Thursday, March 29, 2007

Angus McBean - Wales' Forgotten Surrealist

In the Thirties and Forties luminaries from the worlds of theatre and film flocked to the studio of Angus McBean to be immortalised by the great master of portrait photography. Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh were amongst his illustrious sitters.

As well as being 'portrait photographer to the stars' McBean created Surrealist photomontages making him one of the few British artists in any field to have produced Surrealist work in its Thirties heyday.

At the end of this month the National Portrait Gallery's McBean retrospective rolls into Cardiff. This is good news because he is virtually unknown in his homeland. In fact a couple of years back when I contacted the National Museum, Cardiff, suggesting an exhibition of his work they wrote back saying they'd never heard of him! A measure of just how far his stock had fallen.

McBean was originally from Newbridge and educated at Monmouth Grammar School and Newport Technical College. His father was a surveyor of mines and the family travelled all over Wales. Although his grandfather was Scottish (hence the name) McBean always identified more with his Welsh mother Irene Thomas. In London he was known as "Angus boyo" and photographed fellow exiles like Novello, Burton, Bassey and Emlyn Wiliams.

For a comprehensive (and visually quite camp) biography of Wales' forgotten Surrealist click here.

As for the exhibition itself you get to see the full range of McBean's output. There are the glamorous portraits (including the famous headshot of Vivien Leigh which helped win her the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind); Surrealist concoctions like the much anthologised Audrey Hepburn portrait (see pic); McBean's famous collection of home-made Christmas cards; and the album covers which helped revitalise his career in the late Fifties and early Sixties (these include The Beatles, Shirley Bassey and a particularly cool Johnny Kidd and the Pirates sleeve).

You'll also find examples of work he did in the 1980s. During that style-conscious decade McBean became fashionable again, coming out of retirement to photograph the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier and um, Run DMC.

Angus McBean: Portraits is at the National Museum, Cardiff, from March 31 - June 3, 2007.