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Indepth Arts News:

"Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50"
2002-01-15 until 2002-04-21
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA

One of the world's preeminent photographers, Irving Penn is famous for portraiture, still life, and fashion work—he is less well known as a superb photographer of the female nude. Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949–50, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 21, 2002, features sixty exquisitely wrought silver and platinum prints in the first exhibition of this work organized by a major museum.

The photographs on view were made more than fifty years ago when Penn collaborated with several artists' models in a series of intensive sessions in his studio. The women he chose and the ways he viewed them produced nudes that were highly unorthodox by mid-century fashion standards: their fleshy torsos are folded, twisted, and stretched, with extra belly, mounded hips, and puddled breasts. Although charged with powerful physical and sexual energy, the photographs remain somehow chaste.

Philippe de Montebello, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented on the exhibition: The Metropolitan is proud to be the first museum to present Irving Penn's great nudes to the larger public they deserve. Their voluptuous forms extend a tradition that began with the earliest depictions of the human form, the archaic fertility idols found in sites scattered around the world. Sisters of Titian's and Rubens's Venus, these are among the most ambitious and successful nudes ever made in any medium.

A student and later protegé of legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, Penn made his name working closely with Alexander Liberman as a contributor to Vogue magazine. His innovative, graphically compelling fashion photography did much to define postwar notions of feminine chic and glamour. Seeking an artistic antidote to the ephemeral, surface world of the ladies' magazines, in the summer of 1949 he began a private series of sittings with artist's models whose earthy physicality offered a refreshing break from fantasy and artifice.

The 1949–50 series of nudes is Penn's most deeply personal but least known work, commented Maria Morris Hambourg, curator in charge of the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs. He organized the studio sessions on weekends and holidays, when he had time to indulge his imagination and freely follow the train of his attention. The organic way the photographs emerged, each one evolving from the last and then merging into the next, registering the subtle movement from one position to another, makes them fresh, and although the nudes lack limbs and heads, they seem whole, like fragmented antique torsos resplendent in the light. Just as those sculptures, whatever their identity, represent divinity the goddess, so these nudes, whoever modeled them, represent Woman—the earthly goddesses among us.

Penn's unconcern for conventional views, his monumental concentration on the artistic process, and his supportive relationship with his models—who became true collaborators—are evident in the pictures, which display a somatic ease, an aesthetic rigor, and an erotic warmth that are unusual in combination. The prints, which date from 1949–50, are also exceptional, demonstrating by turns sensual, painterly effects; tactile, sculptural qualities; and exquisite graphic refinements achieved without ever abandoning photographic techniques. Sustained through a complex mélange of expressive means, the great 1949–50 nudes are a mesmerizing marriage of the carnal and the classical.

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