Penn's at the ready

Over in NYC at the moment Pace Gallery is running an Irving Penn exhibition. And boy do we at The Gallery Companion want to see it. But alas! it's a no-pandemic-go. We just have to be satisfied with the images the gallery has posted on its website. These luscious lips for example.

Irving Penn, Mouth (for L'Oreal) (1986)

Irving Penn is one of the 20th century's greatest photographers. Born in 1917 in the USA, Penn started working for Vogue magazine in the 1940s as a commercial photographer. He went on to shoot 165 covers for the magazine from 1943-2009, more than any other photographer.

Irving Penn, Vogue, 1 April 1950

Penn was a magpie of visual culture and art history, combining aspects of painting, collage, graphic design and sculpture. Before he started working as a photographer he was a painter, and always brought an artist's eye to his photography.

Irving Penn, Girl Behind Bottle, New York, 1949. Photograph: The Irving Penn Foundation

There's something sculptural about his photo Girl Behind Bottle from 1949, for example, created by the play of light and shade throughout the image: the woman in silhouette flattens the background, contrasting with the 3-D form of the bottle in front. It makes me think about the painter's tricks for constructing perspective and tone, made visible and taken apart in the works of modernist artists like Picasso in his cubist phase.

Pablo Picasso, Table in a Cafe (Bottle of Pernod) (1912)

There's also something a bit surrealist about Penn's early work, like this photograph Eye In Keyhole from 1953, for example. Eyes were frequent subject matter for surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí, who were interested in the ideas of Sigmund Freud - the unconscious, free association, dreams, paranoia etc.

Irving Penn, Eye in Keyhole (1953)

Here Penn is playing with the layering and reflection of images, creating a striking visual. But there's a sinister undertone to this photograph too: the idea of spying on a scene, sure, but also the violent idea of inserting a key into someone's eye. It is reminiscent of the short film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou (1929) which features a close-up of a young woman's head being held by a man who brings a razor up close to her eye.

Penn's blurring of boundaries is one of the most interesting aspects of his work as a visual pioneer: he was both a jobbing commercial photographer and a fine artist. Not many people carry that off successfully. It's that catch between making money to commission versus having artistic freedom.

What you typically find is that artists start out their career in commercial art departments until they can afford to ditch it and fly free. Andy Warhol was one such example. He was a commercial artist and illustrator, producing illustrations for Glamour magazine in the late 1940s and for shoe company Israel Miller throughout the 1950s before he became famous.

Andy Warhol, Illustration for New York Times Advertisement April 17th, 1955 for I. Miller Shoes

Warhol of course went on to create images which blurred the boundaries between advertisement and art.

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola (4) (Large Coca-Cola).

But Warhol's later work has always been categorised as fine art. This isn't true of Penn, and yet, arguably, some of his commercial work is exactly that.

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