The heyday of magazine publishing coincided—not at all coincidentally—with the period of high-modernist art and literature, and there’s considerable overlap between their respective aesthetics. Take early Vogue fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, some of whose shadowy and dreamlike 1930s photo portraits almost look like they were staged by surrealist visual artist Man Ray. In both his photography, for which he was best known, and his illustrations, Beaton did much to shape the style and affect of popular fashion and lifestyle magazines like Vogue, bringing to them a sophisticated eye for beauty that aligned the publications with cutting-edge European art.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Love, Cecil emphasizes the importance of Beaton in the history of visual culture in the U.S. and Britain. As the documentary’s title sequence points out, the multitalented Beaton would not only determine the look of the world’s premier fashion magazine, but in designing sets and costumes for films like Gigi and My Fair Lady, he would essentially define the look of fin de siècle France and Edwardian England in the collective imagination. And as a closeted gay man, he’s also part of the history of queer men and women who helped to shape the very 20th-century mass culture that stigmatized and marginalized them. The film, whose narration consists largely of actor Rupert Everett reading from Beaton’s own diaries, adds his voice and experience as a gay man to the broader history of modern visual culture.
Love, Cecil contextualizes Beaton’s photographs, illustrations, and designs with glimpses into his personal life—by way of interviews with acquaintances and biographers, archival interviews with Beaton, and footage of his residences. But while this approach gives us a better impression of the man, it scarcely leads to a serious interrogation of his work. Beaton’s connection to modernist forms like surrealism, for example, is only mentioned in passing, with no exploration of whether the assimilation of avant-garde aesthetics into a mainstream culture obsessed with selling beauty betrayed the original intent of those ideas. Indeed, the film leaves the subject of beauty itself largely unexplored even as it repeatedly avers that Beaton had a particular eye for it, as if beauty were a self-explanatory and universal concept.
This becomes especially problematic when the documentary regards Beaton’s time as a war photographer during World War II. Quite uncritically, Vreeland presents the man’s work during the war for the British government as a continuation of his work at Vogue. That Beaton found beauty in the arrangement of shrapnel in the sand, that he aestheticized the effects of violence, isn’t treated in Vreeland’s film as a matter of ethical concern. Unlike the surrealists to whose art Love, Cecil cursorily compares his work, Beaton’s beautiful war photographs don’t seem to be interested in forcing any kind of confrontation with either the reality or the fantasy of violence, and the film isn’t in the least concerned with addressing such conundrums.
This lack of willingness to push at Beaton’s work is also evident in Vreeland’s account of the major controversy of the man’s career. Beaton’s inclusion of an anti-Semitic slur in an illustration he drew for a 1938 Vogue article titled “The New Left Wing in New York Society” is explained away as a regrettable lapse of judgment, without any attempt to interpret his misbegotten intent. We’re only given glimpses of the offending drawing, and no explanation of the article it was meant to illustrate—leaving the viewer with many questions about Beaton’s motives, as well as the precise contents of the piece.
This avoidance of a serious analytical bent ends up stifling the documentary, as Beaton’s work becomes little more than illustration for his life story. The bulk of Love, Cecil is composed of slow pans over and zooms in on still photographs, a simple device intended less for providing insight into Beaton’s art and more for sustaining viewer interest. But the repetition of this technique ultimately lends the film a rather static quality. In the end, Vreeland’s overall project is admirable, but one may wish that it had approached its subject with a more critical eye, a willingness to look closer at and maybe even question what makes Beaton and his work so significant.