Audrey Hepburn at the National Portrait Gallery | Exhibition review

In a recent commercial created with CGI technology, a 20-something Audrey Hepburn winked once more at the camera – an appearance coming twenty-plus years after her death in 1993 and showing the extent of her legacy in our contemporary culture.

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon, opened yesterday with the aim to reaffirm this.
It chronicles Hepburn’s life in photographs, from her first steps into the arts as a ballet student, onto her debut as a chorus girl in London revues, where she was discovered, via her rising fame and established success as an American movie star until her demise.

Early evidence comes, for instance, from late-40s fashion shots by Antony Beauchamp, who praised the actress’s ‘dancing eyes’ as one of her most prominent features. In fact, this is what was so peculiar – Hepburn’s natural beauty was enhanced by her unassuming, benevolent soul which transpired through her style and figure, especially her eyes. Later redefined ‘the Hepburn look’, it distinguished her from fellow actresses of her time who, more or less consciously, promoted a more sexual kind of appeal.

Audrey’s refined elegance soon became even more of a distinctive trait when the actress started a partnership with Givenchy for the filming of Sabrina (1954) – the stylist would go on to take exclusive care of Hepburn’s wardrobe for decades, forever defining her as an icon of sophistication.
The 50s and 60s were crucial, Hepburn was at the height of her cinematic career and her image helped reshaping the perception of women in society, her delicately fierce poise “blurred the boundaries between conventional depictions of male and female”. A photo (1953) by Mark Shaw in which the actress poses outside her Beverly Hills apartment is emblematic.

However, Hepburn’s down-to-earth character wasn’t only laudable in itself, and the exhibition alludes to this compassionate disposition of hers way before visitors reach the final room, where the actress’s active involvement in humanitarian campaigns during her last years is briefly exposed. The shooting of The Nun’s Story (1959) was undoubtedly a cathartic milestone in Audrey’s life – a caption to a film still mentions a letter in which, collecting her thoughts on this experience, she immediately recognised the impact that Africa was having on her.

Hepburn’s last years are unfortunately not extensively accounted for. Although she is mostly remembered as an international film celebrity and fashion idol, it’s a pity that the exhibition doesn’t pay a bigger tribute to her charitable efforts as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
This retrospective surely serves as a good starting point for those who are still relatively unfamiliar with Audrey Hepburn but it would have been interesting to celebrate her long-standing status as an influential persona by actually showing the implications that this still has today.

Verdict: •••

Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon is on until 18th October 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery, for further information visit here.

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