Hollywood starlets Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as well as some of the art world’s most glamorous and accomplished denizens, Andy Warhol, Frank Cuprien and Anna Hills, all posed for George Hurrell.
Beginning on Sunday, the Laguna Art Museum will exhibit a selection of his photos dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s titled “George Hurrell: Laguna to Hollywood.”
Roughly 60 photographs from museum holdings and privately owned portfolios will be hung salon-style in the museum’s narrow upstairs gallery, selections made by Janet Blake, the museum’s curator of early California art.
Hurrell, called the “Rembrandt of portraiture,” concocted idealized images of women and men regardless of physical reality, the high-glamour trademark of a stellar career that began in Laguna Beach. Its beginnings originate with the astute eye of Edgar Payne, one of Laguna’s foremost landscape painters and first president of the Laguna Beach Art Association.
The museum, whose holdings include Hurrell work, last mounted a retrospective in 1977. “I thought the time was right to put together another show of his work,” Blake said.
Hurrell was a master of the celebrity portrait, imitating the dramatic lighting style of 1920s and ‘30s films, said Jonathan Green, author of “American Photography: A Critical History” and executive director of UC Riverside’s exhibition space Artsblock. “There is no question that his photos of the stars had great impact on their careers,” he said.
Though he was not as innovative as fashion photographer Edward Steichen or landscape photographer Ansel Adams, he was clearly influential in his time, Green said.
Hurrell came to Laguna Beach in 1925 at the behest of Payne, who had met him
at the Chicago Art Institute. Payne and his wife Elsie were on their way back to Laguna after a lengthy sojourn in Europe and had stopped in Chicago to deliver a lecture where they met the art student aspiring then to be a painter. Photography had been a mere sideline, a tool to capture future subjects. He had also dabbled in studio photography but drove across country with the Paynes to become “a serious painter.”
Once here, the 21-year-old settled in a house known among locals as “the paint box” due to its being frequently rented to artists.
When word of his photographic talents leaked out, Hurrell was asked to photograph local artists and their work like Payne, William Wendt, William Griffith, Anna Hills, Ruth Peabody, Frank Cuprien, Julia Bracken, George Gardner Symon and Karl Julius Jens, to name a few. Portraits of later artists like Millard Sheets and Walt Disney, whose niece he married, are also in the show.
Although Hurrell only lived in Laguna between 1925 and 1927, when he opened his Los Angeles studio, he remained emotionally attached to Laguna and returned often, said Blake.
And small wonder. At a Christmas party at the Griffith home, Hurrell met Florence Lowe Barnes, known as Pancho Barnes due to her solo travels through Mexico. From then on, Hurrell became a regular at “Dos Rocas,” the heiress’ large estate on what’s known as Smith Cliffs.
Barnes, an aviator in 1928 when society frowned on women driving cars, commissioned Hurrell to photograph her for a pilot’s license with the stipulation that he make her look more like a man, according to Louis F. D’Elia, curator of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive. The ruse worked. Barnes got her license. Hurrell took more photos that made her look glamorous, which led to a commission from her friend Ramon Novarro, a silent film star eager to transit into talkies by trading on his good looks. Again, Hurrell succeeded and Novarro’s Hollywood career took off.
Hurrell died in 1992 at age 87 leaving a legacy contained in nationwide exhibitions, portfolios of artists, entertainers, celebrities and fashion models and photographic innovations still in use among today’s photographers.
Green said that his dramatic, super-saturated style of presentation has never really gone away regardless of digital photography, citing the way Madonna and Lady Gaga present themselves.
“I think that George Hurrell’s goal was to transform everyone into a beautiful person, into a remarkable, iconic image that transcends the ordinary,” he said.
Laguna Art Museum New Exhibitions: George Hurrell, Laguna to Hollywood (upstairs gallery). ExPose: Allison Schulnik (lower level). John Mason “Blue Wall” (California Gallery) Permanent Collection (main gallery) 307 Cliff Drive. www.lagunaartmuseum.org 949-494-8971