Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is the first retrospective of Penn’s work in nearly twenty years.
Irving Penn (b. 1917, Plainfield, NJ; d. 2009, New York, NY) was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and influential photographers of fashion and the famous. His pictures, a unique blend of classical elegance and formal innovation, were widely seen in print during his long career at Vogue magazine. His achievement, however, extends beyond conventional notions of depicting beauty or fame to include a radical reconsideration of how we understand fashion, photography, and art, separately and in relation to each other.
A courtly man whose polite demeanor masked an intense perfectionism, Penn adopted a workmanlike approach to making pictures, employing what his friend and Vogue art director Alexander Liberman called “Penn’s American instincts.” Though schooled in painting and design, Penn later chose photography as his life’s work, scraping the paint off his early canvases so they could serve a more useful life as tablecloths or as backdrops for his photographs. Nonetheless, his commitment to making art, evident in even his most commercial works, remained in force throughout the seven decades of his career.
This exhibition, the first retrospective museum survey to be organized since the artist’s death, describes the full arc of Penn’s photography from his early, surrealist-influenced work and innovative fashion imagery for which he is best known to the elegiac still lifes and iconoclastic late work that simultaneously incorporate and renounce conventional notions of beauty. The exhibition is arranged in reverse chronology, so that viewers can peel away layers of history, moving from the present into the past.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether you go or not, the exhibition catalog, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, compiles 161 of Penn’s iconic images, including a number of unpublished works. Beautifully designed and illustrated, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty accompanies the first retrospective exhibition of Penn’s work in nearly 20 years and features photographs from all stages of his career, including street scenes from the late 1930s, celebrity portraits, Parisian fashion photographs, and more private studio images. Merry A. Foresta’s captivating essay introduces this photographer to a younger generation and delves into Penn’s use of photography to respond to social and cultural change, speaking to the depths of human existence.