8 Art Project
Eight Art Project
Beyond the Beauty: Irving Penn allo Smithsonian.

The work and stylistic legacy of Irving Penn (1917-2009) are commonly associated with legendary images that have helped to shape the history of fashion photography, as well as his decades of contributions to prestigious magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But it suffices to look at just a few of the shots taken in the street or the portraits meticulously constructed in his New York studio to grasp the more broadly artistic vision that characterizes the work of the celebrated American photographer. The exhibition on at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC (until March 20, 2016) is presenting to the public hundreds of his most famous photographs—along with a group of works never shown before that was recently acquired from the Irving Penn Foundation—and provides an opportunity to reassess Penn’s career in terms that, as the title puts it, go “beyond beauty.”

Guest curator Merry Foresta, in the wake of her experience of nearly two decades as a member of the curatorial staff of the Washington museum, has pieced together an intriguing and extraordinarily wide-ranging account of Penn’s career. Through intimate and intense portraits, she retraces his friendship with Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Le Corbusier, among others, allowing the public to appreciate the evolution of his style and his most evident aesthetic debts. The famous gallery of portraits taken in 1948, in fact, shows how the American photographer was able to draw liberally on the European culture of that time, toning down its eccentricities in a rigorous system that would find its definitive character in the magnetic allure of his fashion photography.

Despite the artistic training in a rationalist mold he received at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, it is always possible to discern a fascination with painting in his best-known photographs. This is evident not only from the maniacal attention to detail, but also in a spatial construction of the images that betrays his study—something the photographer confirmed on more than one occasion—of the great Italian artists of the past, from Paolo Uccello to Giorgio de Chirico. But there is more, for Penn does not forget to combine these distant connections with a refined graphic style that sets out to make the most of the formal components of photography. It is enough to examine the advertising campaign he produced for Dior in the fifties or his more recent and hypnotic still lifes to realize that his subjects constituted an excellent pretext for an exploration of totally abstract lines, forms and geometric figures. In short, to make an artistic use of photography.

In this sense the encounter with fashion, which took place as a result of his friend Alexander Liberman asking him to join the art department of Vogue, would offer yet another opportunity for experimentation. Bold framings and the ability to draw with light, in addition to the exaltation of details and textures, are just some of the features that would make the photographs of Irving Penn unmistakable. The real revolution lay in his treatment of all subjects in the same way, obliging them to fit within a precise system of photography, indifferent to the psychological aspect and interested, instead, in emphasizing the beauty inherent in the evocative rigor of abstraction. For each body, each piece of fabric, each item of clothing photographed by Penn seems destined to take on a character of suspension, a simply timeless elegance.

Elena Tettamanti


Washington// until March 20, 2016
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
Curated by Merry Foresta
Smithsonian American Art Museum
MRC 970 Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012  

Photo credits:

1. Irving Penn, Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black, New York, 1990, printed 1992
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation
Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

2. Irving Penn, Frozen Food, New York, 1977, printed 1984
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation
Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

3. Irving Penn, Irving Penn: In a Cracked Mirror (A), New York 1986, printed 1990
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation
Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

4. Irving Penn, Salvador Dalí, New York, 1947
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation
Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

February 2016
Elena Tettamanti


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