One of the world’s preeminent photographers, Irving Penn is famous for portraiture, still-life and fashion work, but is less well-known as a superb photographer of the female nude. Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949–50, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from March 22 through August 10, 2003, features 60 exquisite silver and platinum prints presented publicly for the first time in a major museum exhibition. SFMOMA is the only West Coast venue for this exhibition, which was organized by Maria Morris Hambourg, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs. Overseeing the SFMOMA presentation is Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography.
The photographs on view were made more than 50 years ago, when Penn collaborated with several artists’ models in a series of intensive studio sessions. The women he chose and the ways he posed them produced nudes that were (and still are) highly unorthodox by fashion standards: their fleshy torsos are folded, twisted and stretched, with extra belly, mounded hips and puddled breasts. These voluptuous forms extend a tradition that began with archaic fertility idols found around the world and continued through the full-bodied Venuses of Rubens and Titian. Although lacking limbs and heads, Penn’s nudes seem whole, like fragments of antiquities.
A student and protégé of legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, Penn later distinguished himself working closely with Alexander Liberman as a contributor to Vogue magazine. His innovative, graphically compelling fashion photography did much to define post–World War II notions of feminine chic and glamour. Seeking an artistic antidote to the ephemeral, surface world of ladies’ magazines, in the summer of 1949 Penn began a series of private sittings with artists’ models whose earthy physicality offered a refreshing break from fantasy and artifice. The resulting series of nudes is now considered Penn’s most personal but least known work.
The photographs in the exhibition are arranged loosely chronologically to reveal the artist’s path of exploration and his increasingly liberal and personal vision. Penn’s unconcern for conventional views, his monumental concentration on the artistic process and his supportive relationship with his models are evident in the pictures, which display a bodily ease, an aesthetic rigor and an erotic warmth that are unusual in combination. The prints are also exceptional, demonstrating by turns sensual, painterly effects; tactile, sculptural qualities; and exquisite graphic refinements achieved without ever abandoning photographic techniques.
SFMOMA’s Department of Education will present a variety of programs and public lectures to further enhance visitors’ experience of the exhibition. Additional program information is available on the Museum’s Web site at www.sfmoma.org.
Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949–50 is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Maria Morris Hambourg. Published by Bulfinch Press, a division of Little Brown and Company, Boston, New York and London, the hardcover catalogue is available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore or on the Museum’s Web site at www.sfmoma.org for $75 ($67.50 for SFMOMA members).