Irving Penn Beyond Beauty

Last few days to see Irving Penn Beyond Beauty at Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, on exhibit through Sunday, March 20, in Washington, DC. This retrospective—the first in 20 years—is indeed a surprising treat beyond beauty. Known primarily for his stunning black and white photography in Vogue Magazine, Irving Penn transformed fashion photography in the mid 20th century.

A star photographer in his own right, he also created famous portraits of artistic and literary celebrities such as Salvador Dalí, Le Corbusier, Joan Miró, and André Malraux. But, in addition, he gave inventive life to rural southern scenes and ordinary objects—rubbish, cigarette butts, and a cracked egg among others—framing images in creative ways. And that is the unexpected delight in this show beyond beauty and fashion.


Penn credits photographers Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson as well as Matisse, Picasso, Man Ray and other artists as influencing his work, but his lighting and compositions remind me of fashion photographer Irwin Blumenfeld, from the Thirties, especially Penn’s image of Glove and Shoe, 1947. Penn’s style and influence opened the way for contemporary photographers such as Annie Leibovitz.

The exhibition encompasses 146 black and white and color photographs, including famous stills of his wife and model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, who filmed Penn at work in Morocco on Super 8 mm film. These films are also on view in the show, as are 100 recently donated images.

This expansive exhibit travels to other venues after DC:

Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas (April 15, 2016 – August 14, 2016)

Lunder Arts Center, Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (September 12, 2016 – November
13, 2016)

Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee (February 24, 2017 – May 29, 2017)

Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (June 17 – September 10, 2017)

Wichita Art Museum in Wichita, Kansas (September 30, 2017 – January 7, 2018)


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