31 December 2015


Richard Bergh, Death and the Maiden, 1888. Photo: Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde.

We must recalculate in ourselves the superior qualities of the soul. We must become mystics again. We must relearn to love.

– Albert Aurier, “Essay on a New Method of Criticism” (1890–93)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The decennium of Symbolism and Decadence was similarly the era of the first modern Olympics (1896) and the rebarbative ideals of Taylorism and citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger – the way humanity was going. However, one of the main desires that the Lumières picked up from the public when cinema was first invented in the year before Athens was to watch moving pictures of people who had died. The 19th century ended with a new kind of flickering light and a prevailing sense of “fin du globe”.

“Modern society is rocked without end by a nervous irritability. We are sick and tired of progress, industry and science,” wrote Émile Zola in 1896. The British man of letters Holbrook Jackson described the nervous splendour of the 1890s more positively as “A decade singularly rich in ideas, personal genius and social will,” and whose “central characteristic was a widespread concern for the correct – the most effective, most powerful, most righteous – mode of living.”

In The Exterminating Angel (1962) we encounter a company of highly Buñuelian socialites – foolish and ill-prepared as they are for the privilege of living – who twice enter the house of Lucia and Edmundo Nobile for a soirée that will gradually collapse into decadence, frenzy and a pile of dead bodies. “So close to civilisation is the cave,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of The Exterminating Angel. The film’s overall tone and texture of spiritual inertia, entrapment and the moral decay behind the decorum, as well as the director’s wondrous obscurities and dreamlike anarchy, do so well reflect this near-life experience that was the fin de siècle.

“For the self-styled Decadents,” as Murray Pittock argues in Spectrum of Decadence: The Literature of the 1890s, “the decay of their civilisation was part of their own growth as artists: they drew strength from what weakened their society, vampires of art sucking the life out of science, commerce and imperialism.”

The Decadents were the exterminating angels of the 1890s. Like the demons, they slept with their eyes open. They were an unformed society of plaintive sensualists who infected the air around them with a variety of profound and revolutionary artistic expressions as they choked on the woozy forces behind materialism and over-accelerated change. “Decadence was thought to express an intense dissatisfaction with the idealism of inherited cultural forms,” writes Eugen Weber in France, Fin de Siècle. “By finding beauty in disease, truth in insanity, and pleasure in perversity, Decadence for [British writer Arthur] Symons defined the shared project of a group of mostly French writers who sought to bring traditional aesthetics to a decisive fin.”

The Decadents ran for the shadows, for the netherworld, for a restart of the human race. “The life of art became a substitute for the life of action. Indeed, as civic action proved increasingly futile, art became almost like a religion,” informs Carl Schorske in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. “Art became transformed from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value. The disaster of liberalism’s collapse further transmuted the aesthetic heritage into a culture of sensitive nerves, uneasy hedonism, and often outright anxiety.”

Paul Valéry remarked that the haste of early modernity required a new kind poison, like the Decadents and their explorations into aestheticism and deviancy. In his book Decadence and Catholicism, Ellis Hanson describes their words and images as a distinctive idiom “characterised by an elaborate, highly artificial, highly ornamented, often tortuous style; it delights in strange and obscure words, sumptuous exoticism, exquisite sensations, and improbable juxtapositions; it is fraught with disruption, fragmentation, and paradox”.

The Decadents and the Symbolists were the magicians who sparkled in satin and velvet. The aberrant Decadents looked like an alien race as they turned themselves and their lives into studied works of art – similar to Jean Des Esseintes, the fantastic character of artifice and splendour that Huysmans created for his novel À rebours (1884) during the peak of Romanticism. The Decadents cultivated their fundamental principle of self-deconstruction and extreme individualism (it did not work out so well for Des Esseintes in the end), while the sombre Symbolists catered to a greater reality not available to the naked eye.

“Symbolism was an attempt to think mythically: to abandon a world of ordinary cause and effect for one of vision and transcendence,” writes Murray Pittock. “That is the seeking for a world beyond their own, found in the past, in mysticism […] the occult, the Church, or in the self, in the heart of darkness of the artist’s existential drive to be free from his increasingly scientifically defined environment, or the hunt for beauty which is temporal, and thus in the end a hunt for death.”

Talking from his grave (as this was published posthumously), Baudelaire said that, “I have cultivated my hysteria with delight and terror.” Henri Dorra’s comment in Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology is that “this hysteria implied a state of trancelike awareness that transformed the objects of everyday life into apparitions endowed with spiritual meaning”.

The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones explained that, “The more materialistic Science becomes, the more angels shall I paint.” But Neo-Platonic beliefs were by all means reinforced by a string of scientific discoveries of invisible forces such as radio waves and x-rays during the fin de siècle (and of course by a keen interest in séances and psychotropic drugs).

Herschel Chipp talks about the method behind French writer Gustave Kahn’s works in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics: “Rather than begin with the tangible world and then subjectivise it according to feeling, he took feeling or idea as the starting point of a work of art, which was then objectified in the actual form of the poem of the painting.” This was truly Symbolism as the exact opposite of Romanticism.

The Symbolists and the Decadents laid the sufferings of the world to their own identity, with different resonances. “Find expression for a sorrow, and it will become dear to you. Find expression for a joy, and you will intensify its ecstasy,” urged Oscar Wilde – later prisoner 4099 at the Reading Gaol, while four of his plays were running in London. Homophobia and eyes not used yet spurred a lasting disregard for the art and the artists of these last hours of mankind. When 20th-century critic Raymond Williams looked back at the fin de siècle, he looked down at it as some kind of transitional period, a “working out, rather, of unfinished lines, a tentative redirection”. He was wrong.

You see, the sense of awe just mounts and mounts as one moves through the galleries with the Symbolism and Decadence exhibition at Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, “for art” – as Walter Pater described it in his History of the Renaissance (1873) – “comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake”.

“What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space.” These are the magic words that Carol (Cate Blanchett) says to Therese (Rooney Mara) during their first lunch together in Todd Haynes’s very successful Carol (2015). Väinö Blomstedt’s beautifully mournful Francesca, painted during a stay in Florence in 1897, is such a girl. In this painting, Dante’s tragic Commedia heroine Francesca da Rimini holds a white poppy flower in her hand, in a “dry” Renaissance-like landscape in which the artist has erased the conventional one-point perspective to produce a remarkable flatness.

The Symbolist artist and critic Maurice Denis famously stated in 1890 that “We should remember that a painting before being a warhorse, a nude woman, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours and assembled in a certain order.”

And as Russell Clement explains in Four French Symbolists: A Sourcebook on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Maurice Denis: “Symbolist works tend to be static and simplified in form, composition, and colour. Pictorial space is often shallow, and the viewer is often forced into an intimate relationship with the image.” Arthur Symons talked about the “eternal, minute, intricate, almost visible life, which runs through the whole universe”, and it looks like Blomstedt has scratched young Francesca’s left cheek with a key (these are fine pink brushstrokes) as to remind us to focus on a greater matter of importance: the Ideas behind appearances.

One-fourth of the Swedish population left for America in the latter part of the 1800s due to misery and distress at home. For most of those who stayed behind, in the vast areas of the country’s endlessly depressing spruce forests, life remained grounded on rural values – as opposed to Britain, where the population moved from eighty per cent rural to eighty per cent urban from the beginning to the end of the 19th century – and a fundamental belief in folklore spirits.

The exhibition concentrates on the kinship between the Nordic and Latvian artists of the fin de siècle, with some continental additions (like the two excellent paintings by the Dutch Jan Verkade): “Artists in the 1890s were in a state of debate: on the one hand, the ‘Self’ was an urban, French-speaking and cigarette-smoking person with a view to world exhibitions, medals, assignments and introductions in the press; on the other hand, a solitary brooder in the twilight, in the nature that was homeland and origin, and the sceneries of folk tales, legends and national myths,” writes Margaretha Rosholm Lagerlöf in the lavish (though Swedish-only) Symbolism och dekadens publication.

Sweden and its neighbouring countries were of course a world apart from the cosmopolitanism and the buoyancy of Paris “where everyday life was elevated to a spectacle”, as Vanessa Schwartz puts it in Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, and the city’s many world’s fairs (the Exposition Universelle in 1900 drew forty-eight million visitors to Paris). Nor were the artists of these countries dependent on the death-by-bling maximalism of the Catholic Church.

“Roman Catholicism is central to both the stylistic peculiarities and the thematic preoccupations of the Decadents,” argues Ellis Hanson. “The Church is itself a beautiful and erotic work of art, a thing jewelled over like the tortoise that expires under the weight of its own gem-encrusted carapace in À rebours”:

“In short, the Decadents did not invent decadent Catholicism, they simply embraced it where they found it. They were the culmination and the ironic reversal of an already popular tradition that regarded the Church as a decaying empire. Instead of writing anticlerical tirades, they drew from the mysticism and archaic strangeness of the Church a romantic ideal.”

White Ophelia floats like a great lily in Georg Pauli’s painting of 1891 in which he focussed on her dreamy face. She floats, she sings, she is carelessly happy. The flowers around her that she has picked will still float when she drowns in her dress made heavy in the water. Women in the Waldemarsudde exhibition are fairy tale princesses or maidens or flowers, or they are cloaked old hags snapping the thin thread of life with their shears. But spared we are of the Catholic staple of the femme fatale (except, of course, for Munch).

Ophelia is the human symbol of the indeterminate, intermediate and ambiguous nature of this strange artistic movement that captured so many twilight brooders in the North. They did not think like the French, however, and they did not paint like the French. Rather than mimicking a Golden Age that never was with a gallery of ornamental characters based on imaginative renderings of ancient figures from the bible and Greek and Roman mythology, they evoked the essence of their claustrophobic woods, among gnomes and trolls.

“Such beliefs were common in Europe’s less industrialised regions, and intellectuals interpreted this as a charming residue of the prehistoric past that indicated a holistic, bio-mystical relationship between humans and nature,” explains Michelle Facos in An Introduction to 19th-Century Art. Ernst Josephson expressed his guilt and grief over the loss of his beloved sister Nelly when they were young through his powerful painting Näcken (1884). The nefarious Näcken was the alluring water sprite who called people to treacherous waters with his fiddle to make them drown.

Prince Eugen – whose home and studio at the beautiful Waldemarsudde premises, out on a promontory on the island of Djurgården, became the Waldemarsudde museum after his death in 1947 – fancied the much popular Isle of the Dead that Arnold Böcklin painted several times during the 1880s. (“I really yearn for it. If you have it in your bedroom, then you can certainly put up with much,” he wrote.) The “Painter Prince” purchased an etching by Max Klinger with the same motif and title for his art collection. This exceedingly moribund image was a precursor of the art of the fin de siècle and its array of ruins, borderlands and burial grounds, unaffected by time, and where the vibrations of life have reached an absolute zero.

When Richard Bergh painted Death and the Maiden in 1888, he used his wife Helena as the model for the young woman with the Grim Reaper hot on heels. The painting was a premonition of his wife’s true destiny as her life came to a sudden end the following year. Bergh’s Dagens död (1895) is a work in charcoal and oil with a title that can be read as both the final curtain of the day – this was the world on the cusp of the century, on the cusp of civilisation – and the death of man. We see the last curvature of the orange sun as it dips into the ocean, and in the foreground the extinguished man and his allegorical slayer. If there are any human beings at all in the many works in the exhibition, they seem just placed there like marionettes bereft of this illusion called free will.

Trees are the true individuals in this show. It is interesting to see how they sometimes, in some of the best works, appear as true self-portraits. You see the chilly trees in solitary confinement among other trees or in perfect isolation. They remind me of how the Swedes choose to live their lives.

The writers in the book Symbolism och dekadens tell us that Latvia merely functioned as a paint yard for German tastes, which is quite hard to believe when you experience these works, and that the fin-de-siècle artists in Norway and Finland exaggerated their national folkloristics (which is accurate). These artists approached a more continental style after the turn of the century. The world was still here.

“The 19th century had a habit of putting an end to things,” as Eugen Weber suggests (in France, Fin de Siècle). But mankind had to jostle itself into the Great War of the next century to really put an end to things. “After that war was over it became fashionable to refer to the years preceding it as the belle époque, and to confuse that period with the fin de siècle, as if the two were one. Perhaps they were; the bad old times are always somebody’s belle époque. But the belle époque, named when looking back across the corpses and the ruins, stands for the ten years or so before 1914.”

One does feel like a happy Parisian in a patisserie in front of the stands with the arts and crafts items. Everything is lush Art Nouveau. Deborah Silverman discusses the agenda of these great artists in her book Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style:

“First, they wanted to disrupt the hierarchy of media and to reunite art and craft. Second, they sought to a new and distinctively modern design style, liberated from the conventions of historical eclecticism. In the return to nature’s forms they found a powerful antidote to the moribund formulas of the period styles. Third, they wished to assert the primacy of individual vision over the function of the materials. For Art Nouveau artists, materials were vessels; design substances, no matter how durable and intractable, were destined to yield, bend, and rend according to the dictates of imagination.”

Stéphane Mallarmé opinionated that “To name an object is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which is made to be discovered little by little: to suggest it, that is the dream. It is the perfect usage of this mystery which constitutes the symbol.”

The suggestive suite, here much fragmentary, by the Swedish poète voyant Tyra Kleen (outside the room with the graphic prints) deserves a presentation on its own. “Between 1903 and 1907, she created what should be termed as her Symbolist masterpiece: a series of prints in which she in a sublime way in the motifs invokes a number of her main sources of inspiration, artistic as well as literary,” writes Daniel Prytz who curated the exhibition together with Museum Director Karin Sidén. “By its consistently continental Symbolist character, with a noticeable streak of Decadence, this series of prints has no other parallel in Sweden.”

In his fine anthology of British poetry and prose, Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s, Karl Beckson introduces their texts by claiming that the “Aesthetes and Decadents command our attention by their determination to transform their lives into works of art, to centre the meaning of life into private vision in order to resist a civilisation intent on debasing the imagination and thus making man less human.”

The whole movement was like a glorious sunrise mistaken for a dawn, with the three backbone questions about being here made into one: D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we heading?

Väinö Blomstedt, Francesca, 1897. Photo: Hannu Aaltonen, Suomen Kansallisgallerian.

Symbolism and Decadence at Waldemarsudde in Stockholm through January 24, 2016.

12 August 2015


Cecil Beaton with Anita Loos in California, December 1929.

To listen to Beaton describe in strictly visual terms a person or room or landscape is to hear a recitation that can be hilarious or brutal or very beautiful, but will always certainly be brilliant.

A person sitting for Beaton has a sense of slightly drifting in space – of not being photographed but painted, and painted by a casual, barely visible presence. But Beaton is there, oh yes. For all his quiet tread he is one of the most on-the-spot people alive: his visual intelligence is genius.

– Truman Capote, “Cecil Beaton” (1969)

Since he wasn’t born into aristocracy, money and stolen wealth, it might be argued that Sir Cecil Beaton’s life began with a proper false start. He was in fact conceived at the superior Hôtel Hermitage in Monte Carlo, and he did have a very happy childhood at home, but to his great disappointment he was not a hereditary toff. As the versatile artist told John Freeman when he was the subject of the BBC interview series Face to Face on February 18, 1962: “No one could help me. It was up to me to find the sort of world that I wanted.”

In the MoMA publication Cecil Beaton: The New York Years Donald Albrecht writes that, “Among other forces, like his originality and homosexuality, Beaton’s fringe position instilled in him a snobbish obsession with class and status – and a determination to be perceived as an artist, rather than a member of the merchant class of his father. Like [Evelyn] Waugh, it also made him an astute observer of speech, clothing, gesture, and pose as signifiers of status.”

Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) was a constitutional dandy and a socialite with an infallible sense for the visual world and the truly marvellous. Alan Jay Lerner – who worked with Beaton on both the stage and screen version of the transitional My Fair Lady – noticed that, “Inside Cecil Beaton there was another Cecil Beaton sending out lots of little Cecils into the world.” He flourished of course as a portrait and fashion photographer, he was an illustrator, columnist, dress designer, art director, author, a decorator and set designer, sometimes an actor, who ironically only failed where he most wanted to succeed, as a playwright. The theatre was the love of his life.

Beaton maintained that his adult vision was guided by his “inward child’s eye”. He took his idiosyncrasies with him to fashion shoots, to warzones, and to the last bastion of the British Empire when he redecorated some of the rooms at the Government House in Calcutta, so that they “became slightly Edwardian, very feminine and almost human”. Beaton’s enchanted admiration for the very feminine began when he was only three years old.

In his Photobiography of 1951, Beaton recounts how he “used to be allowed to scramble in my mother’s large bed and nestle close to her while she sipped on an early morning cup of tea and opened her letters. One morning during this customary treat, my eyes fell on a postcard lying in front of me on the pink silk eiderdown and the beauty of it caused my heart to leap.”

The picture was of the actress Lily Elsie, whose “neck, in its full swanlike glory, was surrounded by an elaborate filigree of diamonds, while her hair was piled in billowing clusters of curls. To make the whole effect more unbearably beautiful, the photograph had been tinted, the cheek and lips of this divine creature were of a translucent pink that I could never hope to acquire from my box of crayons, and the tulle corsage of her pale yellow dress was spangled with tinsel stardust. My passion for Miss Lily Elsie and my interest in photography were thus engendered at the same time.”

Beaton grew up in a nice house in Hampstead in north London. He was born the same year as his grandfather died and left a fortune of £155,000 (seventeen million pounds in today’s money) from his company the Beaton Brothers. Cecil’s father (Ernest) took over the timber business, but things did not go so well when road builders began to replace his sleepers with modern pavement. It was not that Cecil hated his father, but he could do without the whole masculine domain of circumstances and (as he told John Freeman) his father’s “rather hearty friends that he brought home for dinner on Saturday nights, all that meant nothing to me. That sort of laughter in the billiard room was a world that I knew nothing about and had a slight antipathy to.”

It is very telling how Beaton is using a condescending tone to infantilise his father in Photobiography, and how he endows the women of his childhood with joyous memories and recognition: “Although my father took photographs by squeezing a rubber ball attached to an end of an umbilical cord affixed to a largish camera of indefinite make, it was Alice Collard, my sisters’ nurse, with her No 2 Box Brownie, who first brought any great enthusiasm for photography into the family.”

The daily climax in his young life was the fashion illustrations in the Evening Standard, and the sensuality of daubing these rich plates with his watercolours: “Sometimes, on red-letter days, Bessie Ascough sketched a picture of a lady in court dress, replete with feathers, bouquet and train; or she might draw a robe de bal, giving a wonderful facsimile of all the embroidery of the dress. Her particular skill was manifest in the roses that she drew, roses like balloons or billiard balls, with great round centres.” His parents “deemed it” – as Beaton put it in The Glass of Fashion (1954), his successful and very original summary of dress culture, and of the real shepherds of fashion, in the first half of the 20th century – “unwise to allow these apoplectic expectancies to continue: the child was becoming peculiar.”

One such peculiarity was his “keen perverse enjoyment in scrutinising photographs of stage scenery. The more blatantly these showed the tricks and artifices of the stage, which would never be obvious to a theatre audience, the greater the pleasure [Photobiography].” Cecil’s brother (Reggie) committed suicide at a young age so his two remaining siblings, Baba and Nancy, were quite on the feminine side of things – though “they were rather ugly little schoolgirls” who he transformed in his own designs of camp glamour and photographed them against his contrived backgrounds.

“Cecil Beaton was an artist who took the artificiality of photography and, by exaggerating it, made it into a medium for telling the truth,” writes Wendy Lesser in His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art. She is also right in that Beaton always “insured that his photographed world would not visibly resemble our daily world. Despite this, his pictures comment trenchantly and enduringly on the reality to which they bear such an oblique relation.”

The only thing he didn’t approve of about his elegant mother was that her father was a common blacksmith. He flaunted his folly by presenting her and other women of his young life as society ladies in the London papers. Mother Etty was at times an inspiration of artifice in the way she dressed: “On one occasion she wore a large special bunch of imitation lilies of the valley on her bosom, pinned to a green chiffon scarf. This sunburst of artificial flowers was a revelation, because I had not thought lilies of the valley could be simulated [The Glass of Fashion].”

But when it came to artifice and irreverent extravagance, the full monty, Beaton got all he could ask for of inspirational festiveness from his one and only aunt who “relished the fact that her appearances involved hours of preparation” and who overdressed for all of her minor entertainments: “To Aunt Jessie I own my first real glimpse of the world of fashion, of that whole grown-up world from which a child is so often excluded,” he wrote. “Aunt Jessie was the outsider, the magic relation who provided those special treats and fantasies that are so dear to childhood. She made one feel that one went back to reality after leaving her [ibid].”

In the television documentary Beaton by Bailey (1970), which was “hosted” by big-name photographer David Bailey but directed by Bill Verity, Diana Vreeland (editor of American Vogue at the time) says something that rings very true: “You see, what I like about Cecil is that he has a great deal of the outrageous in him, he insists on the outrageous.” All that derring-do that distinguished Cecil Beaton did not fair so well when he had to face up to the realities of the British school system and the ruffians that would become the ogres of the country’s establishment. At age seven he was inevitably dragged into Heath Mount School and into the uncharted world of boys and scrotum hormones: “Suddenly out of nowhere the bullies arrived. They had recognised the quarry in me. Growling like wire-haired terriers. They were large and solid, with hairy stockings and rough tweeds.”

His primary bully was Evelyn Waugh, who he nonetheless photographed in 1955 with a fence and a warning sign between them: Entrée interdite. (“He thinks that I am a nasty piece of goods, and – oh brother – I feel the same way about him.”) Beaton was something of a dud in school, and he never learned the things you are expected to learn (nor did he read a book until he was eighteen), but “Absolutely, everything about him was an aesthete,” as Cyril Connolly remembered their time together at the repugnant St Cyprian’s School in Eastbourne. “He lived for his feelings and his response to art, and in his case it was the theatre.”

The sport was to get in favour with the sadistic headmistress (known as “Mum”) of this seaside establishment, for the simple matter that it would provide a chance to make life worth living. Beaton felt ashamed by his horrible tactics, but as he expressed it in an interview decades away from St Cyprian’s: “I suppose in a way it was really good training for later in life.” In Enemies of Promise (1938), Connolly recalled his semesters with his two schoolmates:

“[George] Orwell proved to me that there existed an alternative to character, Intelligence. Beaton showed me another, Sensibility. He had a charming, dreamy face, enormous blue eyes with long lashes and wore his hair in a fringe. His voice was slow, affected and creamy. He was not good at games or work but he escaped persecution through good manners, and a baffling independence. We used to mow the lawn together behind an old pony, sit eating the gooseberries in the kitchen garden or pretend to polish brass in the chapel; from Orwell I learnt about literature, from Cecil I learnt about art.”

Next was Harrow, the straw-hat private school in northwest London, where he was allowed to show his talents in art class. Apart from that “I just felt, to begin with, that I didn’t like that sort of herding together,” Beaton told Freeman in the BBC programme. “I hated the stink of the swimming bath in the morning, and it took me some time to find some congenial friends, people who hated it as much as I did.”

What began in the autumn of 1922 were a number of years of advanced social development at St John’s College – without any kinds of academic achievements – where Beaton, rich in determination, proved himself well adapted to develop the town’s theatre life and the hedonism inside Cambridge University.

“I was thrilled by the fact that certain people would give up life to aestheticism,” he wrote in his diary that became his many famous diaries that lasted from 1922 to 1980. “Cecil treated the published diary in much the same way he treated his published portrait photographs. He retouched them shamelessly until he achieved the effect he sought,” writes his biographer Hugo Vickers in the foreword to The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970–1980. “Thus, in the published diary, opinions are softened, celebrity figures are hailed as wonders and triumphs, whereas in the originals, Cecil can be as venomous as anyone I have ever read or heard in the most shocking of conversations.”

Photography authority Philippe Garner has expressed that “Cecil Beaton cast himself as a dandy not just in the superficial sense of one who paid undue attention to his clothes and grooming, but in the more complex sense of one who desired a role for himself as the eternal outsider.”

In Cambridge, Beaton “set about to become a rabid aesthete”. What is known is that Beaton’s student pad was the most lavish in town with the walls painted in cerise, gold furniture and every other detail in emerald green, including his lovebird. He looked like a punk Quentin Crisp, with varnished nails, lipstick, eyeliner, earrings, necklace and a big hat. One of his opulent roles was at the ADC Theatre where he designed almost every bit for the Footlights Dramatic Club and also performed in their plays and revues.

“Your inspirations are what will make your photographic life exciting. And your desire for recreating beauty will overlook all forms of hard work and discouragements,” Beaton said in 1938. His photography saved him from what he feared the most – “the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary” – a life less extraordinary. His father was paying a Holborn office a pound each week after Cambridge just for putting up with his objectionable son. Cecil was drowning like a fish on dry land.

He went to Venice in the summer of 1926 and then befriended the (untalented) super aesthete Stephen Tennant in December, who introduced him to some of the greatest artistic leaders of the era, the siblings Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. And from there on Beaton could allow himself to be conscious that the things he did were the things he had always wanted to do.

“I became a great good friend of the three of them,” Beaton says in Beaton by Bailey. “And through them I think I got my first foot into the door of the sort of life in London that I really was craving for. My name became really quite well known in various strange ways. An uncle came to dinner one night, and he said that he had been to a vaudeville theatre in Edgware Road and some red-nosed comedian had ended his act by saying, ‘I am just going off to be photographed by Cecil Beaton.’”

The diary entries became markedly less fervent in February 1927. Beaton had suddenly got so much to do, photographing his famous new acquaintances, designing fancy dresses for the Bright Young Things and doing a wide range of work for Vogue in Britain.

Evelyn Waugh caricatured Beaton as the photographer and social climber David Lennox in his first novel Decline and Fall in 1928. “Forty-five years ago, photographers weren’t thought of as being particularly eminent,” Beaton told Freeman in 1962. “I took these photographs that were considered revolutionary and fantastic, and I had an exhibition of them. And from the moment the show was on they just clicked because there hadn’t been celebrity photographs in that particular way.” The booming show was at the Cooling Galleries on Fleet Street in 1927. The success was repeated three years later in connection with the publication of his first book, The Book of Beauty.

In 1928 Beaton stepped ashore in New York (“there were crowds waiting to welcome everyone but me”) with fifty pounds in his pocket and a letter of introduction from the Sitwells. On this first stay he met Bessie Marbury – who was the great literary agent and theatre producer of the time – and he met her former lover, Elsie de Wolfe, the widely known socialite who is regarded as the first professional interior designer. (“She is the sort of wildly grotesque artificial creature I adore,” penned Beaton in his diary.) de Wolfe doted on the meticulously attired young man with his mannerisms and natural endowments. She presented an exhibition of his illustrations in her gallery on Fifth Avenue, Beaton’s first in New York.

When Beaton came back to London he had signed a “lifetime” contract (which lasted until 1955) with Condé Nast. It says a lot about Beaton’s disinterest in the technical side of photography that he still worked with the Kodak pocket camera that he got from his parents on his twelfth birthday when he made the acquaintance of Edna Woolman Chase, the long-standing editor of American Vogue. Nast got him into working with a Rolleiflex and a big studio camera (which he did not know the name of), though he never had a studio of his own. Beaton wanted to remain an amateur in the same sense as Orson Welles used the word: someone who loves what he does.

It was common practice that Beaton talked about his photography in past sense, however: “I wasn’t very interested in the sitters themselves. I wanted to make pictures with the camera, I wanted to make something that didn’t really look like a photograph,” he told Freeman. In a very good interview with Rosa Reilly in the April issue of Popular Photography in 1938, Beaton signalled that he still was looking for the end of the rainbow.

And he was comparing photography to a fancy dress party: “I think this medium suited me extremely well for the years in which I happened to be in the frame of mind to do camera work. Photography gave me a tremendous amount of results. Just as in that period I loved parties madly, used to stay up all night and dance frenziedly – I gave fancy dress parties and behaved hysterically. Photography was all a part of that life. But I find that one can have too many costume parties.”

Anita Loos joined Beaton in New York in the winter of 1929 and they travelled to Los Angeles together. Beaton’s mission was to photograph the actresses of Hollywood for Vanity Fair and to fill up The Book of Beauty. Beaton took Hollywood by storm and he spent the New Year with Mr and Mrs Rosebud at their San Simeon palace north of Los Angeles.

Anita Loos was Beaton’s best friend in Hollywood and she opened a whole lot of doors for him there. “My first impressions of a film studio were so strange and fantastic that I felt I could never drain their photographic possibilities,” Beaton wrote in his diary. “The vast soundstages, with the festoons of ropes, chains, and the haphazard impediments, were as lofty and awe-inspiring as cathedrals; the element and paradox and surprise was never-ending, and the juxtaposition of objects and people gave me my first glimpse of Surrealism.”

His first visit to Hollywood was also a clandestine attempt to find the woman who he wanted to make his wife, Greta Lovisa Gustafsson. He did not photograph Garbo until she appeared in his suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1946 – five years after she had abandoned her acting career at the age of thirty-six – and they talked about a life together that would involve the chance of facing each other in pyjamas each morning. “She is as beautiful as the aurora borealis,” he wrote in 1937. “Her nose is so delicate and sensitive that she seems to be conscious of perfumes too subtle for others to enjoy.”

A few of the portraits from this sitting are in the splendid Beaton retrospective Cecil Beaton – Master of Photography – which covers his portraiture from the late 1920s to the early 1970s – at Sven-Harry’s Art Museum in Stockholm. The walls in the exhibition are colour coded: a dull ice-cream green for the artists, generic gallery-white for the actors and actresses, while the blue room is a mixed bag of portraits. One would have wished a much more daring choice of colours – Beaton, for sure, would have sneered “retina irritant” – but the quality and the verisimilitude of Beaton’s props-and-people fantasies really make these images speak for themselves.

Truman Capote: “There is almost no first-rate contemporary photographer of any nationality who is not to some degree indebted to Cecil Beaton. Why? Look at his pictures.”

Photographer Patrick Anson said of Beaton’s pictures that “The extraordinary thing is that he is really a diarist of what our world has been.” The fact that the exhibition is full of genuinely famous faces that few will recognise today (and heaven knows he absolutely met and photographed them all), makes one kind of extra dreamy and humble and yearning in front of many of the portraits at Sven-Harry’s.

One of the earliest pictures in Stockholm (and an exception as it’s not a vintage print) is his silvery portrait of the London socialite Paula Gallibrand from 1928, with her oval Modigliani face and lovely round belly. A note from Beaton’s diary: “For beauty’s sake she should never smile her peculiarly ludicrous smile, but for humanity’s sake she does and should. There is no more reassuring or nicer smile.” Sail on, silvergirl. Your time has come to shine again.

Beaton had too much of the theatre in his mind in the 1920s to be a really great portraitist. Many of his pictures from this decade are loud of everything but the sitter. A classic Beaton that is missing here is his portrait of Stephen Tennant as Prince Charming on lit de parade (1927). But the only picture that is truly missing in the show is the pinnacle of all Beaton’s photography: his haunting and heartbreakingly beautiful en face portrait of the traumatised Romanov princess Natalia Paley (1935) where he so much mastered the shadows and erased the right side of her face. A bouquet of flowers is growing out of her chest. Boris Vian put a surrealistic water lily – and the same suffering and sorrow – in Cloé’s lung twelve years later in his novel L’Écume des jours.

Beaton designed for the stages in London throughout the 1930s, but it was as a photographer that he thrived. Surrealism and his work for Vogue were two things that made photography the centre of his creativity. As Donald Albrecht argues in his book about Beaton’s life in New York: “As the 1930s progressed, Beaton’s romantic sensibility remained perfectly attuned to the era’s equally romantic fashion aesthetic. But Beaton also brought something to the magazine they did not: his interest in avant-garde art movements like French Surrealism and his witty Bright Young personality in the form of illustrations and articles that gave Vogue’s American readers a distinctly British slant on the two countries.”

The city itself supplied him with the necessary energy for his incessant advancements in photography: “When I think of the work I have done in photography I am often weary of it but I know I shall never give it up,” he told Rosa Reilly in 1936. “Particularly in New York would it be impossible for me not to take pictures. New York is like electricity. The efficiency and vitality of all America is transmuted to me here. The tempo is so fast I can’t paint or write – or even read. But it makes me photograph as madly – as frenziedly as ever I danced at fancy dress ball.”

He stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, the Ritz-Carlton and the Ambassador when he worked in New York. His beloved home at home was an old farmhouse in Wiltshire (near Bath), which he transformed into a dreamworld for his tastes – featuring an exceptionally delightful circus-themed master bedroom designed by Rex Whistler with a ravishing unicorn poster bed – and which he wrote a book about some years after the contract ran out, Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease (1949). It is a miracle how he managed to do all the things that he did, and with such a steady flow of quality and vitality. Beaton was like the feline in Wilde’s cracking epigram: “If you want a lesson in elaborate artificiality, just watch the studied unconcern of a Persian cat entering a crowded salon.”

In the excellent portrait book Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles, Hugo Vickers writes how Beaton “pandered to their egos while riding on their coat tails” (sometimes it was the other way around with the celebrities). The British royalties began to call for him. “In the 1930s, many British aristos found themselves unable to keep their right arm vertical. Like their fellow nobs in France, Prussia and Spain, they clung to Fascism as an antidote to democracy and in the hope of keeping their loot. Nazism’s whack ball theories of racial hierarchy chimed with toffs’ daft belief in natural aristocracy and breeding,” writes Glen Newey on the LRB blog (July 21, 2015). “And there was the Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in later years the dear old ‘queen mum’, whose tastes in booze, cloche hats and ultra-rightist politics had already ossified in the early 1930s.”

Beaton had no issues with the court’s offensive arm stretches or Wallis Simpson’s friendship with the Führer. In February 1938 he stabbed American Vogue in the back. The damage caused by a sketch that he had produced with a punch line about “dirty kikes” was substantial, and the magazine removed and reprinted what remained of the 150,000 copies that had been distributed to the newsstands. Beaton’s response to the Vogue debacle was his regular stance of studied unconcern. But it was, quite ironically, his royal engagements that once more would open the doors for him at Condé Nast.

Baudelaire was the first to realise how dandyism was in opposition to aristocracy and at once its refiner. Beaton was a snob, but he was a real snob. He portrayed many of the narrow-minded aristos he didn’t like as single beings, whereas he often used mirrors or montage to multiply a person whose charms and talents he adored in a single frame (as with his great portrait from October 1972 of the three Charlotte Ramplings). Sven-Harry’s offers guided “queer” tours for the crowns of Swedish PC dogma but nothing of the kind for white heterosexual males who have been deprived of every right to exist. Welcome to the most equal nation in the world, some of you.

The forward-thinking brilliance of Beaton’s unconventional fashion photography, in which he pictured his smartly dressed models as they were idling in unglamorous settings with his added miscellaneous everyday articles for surreal effects where the viewer had to fill in the blanks, was mostly more of a nuisance for American Vogue at the time. The pictures from his 1937 session among the cement and the debris of a construction site on the Champs-Elysées barely passed the magazine’s restrictions but became widely imitated by others.

“Fashion photography has become altogether too genteel and refined to suit me. I want to make photographs of very elegant women taking grit out of their eyes, or blowing their noses, or taking lipstick off their teeth. Behaving like human beings in other words. Not women who are always on the crest of the wave,” he told Rosa Reilly in Popular Photography. “It would be gorgeous instead of illustrating a woman in a sport suit in a studio, to take the same woman in the same suit in a motor accident, with gore all over everything and bits of the car here and there. But naturally that would be forbidden.”

There are two Churchills in the exhibition. Beaton photographed the surly Prime Minister at his writing desk at 10 Downing Street in November 1940: “The PM settled himself and stared into my camera like a bulldog guarding its kennel. Click!” His niece Clarissa Churchill looks as if she carries the whole world on her shoulders, but the only “props” in this classic portrait from 1949 are her gloves, with one of her hands bare. It feels like you could tell how much Beaton liked a person by how much he accentuated the sitter’s hands. Beaton was wonderful with hands. They were two extra faces.

From March 1942 to July 1944, Beaton served for the Ministry of Information and photographed the fall of the British Empire in Egypt, India and China in his own peculiar fashion. “The entwining of Beaton’s social conservation with his sexual self-fashioning had significant consequences for his representation of British masculinity during the war,” writes Martin Francis in Penultimate Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain. Beaton’s cheesecake pictures of Johnny Weissmuller had proved too much for MGM in 1932 – such excursions aside, “he usually preferred to develop his bohemian queer aesthetic more covertly”.

Picasso had not been able to concentrate on his work for months when Beaton met him at 7 rue des Grands Augustins in November 1944, due to the great number of GIs who descended on him after the Liberation of Paris. He photographed Picasso sitting on the edge of the studio’s bathtub in a fine suit, away from everybody in his modest bathroom sanctuary. Beaton was going the other way. “Now, with nothing specific to keep me in England, there was time to settle down and relish to the full infinite delights that New York has to offer,” he confided to his diary in 1946.

In England he had a secretary, a chef and others who followed him between his home at 8 Pelham Place in Kensington and his mansion Reddish House near Salisbury. “Cecil created illusions,” explains his biographer. “His day began early and he worked in bed. He might be checking page proofs, selecting photographs, writing his diary, or talking on the phone, and he would not rise until shortly before his first appointment. If, for example, he were going out for lunch, he would shave and dress just before going out, thus arriving looking fresher and more clean-shaven than the other guests who had been out all morning. He liked the image of Renaissance man or man of leisure. It was deceptive. He had been working very hard indeed.”

In 1953 he photographed Elizabeth Taylor (“this monster,” he called her in a diary entry from 1971, “this great thick revolting mass of femininity in its rawest”) – it was obvious that Beaton did not nourish the same hope as Warhol to be reincarnated as the greatest diamond on her ring finger – and he photographed Elizabeth II in her coronation robes against a fake backdrop of Westminster Abbey during a three-hour session at the Buckingham Palace:

“The Queen stood looking very inanimate and it was for me now to keep her alert and amused. Luckily it seems to me that the Royal Family have only to get a glimpse of me for them to be convoluted with giggles. Long may that amusement continue for it helps enormously to keep the activities alive. Throughout the afternoon I found that it was very easy to reduce the Queen to a condition of almost ineradicable four ire and thus prevented many of the pictures looking sullen or morose [1955].”

Five portraits from the sitting with Ingrid Bergman in 1958 are in the exhibition as well, and they serve as a great reminder to go and see Stig Björkman’s no-nonsense documentary I Am Ingrid (2015). Beaton’s 1955 portrait of the eighty-year-old Bernard Berenson (with one hand grasping his walking stick and the other posed in front of him) in the centre of an avenue of lime trees is lovely. “I was impressed by the fact that age could not wither Berenson’s interest in life and people,” Beaton remarked for himself. “As he commented on the beauty around him, I was aware that, in his company, life took on added intensity.”

TS Eliot’s hands are as dominant as his face in Beaton’s superbly composed picture of him, in which the reflections on the writer’s glasses and on the rippled window behind his back make all the difference. Beaton met Marilyn Monroe in a New York hotel suite in 1956. “If this star is an abandoned sprite, she touchingly looks to her audience for approval,” he wrote – adding: “It will probably end in tears.” Beaton found this sprite very easy to like, and “I was so impressed by the sort of gaiety and the variety of moods that she had that I just wanted to catch that, so I did not concentrate on the background at all.” Beaton’s photography became less and less showy and opulent the more he worked within the theatre, opera, ballet and film, the closer he came to the end his rainbow.

Nancy Hall Duncan mentions in The Berg Companion to Fashion that Beaton “had an exclusive knowledge of Victorian and Edwardian photography and drew for inspiration on the costume depiction of such 19th-century portrait photographers as Camille Silvy and the collaborators DO Hill and Robert Adamson. He was also inspired by the soft-focus technique of the photographer EO Hoppé, the opalescent lighting of Baron Adolf de Meyer, and conventions of English portraiture and Renaissance painting.”

Beaton received his first Oscar for Gigi in 1958 (for Costume Design) and his second and third in 1964 for My Fair Lady (also for Best Art Direction). In the 1954 November issue of American Vogue – before he switched to Harper’s Baazar and other magazines – Beaton had described Audrey Hepburn’s stance as “a combination of an ultra fashion plate and a ballet dancer”. (She was a kind-of ballet dancer as much as she was a kind-of actress.) The portrait at Sven-Harry’s shows Hepburn in her “lady” costume, though she was so much prettier as the Covent Garden flower girl. Another little butterfly stuck on the pin.

(Beaton photographed the other Hepburn in 1936, but they despised each other unreasonably. As Vreeland expressed it, “He picks his enemies beautifully, doesn’t he?”)

Wendy Lesser: “The musical comedy based on Shaw’s Pygmalion was in any case a perfect vehicle for Beaton, as a male photographer who repeatedly transformed hired models into exclusively dressed ladies, he was well equipped to understand the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.”

The National Gallery in London had a great exhibition of his work in 1968 called Beaton Portraits. The 1960s were inevitably an era with people who liked to behave badly – the Rat Pack, the Rolling Stones, Warhol with his entourage of fuckups – but if you want someone who actually rebelled against something then look at the picture that Beaton took of Rudolf Nureyev in 1962 (the year after he had defected to the West), just out of the shadows and what a star.

The portraits he took of Twiggy in his London home are conventional girlie Twiggy pictures and they are only interesting because they show a little of the inside of 8 Pelham Place. Barbara Streisand was another thing. She was only twenty-one when Beaton made her look like a woman in a classic Nefertiti representation made in Hollywood in 1963.

Streisand has remained very thankful for what Beaton did to her: “When I started in the 60s, the beauty symbols were young girls like Sandra Dee. Cute blondes, with little turned-up noses. And a lot of people, including my mother, didn’t think I’d ever be a movie star. And it was quite a thing for me, all of a sudden, to have Cecil Beaton say he thought I was one of the most beautiful women in the world. It was great. I mean, he liked the bump on my nose.”

“She reminded me of Edith Sitwell,” Beaton noted in the diary. “Sitwell and Streisand – both were very willing to experiment, even willing to compromise. Classically beautiful women are seldom willing to experiment. They are less evolved, because the mirror and the man tell them they’ve reached a state of perfection, never mind that it’s subjective and entirely physical.”

In the 1970s Beaton photographed Diana Vreeland (“Everything about her features is animated by amused interest”), he photographed Gilbert and George and created one of his very best pictures, showing the couple as they pass or caress or threaten each other at the black-squared cellar entrance at Pelham Place, and he photographed David Hockney in his not best choice of outfit. In Beaton by Bailey, Beaton is taking random pictures of Hockney in front of his almost finished masterpiece Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971).

In this documentary, Truman Capote is full of words and hidden praise for Beaton: “Cecil’s own vision of himself is that he has a great deal of grand seigneur about him, and he is both very vain and very modest at the same time. And he has social vanity, which is amusing and unique and I like it, it is part of his charm. He has great certainty about himself in all social situations.”

But Beaton wasn’t sure about himself in 1970. The diaries make known of a man who is tortured by excruciating headaches and not a little self-doubt. In 1974 Beaton suffered a severe stroke that partially disabled him. He was brave but things were not the same anymore. When he died six years later he had lived for seventy-six years and four days.

As the two photographers sat down at Reddish House, chatting like old chums in his Pierre Paulin chairs, Beaton told Bailey in his nasal, creamy dandy tone: “If I can look animated there is some hope for all of us. Otherwise it is just too depressing.”

Cecil Beaton refused to be bored chiefly because he wasn’t boring.

Cecil Beaton with Mickey in the garden at Reddish House in 1963© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

Cecil Beaton – Master of Photography at Sven-Harrys konstmuseum in Stockholm through August 30, 2015.