To commemorate the life and work of the late Irving Penn, we are reposting “Irving Penn’s Modern Venus,” an article originally published in the magazine in February 2002. It was written by Maria Morris Hambourg, then head of the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who curated the exhibition “Earthly Bodies,” which featured the artist’s nudes from 1949–50.
One day in the winter of 1947, Irving Penn, a promising young photographer, walked away from a dressing room full of slender, beautiful models and boarded a plane for Haiti. He was not unhappy with his job at Vogue, but he felt the need for some “real women in real circumstances,” as opposed to those “skinny girls with self-starved looks.” Setting aside the concerns of fashion, for a couple of days Penn roamed about the docks and mixed with the people of Port-au-Prince until his natural vitality had been restored and he felt reconnected with his essential self. Evidently the Caribbean cure worked, for within a few short months of his return, he had created several disconcerting and novel still lifes, had met the love of his life, and had begun his most important personal work, a series of photographs of female nudes.
These nudes, which are the subject of the exhibition “Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949–1950,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through April 21), began with a single, extraordinary photograph that Penn made in May 1947, not long after his trip to Haiti. Although he had access to the best facilities and fine assistants at Vogue, he still yearned for authentic qualities—for bodies that had not been dieted, painted, directed, or styled for the printed page. Following his impulses, he hired a heavy-set model who was willing to pose nude and photographed her in a truncated corner flat he had built—a shallow chamber a little like a rudimentary stage set that served to focus his subjects and limit the arena of the picture.
Resting her bulk on a cube-shaped block, her arms tucked behind her back, the woman is a compact mass. The rounded forms of her breasts, belly, and thighs, laved in soft light, have such lithic weight and texture that she becomes an archaic fertility goddess existing outside time. The photograph, which he later titled Nude No. 1, so strongly resembles the famous Venus of Willendorf that Penn presumes he had been struck by that image. Yet he was not consciously reverting to a primitive form but was reaching for forms that carried a positive charge for him and responded to his plastic needs as an artist.
Whether he had seen a reproduction of the statuette in Vienna or not, he was in touch with the same instinct that called forth that Venus from her Neolithic sculptor—the recognition of the mysterious, procreative power of the female body that has symbolized creativity since the dawn of art. The urge to embody the earth’s fertility, human conception, or any creative aspiration in the form of a female nude is as basic as the artist’s urge to take up pen or brush. In the fullness of their bodies, the Willendorf Venus and Nude No. 1 are original sites of art, and to create them is to embrace life at its fullest, deepest, and most generative.
It was not until two years later, during the summer of 1949, that Penn again followed the impulse that had led to Nude No. 1. He organized studio sessions on weekends and holidays, when he had time to indulge his imagination and freely follow the train of his attention. The models he hired were accustomed to posing for artists rather than fashion photographers and inhabited their nakedness without concern for their virtue or vanity. Instead of passively holding a position for hours and relinquishing their bodies like inert things, they actively collaborated with the artist, coming alive in themselves.
Penn will say, lightly, that he inevitably “falls in love” with his models the moment they walk out of the dressing room. Spoken by another, the phrase would be unremarkable, but for a man who chooses his words with meticulous care, it is telling. Whatever we give ourselves over to has immense power to hold us, and Penn is the most attentive of men. So completely does he enter his photography that he and his subject become engaged in a consensual relation, a mutual give and take that is more like love than anything else.
Like an experienced fisherman with a good pull on the line, Penn managed to keep a constant play of communication and awareness—a subtle tension—between himself and his models. Most of the time the photographer was down on the floor with the model, the camera often only two or three feet away from her on a tiny tripod. The women lounged comfortably, giving up their weight to the earth’s pull naturally, like hanging fruit. The smell in the studio, Penn recalls, was “sweet and powdery, a little sweaty. Very good. We were alone together for hours. There was no physical contact except an appreciative hug at the end. All the women responded in the same way.”
The women he chose as models and the ways he viewed them produced nudes that were highly unorthodox by midcentury 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. Like Matisse’s figures, whose contours are often left open because the light eats them away, Penn’s figures are always complete in their partiality; although they lack limbs and heads, they seem whole, like fragmented antique torsos resplendent in the light. Just as those sculptures, whatever their identity, represent the Goddess, so these nudes, whoever modeled them, represent Woman.
Those who value creativity more than style, and imagination more than titillation, probably will have little difficulty with these nudes; however, some will find these images and the women they represent not beautiful. They are not alone: two powerful arbiters of taste at midcentury, the photographer Edward Steichen and Alexander Liberman, the cosmopolitan, Russian-born director of Vogue, also found them problematic. For those who initially share their opinion, Nude No. 1 and the series that followed offer a rare opportunity to embrace a concept of bodily beauty that is not prescriptive or exclusive. If we suspend our judgment and give in to pleasure we cannot control, we may discover a gratifying expansion of ourselves as we follow these women through their progressions in the evolving series. We may be surprised to find that we are greatly moved and that what moves us is the undeniable beauty of these bodies expressed through Penn’s prodigious art, which recognized it and brought it forth.