotomy between the baroque and the classical- we must, I think, understand this dichotomy beyond its aesthetic differences. If classicism concerned itself with rebuilding society, it follows that Beaton’s baroque concerns itself with the refusal to do so, and perhaps with good reason. As Balfour, and many other consequent social historians, observed, Beaton’s was a generation for whom the past was an insurmountable obstacle in one’s attempts to prove oneself; furthermore, the society modernism sought to reconstruct was overtly one that had no place for queer men like Beaton and Tennant.[8] Rebuilding society along familiar lines seems counterproductive- far better to revel in the chaotic undoing of its conservative ways, embracing a style Stevenson perceptively notes as being ‘modulated by an explicit awareness that the ancien régime ended with the French Revolution’ to defy modernist utopianism.[9]

Stephen Tennant and The Bright Young Things, photograhed by Cecil Beaton, 1927, via From the Bygone

It is perhaps pertinent to note that, while art history accepts the term ‘classical body’ to describe the ideals of interwar classicism, its implied inverse of the baroque body is only encountered in dance studies.[10] The former belongs to the study of the static, the sculptural; the latter to the study of an art that is by definition ephemeral and theatrical, concerned not with posterity but performativity. This photograph, like the others from the series, is an image that foregrounds its own artifice. Extremely self-conscious and blatantly staged, Beaton and Tennant are evidently playing a role and their identities seem liable to shift immediately after the photograph has been taken, rejecting both   and the promise of authenticity Beaton desired while searching for ‘grit’. There is something iconoclastic in this irreverence- the ease with which Beaton’s circle could throw on and take off these military roles uncomfortably demonstrates their ambivalence to the life-altering experiences of those who survived the trenches and its inability to affect them.

Thus I suggest Beaton’s Wilsford series as a protest against the aesthetics and moralities of interwar modernism. Its frivolous grin is the grin of the skull, rejecting both the importance of the recent past and the opportunity to build a cohesive future in favour of the instability and chaos that allowed men like Beaton to escape the weight of history. Despite the obvious exclusivity of Beaton’s group of titled friends, their attitudes here are far closer to the spirit of the age than modernist utopianism. To illustrate this spirit, I would defer to a 1920 foxtrot composed by Richard Whiting, a song beloved by Beaton’s close friend and baroque revivalist painter Rex Whistler and one whose lyrics mirror the curious mixture of nihilism, whimsicality, and decadence that would define these Bright Young Things. Cataloguing contemporary socioeconomic anxieties in its verses, Whiting’s ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’ ends, memorably, with a sentiment that one suspects would have been close to Beaton’s heart- ‘in the meantime, in between-time, ain’t we got fun?’.


Sources

[1] Diary entry, October 4th 1922. In: Cecil Beaton, The Wandering Years; Diaries, 1922-1939 (New York: Little, Brown, 1962), p. 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Patrick Douglas Balfour Kinross, Society Racket (Long, 1933), p. 154.

[4] Ibid., p. 160.

[5] , Jane Stevenson, Baroque between the Wars: Alternative Style in the Arts, 1918-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 2.

[6] This history is perhaps most comprehensively told in: Kenneth Silver, Esprit De Corps: the Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[7] Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4, 32.

[8] The best guide to the generational struggles, and sexual politics, of Beaton and Tennant’s social circle is likely: David John Taylor, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

[9] Stevenson, Baroque Between the Wars, p. 15.

[10] The most sustained text I have found which entertains the notion of a specifically ‘baroque’ body is: Mark Franko, Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

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