Yevonde: Life and Colour at the National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery reopened this June after three years of renovations, and among the first of its new exhibitions is Yevonde: Life and Colour, which imbues the transformed gallery with its vibrant colours and welcomes back visitors with a joyful display of beautiful photographs. The show celebrates the work of Yevonde (1893–1975), a pioneering female photographer who innovated the use of colour photography in the 1930s. Yevonde’s 60-year career placed female independence at its core: she was a supporter of women’s rights throughout her life and an early suffragette, declaring that “portrait photography without women would be a sorry business.”
The exhibition is cleverly laid out, mapping Yevonde’s life chronologically, but also thematically. The range of themes which interested her, including feminism, Modernism, Surrealism and mythology, and the ways in which these intersected within her works, are wonderful to discover, appearing throughout her portraits, still life and commercial pieces.
The brilliance of Yevonde’s colours stands out memorably in her portraits of actresses Vivien Leigh and Joan Maude: Leigh’s portrait makes use of bright contrasts of blue and red, whilst Maude’s portrait is a stunning showcase of flaming reds, complimenting the actress’ bright red hair.
A particular highlight is the central room, entitled A Galaxy of Goddesses, showcasing Yevonde’s 1935 exhibition Goddesses and Others, which presented her female sitters as women from Classical mythology, from Ariadne and Medusa to Psyche, Venus and Helen of Troy. The portraits have been displayed across three walls like a constellation, shining against the room’s dark background, which is navy blue and littered with stars, immediately invoking a celestial feel as visitors enter. The mythological and fantastical allusions of the photographs are brought out immediately, with a pervasive power being suggested by the luminous images.
The feminist aspects of Yevonde’s work are also emphasised, bringing to the fore the artist’s confrontational gaze upon the expectation of women to be beautiful wives and domestic goddesses during the 1930s. This is shown, for example, in the awareness of a staged perfection in Rosemary Chance’s pose in Laundry, and in the commentary on female stereotypes that are hinted towards in the Surrealist still life of a bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, who holds an iron. In the transformed National Portrait Gallery, almost half the sitters and artists are now women, and the Yevonde exhibition is a fitting celebration of this gallery-wide shift to a more inclusive narrative.
Yevonde’s own self-portraits are also included and highlighted. Her 1967 portrait particularly stands out: although in black and white, it is witty and refreshing, showing a tiny Yevonde holding the flash wire of a giant camera, as if she is holding an enormous balloon. The piece is a brilliant conclusion, placed near the end of the show. Overall, Yevonde boldly leads the National Portrait Gallery into its new era with her luminous colours and feminist joy.
Image: Vivien Leigh by Yevonde (1936, printed 2022-3) © National Portrait Gallery, London
Yevonde: Life and Colour is at the National Portrait Gallery from 22nd June until 15th October 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.