Irving Penn, best known for his iconic work in the esteemed fashion magazine Vogue, was one of the most dominant and influential photographers of the 20th century, up until his retirement in 2002 and his death in 2009. On Oct. 23, the first retrospective exhibition for the artist opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, featuring numerous never-before-seen photographs donated by the Irving Penn Foundation. As the exhibition’s name, “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” suggests, Penn was quite multidimensional, embodying much more than simply the role of a fashion photographer. Penn shot a wide spectrum of images, ranging from plain Philadelphia street signs to high fashion advertisements for commercial use.
“The goal of the exhibit was to show the real Irving Penn beyond the 1988 fashion photographer,” museum director Betsy Broun said.
The distinct style of breathtaking and outstanding simplicity is evident in all of Penn’s works. Harkening back to the late 1930s, the exhibit contains pieces that marked the beginning of his nearly 70-year career. Many of these photographs are ordinary street shots in Philadelphia, as displayed in “Antique Shop, Pine Street,” shot in 1938. At first glance, the photograph is not particularly unique, simply depicting an off-center shot of a dilapidated antique store. Upon further examination, however, it becomes evident that beauty lies in the small details: the ornate iron railing of the fence, the symmetry of the antiques in the windowsill and the small child peering around a lamppost.
The beauty in stark austerity continues to manifest itself in pieces from nearly a decade later, such as “New York Still Life” from 1947. In this arrangement, an opulent spread of fruit, eggs and grains is depicted against a simple backdrop of soft, rippled, white tablecloth. In the midst of all this perfection, however, the eye is drawn to the single beetle on the sack of grain.
The exhibit also features a number of nude photographs from the ‘50s, many of them taken of art-class models in the studio offices of Vogue. The fact that these works featured fuller-figured models serves as another example of Penn challenging established ideals of beauty. These images were particularly shocking, due to both the provocativeness instilled by the nudity and the shattering of aesthetic and social norms. “Nude No. 58” from 1949 to 1950 is one such image, featuring a sensual depiction of the lower stomach and thighs.
In the late ‘60s, Penn found himself in San Francisco on a project for Look Magazine searching for an image to represent the counterculture of the decade.
“Hell’s Angel (Doug)” from 1967 is one such image that manages to accurately embody this counterculture. The gaze of the biker is chilling, and the furrow in his brow and the ripple in his bicep add to the overall sentiment of defiance.
Despite Penn’s wishes to be remembered in the Smithsonian for more than his popular fashion advertisements, the exhibit was deemed incomplete without them. While still displaying some of the photographer’s best-known works the exhibition also features some of his less conventional works, from a time when Penn began to experiment with his method, using his work as a medium to make profound statements about what he believed art should be.
One of his most iconic pieces, “Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York” from 1986 features a muted black-and-white image of the lower half of a model’s face, with a shocking array of vibrant lipstick hues smeared randomly across her lips. Through this arrangement, Penn challenges conventional norms of art and beauty by defying the standard that equates beauty with perfectionism.
In a similar fashion, even as late as 2002, Penn was still creating distinctive, unique advertisements for Vogue, this time incorporating notes of surrealism in his pieces. “Head in Ice” from 2002 features a sharp contrast between impeccably applied lipstick and the chaotic destruction of the remaining head of ice. While often times “a lot of modern art is edited for public consumption,” according to guest curator Merry Foresta, this is clearly not the case for Penn’s work, as he seems refreshingly indifferent to the public’s acceptance of his pieces.
“Irving Penn considered himself first and foremost an artist, not a photographer: an artist who wanted to contribute to the establishment of photography as a fine art,” Broun said.
If “Beyond Beauty” makes one point, it is that Penn was a revolutionary, defying all norms, with many of his pieces acting as antithetical norms of beauty. For both those who are unfamiliar with Penn’s work and experienced veterans alike, the retrospective offers a novel, yet holistic, perspective into understanding this renowned artist.
“Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” runs until March 20, 2016.
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