An artful close-up of Picasso’s face by photographer Irving Penn, who started out a painter but turned to the camera for a job at Vogue magazine, is up for sale at the Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills March 23.
This famous likeness is notable because Picasso’s face is almost entirely covered under a hat and behind the turned-up collar of an overcoat. All that stands out are the painter’s identifiable feature – his big, black and piercing eyes. In contrast, Penn’s equally famous close-ups of heavy-set nude females, on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002 and in his book “Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes,” strike this reviewer as the very flip-side of the Picasso portrait - over-exposed.
For one thing, Penn pictures these women without heads or arms. A well-known example shows a large woman with her arms behind her back reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf, circa 24,000 B.C. – goddess of fertility. Penn’s focus on large headless, limbless nude women like this renders them but vessel without volition. http://www.examiner.com/article/making-meaningless-art Look, Ma, no hands.
British art critic Ruth Brandon agrees, saying, “It could be an expression of misogyny.”
Not that you have to be female to fault Penn’s views of women. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane summed up Penn’s nudes this way: “A woman catches his fancy, he takes her picture, and then he chops her head off.”
I’ll give Penn the last word.
During the year 1949, I worked—whenever there was time between assignments [for Vogue]—photographing the nude female body. For subjects I turned to women who worked as professional models for painters and sculptors; most were soft and fleshy, some very heavy. But more important, they were comfortable with their bodies. It helped that their personalities were generally relaxed and uncomplaining, and that they were not apprehensive of close examination by the camera. The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response. Anything else would have made pictures like these impossible.
Sorry. I can’t leave it there. I doubt anyone thinks of sex when looking at his nudes. If there’s such a thing as being too nude, Penn’s females are. Photographer great Edward Steichen said it best on seeing them. He told Penn, “Forget the big nudes.”