FRAGILE BEAUTY : Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection in partnership with GUCCI

Writing by AVANTELIER, Photo & Video by AVANTELIER

“Fragile Beauty” offers a transformative journey through photography, revealing profound stories and universal truths, making it a must-see for art enthusiasts seeking inspiration.


In V&A South Kensington, London, from present to 5 January 2025, GUCCI proudly presents “Fragile Beauty”, an extraordinary exhibition conceived in collaboration with Sir Elton John and David Furnish. This exhibition showcases highlights from their impressive photography collection, spanning works from 1950 to the present day. It reflects the couple’s deep passion for photography and the images that enrich their daily lives.

Fragile Beauty delves into themes that capture the couple’s diverse interests as collectors: an enduring fascination with the stars of stage and screen, a commitment to poignant reportage, and an appreciation for the evocative power of the male form. The exhibition also displays a deep understanding of American photography and a keen eye for both abstract and fashion imagery.

The title Fragile Beauty was chosen by Sir Elton John himself, emphasizing the vulnerability that often fuels creativity. This sentiment is echoed in the works of Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as in many images of Chet Baker and Marilyn Monroe within the collection. The exhibition is a mix of surprise, playfulness, and, as both men describe, a mischievous spirit. Yet, it also carries a serious undertone, offering a unique insight into the collectors and their world.

Exhibition Sections:

This section celebrates the evolution of fashion photography, from the glamour of post-war Parisian couture to the dynamism of contemporary streetwear. When Elton John began collecting in 1991, he was mesmerised by the beauty of fashion studies by Horst P. Horst, Irving Penn, and Herb Ritts. The collection spans the transformation of fashion imagery from the 1950s, with studio backdrops replaced by city skylines as seen in the works of Frances McLaughlin-Gill and Frank Horvat. The revolutionary designs of the Swinging Sixties led to more provocative fashion imagery, and today’s photographers document the ever-changing culture of streetwear, celebrating individual expression.

Elton John and David Furnish’s admiration for iconic figures from cinema and music is evident in this section. Featuring images of legends like Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Doris Day, it honors those who epitomized Hollywood’s Golden Age. Portraits of rock, folk, jazz, and blues performers, including Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, celebrate the artistry of musicians who revolutionized their industry. The collection also includes poignant portraits of artists like Chet Baker and Marilyn Monroe, who suffered for their art, and painters and photographers whose work continues to inspire John and Furnish.

A celebration of the male form, this section features homoerotic images by Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Herb Ritts, and Pierre et Gilles. It highlights the journey from subtle studio portraiture of the 1950s to explicit exposure in contemporary works, reflecting changing societal attitudes towards LGBTQ+ communities. The section underscores the autobiographical approach of some photographers, documenting their communities and shattering oppressive stereotypes. The statuesque male bodies in the pictures by Ritts and Pierre et Gilles offer a camp counterpoint to mainstream hostility.

This section showcases the couple’s passion for photojournalism, beginning with the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. The images depict a heroic battle against discrimination, as American youth mobilized to end racial segregation. The collection also includes photographs from the AIDS activism of the late 1980s and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, drawing connections between past and present. These powerful images document significant historical events and their personal and public resonance for John and Furnish.

Focusing on the works of Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, this section explores themes of vulnerability and rebellion. It includes intimate portraits of marginalized communities, capturing the essence of their struggles and creativity. Other images by photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Larry Clark, and Ryan McGinley present classic images of rebellion and young people on the fringes of society.

Here, the exhibition explores the intersection of photography with fashion, film, and advertising. Featuring experimental works by Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, and Lalla Essaydi, this section challenges perceptions and presents complex narratives through staged and manipulated images. These constructed images articulate different identities and more challenging narratives, inviting viewers to question their perceptions.

This section highlights abstract photography, showcasing works that push the boundaries of image-making. It features colour photograms by Adam Fuss and cameraless photographs by James Welling and Alison Rossiter, exploring the limitless possibilities of photographic expression. These works move along a continuum of form, hovering between the delineation of objects and pure abstraction, expanding our understanding of what a photograph can be.

Fragile Beauty offers a captivating journey through the eyes of two passionate collectors, revealing the stories behind each image and their profound impact on our understanding of art and culture. The exhibition excels in capturing the nuances of human experience, from the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the raw intimacy of marginalised communities. Each photograph resonates on both a personal and universal level, particularly in the sections dedicated to fashion, desire, and reportage, where the images reflect aesthetic beauty as well as societal shifts and personal struggles. This collaboration creates a dialogue between fashion and photography, highlighting the significance of visual culture in shaping and reflecting our identities. Fragile Beauty stands as a testament to the power of photography to evoke emotions, challenge perceptions, and inspire creativity. It provides a unique glimpse into the world of two dedicated collectors who use their collection to express and explore their own experiences and passions. This exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in the transformative power of art, offering an enriching experience that will linger long after the visit.

Exhibition Details
Closes Sunday, 5 January 2025
V&A South Kensington



Exhibition Highlights

Herb Ritts (1952-2002)
Versace Dress (Back View).
El Mirage, 1990
Gelatin silver print
Herb Ritts’s iconic photo of Christy Turlington in a Versace gown against a California desert backdrop debuted on Gianni Versace’s September 1990 catalogue cover, marking their collaboration.


Horst P. Horst (1906-99)
Round the Clock I, 1987
Platinum palladium print
Horst P. Horst, renowned for his Vogue couture photography, applied his signature dramatic lighting to an advertisement for nylon hosiery, accentuating shadows and nuanced tones in platinum prints.


Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver,
Paris, August 1955
Gelatin silver print
Richard Avedon’s iconic photograph features model Dorothy Juba, known as Dovima, posing alongside elephants at the Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, showcasing Yves Saint Laurent’s debut design for Christian Dior.


Helmut Newton (1920-2004)
Elsa Peretti as Bunny, New York (on terrace of her apartment, costume by Halston), 1975
Gelatin silver print


Fakir Musafar (1930-2018)
Perfect Gentleman, Self-Portrait, 1959
Gelatin silver print

Fakir Musafar tied, pierced, tattooed, branded and contorted his body in a series of performances he called ‘body play’.
This corseted self-portrait connects a more feminine silhouette with an ironic masculine title. Musafar viewed body modification as a transcendent experience, bound up with ideas of pain, desire and ‘intense sensation’.
He worked with queer bondage communities for his later performances.


Don Herron (934-87)
Keith Haring, Artist, New York (in tub, I, December 1982
Robert Mapplethorpe, Photographer, San Francisco (in tub, M.
27 February 1978
Peter Hujar, Photographer, New York (in tub), 10 January 1979
Gelatin silver prints
Don Herron’s Tub Shots record a community of pioneering queer artists bathing. Each portrait offers an intimate glimpse into the sitter’s personal life and home. Keith Haring playfully poses with a bath toy, his famous baby and dog silhouettes on the decorated wall, while photographers Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe opt for a starker look with cracked tiling behind them. For Herron, the bathtub was the logical container to use, I started with my friends and it grew from there:


Tamotsu Yato (1928-73)
From the series Young Samurai:
Bodybuilders of Japan, mid-1960s
Gelatin silver print
Tamotsu Yato pioneered a style of homoerotic photography in Japan with his images of bodybuilders. In 1972, he wrote, ‘I never find in their nudity the slightest trace of vulgarity or coarseness. Instead, it is a thrilling moment that arouses in me much the same emotions as those I feel when I see a perfect fruit… or a brand-new expensive camera’.


Ryan McGinley (born 1977)
Having Sex (Polaroids), New York, 1999
Chromogenic print
Ryan McGinley caught the attention of New York’s art scene with his raw documentation of himself and his friends on the City’s Lower East Side. From 1999, he photographed every visitor to his apartment, resulting in more than 10,000 Polaroids, each labelled with a date and name. The Polaroids covered his bedroom walls, acting as a backdrop for this intimate sex scene.


Stephen Somerstein (born 1941)
Young Black Boy with ‘VOTE’ on his Forehead, Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March, 1965


Hiro (Yasuhiro Wakabayashi) (1930-2021)
Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, Japan, 1962
Gelatin silver prints
Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest train station. Hiro photographed passengers huddled together in a cramped carriage at rush hour, their expressions of discomfort and boredom signalling the mundane cycle of the daily commute. The scale of the frames replicates subway doors as if we, like the artist, were waiting on the platform for the next train.


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