Fragile Beauty: Vulnerability and Strength

Written by Paige Tamasi

Recently, Insanity Radio was invited to the press preview of the new V&A Museum exhibition, Fragile Beauty, which displays over 300 photographs from Elton John and David Furnish’s domestic collection. 

During this press preview, there were various speeches from members of the V&A and exhibition team. These members included the Director of the V&A (Tristan Hunt), Curator Duncan Forbes, and the Director of Sir Elton John and David Furnish Photography Collection (Newell Harbin). The speakers outlined the story of the exhibition and the aims of Elton John and David Furnish. Each speaker spoke of the dynamic nature of the photographs, how they illustrate the vulnerability of the photographer and subject as well as the resilient nature of humanity. With so many pictures, a wide range of subjects are depicted, with each presenting new insights into the personal views of Sir Elton John and David Furnish. 

Images of fashion, the ’60s Civil Rights Movement, the AIDS pandemic, international icons, and masculinity covered the walls of eight rooms. Each room took me on a tour of what Fragile Beauty means; whether that is the relationship between human strength and persistence (demonstrated through the many photojournalism pieces and post-war history photographs) or the fragility of a moment (illustrated through images of people in deep thought or bubbling laughter). 

Elton John chose the title Fragile Beauty, so it is impossible to walk through the exhibition without thinking of what each photograph means to John and Furnish.  It forces you to confront the relationship between form and content and how art often results from vulnerability or struggle. I found myself wondering if it was even possible to have art without some form of struggle by the end of my tour.

I highly recommend going to experience this exhibition for yourself. 

Even if you are not a fan of photography, go to witness history. History of the past century as images from the collection date to the early 20th century till 2022. History is being made as this is the V&A’s largest photography exhibition and the first-ever display of never-before-displayed images of Nan Goldin’s Thanksgiving. 

Go to make yourself question the past, the present, the future. Question how you view the world and how it differs from the photographers whose works are being displayed (what is more personal than a personally curated snapshot of a moment captured in an image?). 

I’ve been to many exhibitions before (traditional painting, photographs, modern, abstract, sculptures, fashion) —one could even say I’m a professional exhibition enjoyer— but I have never seen an exhibition demonstrate such raw personal touch and feeling as Fragile Beauty does. It isn’t just the fact that these photographs come from John and Furnish’s home, and their daily lives, but rather the meaning behind each one and the history of perseverance and persistence that the existence of each photograph demonstrates. 

I could go on and on and on about the emotions provoked by this exhibition, about each image, about what I think of the photography, about what this means for the art community. Still, then I would be writing for pages more than I already have. Instead, I will leave you all with an excerpt from an interview Insanity Radio conducted at the press preview. 

Below is part of the interview we did with Exhibition Project Curator, Lydia Caston:

Q: How did you recreate the innate intimacy of a domestic collection here at the V&A?
A: One of our challenges with around seven thousand works in that collection was making the selection that will fit in the galleries but also translate the private and very personal collection or the public…it was firstly looking through thousands of pages of the collection…then lots of research their homes and to see how they live with their works…some were hung salon style…and then some were then living in drawers and rotated once in a while. Spending a lot of time speaking with them, speaking with the Director of their Collection to help select the narratives.

Q: Speaking of those themes, how did you decide on those specific themes?
A: Informing the collecting passions, things that came out quite naturally from the collections. So things that they were quite interested in collecting themselves but also seeing what spoke to Elton and what spoke to David. So we start with fashion, which was his [Elton’s] first love of photography. Then moving onto the stars of stage and studio, with Elton as a performer himself and David producing Elton’s show, the portraits are a very very big part of the show. We really wanted to celebrate male beauty and desire and not shy away from it, and then photojournalism was a very big part of their collection. 

Q: So I have to ask, why did you end on the theme of ‘Abstraction’?
A: In some way, it was always going to be the ending. It’s a smaller section, a more intimate section, so once you’ve seen ‘Constructed Images’ which is about producing photography and performing for the camera we thought that ‘Abstraction’ would be a palette cleanser after that and a nice foil to it. 

Q: What is the narrative being told for a common visitor being told, someone who is unaware of the history and techniques behind the photographs being displayed?

A: This is our largest-ever photography show in the museum, so we’re really hoping to build on the audience’s interest in photography and build on that excitement. We want people to come and see pictures that they might not be familiar with. We really wanted to show the diversity of their collection and the types of photographs that Elton and David are collecting, and I suppose the thing that follows through the show is this sense of Fragile Beauty: the sense of human vulnerability. We hope that people can find that thread and perhaps feel inspired by the photographs.

Written by Paige Tamasi, Edited by Paige Tamasi, Photography by David LaChapelle, Elton John: Egg On His Face, New York, 1999 © David LaChapellea, Published by Paige Tamasi.