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Earthly Bodies

Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949–50

January 15–April 21, 2002

Accompanied by a catalogue

Now in his mid-eighties, Penn is one of the world's finest photographers. Famous for portraiture, still life, and fashion work, he is less well known as a superb photographer of the female nude. His most important nudes were made more than fifty years ago when he collaborated with several artists' models in a series of sittings that were a personal and artistic antidote to the ephemeral, surface world of the stylish ladies' magazines. The nudes are highly unorthodox by mid-twentieth-century standards: folded, twisted, and stretched, with extra belly, mounded hips, and puddled breasts, their fleshy torsos are sisters of Titian's or Rubens's Venus. Charged with powerful physical and sexual energy yet somehow chaste, they are among the most ambitious and successful nudes ever made. Never the subject of serious study, the great 1949–50 nudes are accompanied by a volume with fifty-three plates that display Penn's love affair with earthly goddesses.

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.

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.