Irving Penn's nudes

Two New York shows highlight the photographer's brief sojourn into the world of women with lush, fleshy bodies.

By David Bowman
Published February 1, 2002 8:34PM (EST)

Women of generous weight are being displayed in New York. We have permission to show you the ones most petite. They were photographed during the summer of 1949 by Irving Penn. Gaze upon one subject's lush torso. Sloping belly. Rump. The dark cloud between her legs. The lens of Penn's camera drinks in her Rubenesque flesh like water. Think of Irving Penn as a very thirsty man. In fact, model Dorian Leigh (pal of Truman Capote and the inspiration for Holly Golightly) reports that every time she slept with Penn, in the mid-'40s, he'd gulp down bottled water afterward. "Sex dehydrated him," she explained. How thirsty Penn must have been photographing those big women!

After Penn printed the shots, he showed them to his cohort/editor at Vogue, Alexander Liberman. Penn believed he and Liberman "were always searching for some delectable and seductive quality" in women. Unfortunately, Liberman failed to find anything delectable about Penn's big women. Liberman then showed the photos to the grand dean of American photographers, Edward Steichen. The next year, when Penn was submitting work to Steichen to be included in the Museum of Modern Art symposium "What Is Modern Photography?" Steichen threw his arm around the younger man and said something like, "Forget the big nudes."

Penn already had. After Liberman's lukewarm reception, Penn stored the 150 photos away. They appear to have been more experiment than obsession. Penn showed a few of them once at a 1980 show, and now 53 are hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (and in the pages of the book "Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50"). Viewing all 53 photos in sequence (each titled by number, Nude No. 21, Nude No. 38, etc.) you see how the first shots are of a woman with an average June Cleaver body. Then with each new picture, the bodies get plumper. Penn is obviously using several different models. You can recognize one woman's mole, if not the differences in their weight. In several shots, the female torso is puffed up big as some Pillsbury Doughboy, but for many others she is just "Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones" plump.

In an essay accompanying the show, curator Maria Hambourg justifies the historical eroticism of Penn's work by referring to a far more ancient fat woman, the Venus of Willendorf -- a prehistoric sculpture of an obese earth woman deity. Hambourg's point is that throughout the centuries, heavy women were often considered sexier than slender femmes.

In painter Peter Paul Rubens' 17th century Europe, a woman's portly stomach was considered her primary erogenous zone. In New York City 2002, rotund dancer Alexandra Beller points out, "In great art, woman are always bigger than in pornography or Playboy." The late Kenneth Clark ecstatically claimed that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) "takes the female body, the plump, comfortable, clothed female body of the North, and transforms it imaginatively with less sacrifice of its carnal reality than had ever been necessary before. He creates a new, complete race of women."

Although it is tempting to proclaim that Penn has created yet another "new, complete race of women," we should heed British art critic Ruth Brandon's warning: "As to the representation of fat women in general: In a sense, if done by a woman, I suppose it's sort of 'right-on feminist anti-male imposed body ideals' and so on. 'Why must we all look like pre-childbirth virgins, etc.' But in the hands of a man, I don't know. It depends on his view of women." She then adds, "It could be an expression of misogyny."

Penn a misogynist? He is often remembered as a Vogue photographer who revered his models. Yet Dorian Leigh remembers Penn reducing actress/model Jennifer Jones to "hysterically sobbing and crying." To get model Jane Russell to blow a perfect smoke ring, Penn forced her to smoke pack after pack nonstop. Although most modern highbrow art critics have praised Penn's big nudes, New York Post art critic James Gardner dared to write, "What is common to Penn's [photographs] of Lisa Fonssagrives in a Chanel dress and to his mottled [big] nudes is an odd need to deflect any erotic charge that the subject might have."

Perhaps Gardner has a point, except Penn's fashion photographs of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives were intended to be judged by women, not men. No American male in 1950 would be caught dead reading Vogue. Did Penn wonder if the gender of the viewer would determine how his big nudes were received? The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote of the big nudes at the Met show, "The success of the exhibit will be tested and proved by reactions from ordinary female visitors." Lane believes that some women will see Penn's imperfect lumpy women as a relief from Kate Moss perfection while others will only see Penn's photos as just faceless objectification of big naked women. "How about this guy?" Lane wrote. "A woman catches his fancy, he takes her picture, and then he chops her head off."

Lane has a point. And he doesn't. In the late '20 and '30s, Imogen Cunningham took dozens of faceless portraits of nudes, photographing both naked male and female torsos. By the time Penn was shooting his big nudes in 1949, "Henry VIII" (a Lane quip) nudes were old modernist hat. Whatever Alfred Stieglitz's problems had been with Penn's nudes, the latter's work resembled the headless torso shots Stieglitz had shot of his lover, Georgia O'Keeffe, years before.

In New York it is possible to compare Penn's headless nudes to a big naked girl with a chin, nose and ears that Penn photographed in '99. The show is called "Dancer" and consists of dozens of nude portraits of the before-mentioned dancer, Alexandra Beller, doing a kind of film noir bump 'n' grind, the photos emphasizing her stretch marks and cellulite. There is nothing generous about Penns vision of Beller. The photos are grotesque.

Back at the Metropolitan, curator Hambourg included a single Penn photo taken in 1947 in the big women exhibit, claiming the shot was the genesis for the 1949-50 series Penn would soon shoot. The image is a dark and grainy view of an obese female torso, and Hambourg shows that it's a dead ringer for the lumpy old Willendorf Venus. There is nothing delicate or sensuous about Penn's 1948 "virgin." It's closer in spirit to Penn's modern fat photos at the Whitney.

One of the reasons the Met's 1949-50 photographs are so beautiful could be chemical. Near the end of her essay, Hambourg describes Penn overexposing the prints, then bleaching the paper with "ferricyanide, potassium permanganate, and sulfuric acid." She writes, "The long process of the print through multiple baths was pleasurable to [Penn] who treasured photography's liquid birth."

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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