The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery aims to display the portraits that capture the iconic within the icon, Audrey Hepburn. Whilst doing so, it also captures the image of an age where cultural fluctuation was rife.
When considering the name ‘Audrey Hepburn’ it is difficult to severe the ties and associations one carries with such a prolific name. To some extent, the name ‘Audrey Hepburn’ has come to define the term ‘pop culture icon’ whether you know as little about her as her name or not. The name is synonymous in our culture with class, elegance and beauty, only furthered by the constant cultural repetition on an image. We see Breakfast at Tiffany’s or chocolate advertisements in our mind as soon as the name is proclaimed.
What is interesting, then, is that the current exhibition at the NPG displays a steady and diverse chronology of still image and portraiture, which maps the changing landscape of culture that was seen during Hepburn’s lifetime. From the black and white, American Vogue photography by Irving Penn for some of the theatre projects that Hepburn undertook to the un-posed photography by Mark Shaw during the filming of Sabrina and the bold changes in fashion displayed in images by William Klein and Douglas Kirkland. For someone that knows only the iconic images of Hepburn, this exhibition portrays a landscape of change that Audrey Hepburn witnessed and, in some regards, pioneered.
The exhibition describes how at the height of her fame, and to some extent still today, Hepburn can be seen as holding the opposite traits you may imagine an ‘icon’ to posses. With the term ‘icon’, one may wrongly assume that Hepburn’s image and portrayal in media was a constant and unchanged personality. Conversely, she was ‘iconic’ for different reasons – she was the modern ‘everywoman’ that stood out amongst the aging portrayal of ‘women as sex symbols’. We learn she that she constantly agreed to film roles that challenged the culture she was surrounded by, some of which could have broken her career – both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Children’s Hour were controversial in their content at the time. Even her charity work in her later life, which still carries on today, is an inherent element of her ‘iconic’ status.
What this exhibition seems to reveal is the real ‘icon’ of Audrey Hepburn that is otherwise occasionally obscured behind the repeated ‘iconic’ imagery. The different photographers opting for alternate methods of photographing Hepburn each bring out the elements of her personality that existed when working together. The writing surrounding the photographs reveals this eclectic image of Hepburn as an actress, artist and generally in her everyday demeanour.
The exhibition highlights, without explicitly stating so, how she stood out amongst her contemporaries – all the reasons she’s remembered today. The photographs displayed from personal collections, in turn, contain unique purpose, each distinct and detached from the last. The fashion portraiture marks notable differences to the casual photographs – and yet the similarities bring a more cohesive view of the woman in question. More than anything, the exhibition displays Hepburn’s collaborative efforts as an artist, maintaining a strong, unique voice in a challenging industry – a voice that she kept complete control over, cementing her status as an ‘icon’.