Irving Penn: The Painter's Eye

Irving Penn, Beauty Shop, New York, 1939, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

Photographer Irving Penn, who died in 2009, and whose work is featured in the current exhibition, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, combined fashion, art, and photography to create a style uniquely his own. He not only walked the line between the artistic and the commercial worlds, he led the way. The show, however, not only illuminates the art of photography in the 20th and 21st centuries, but it also shows the influence—and importance—of painting in Penn's work.

Penn's early training was in painting, drawing, and graphic design. His black-and-white works from his Philadelphia days often evoke surrealism. Look around the exhibit and you'll see portraits of the granddaddies of surrealism, including Joan Miró, Savador Dali, and Giorgio de Chirico. Penn's own Beauty Shop from 1939 was born perhaps because of Dali's use of mannequins in the 1938 International Exposition of Surrealism in Paris. In a later photograph, Irving Penn in a Cracked Mirror from 1986 (printed in 1990) the self-portrait shows Penn slightly off kilter, the left side of his face, distorted. It's a Cubist homage.

In another image in the exhibition, a woman's mouth with red lipstick has a bee at her lips. Though the photograph, simply titled Bee, is glossy enough for Madison Avenue, it also seems to recall one of the traditional elements of a classical still life: the bug or insect is depicted on cut fruit or flowers. Tempus, like beauty, is fleeting. A painter would know that and would make reference to it, here, as well in his New York Still Life from 1947.

And perhaps it works the other way around, too. Penn's W La Libertà from 1945 seems oddly prescient of Robert Motherwell's Viva from the following year. It's fascinating to think about the bounce between painting and photography in Penn's work.

Penn's eye was amazing and his scope was vast. He managed to synthesize the world around him, creating beautiful, often painterly, works of art.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is up now through March 20, 2016.