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  • Christian Hain

Next Station Berlin: Irving Penn, a Centennial @ C/O Berlin

(Berlin.) Any nerd will be happy to tell you that a domain name is actually just a c/o address for a string of nonsensical numbers. For example, when typing, your browser takes care of redirecting you to the “true” IP address – or something like that, but I won’t claim I know what I’m talking about here. And anyway, this is only meant for an introduction to the Irving Penn (initials: IP) retrospective at(/) C/O Berlin.

The art space for photography celebrates Penn’s one hundredth birthday with an extensive show they (/Penn Foundation) baptized Centennial, notwithstanding the insignificant fact of the artist's demise nine years ago. C/O Berlin is immensely proud to host the event's third edition, following the Met in 2017 and Parisian Grand Palais earlier this year (using a different, but equally uninspired, name). They also mention a fourth instalment in Sao Paulo(?). And it is a honour, indeed! Although, if you take a moment to consider the board of sponsors in C/O’s atrium, you might suspect some donations finding their way back over the pond soon. Talking money, only the most impertinent, and irrelevant, blogger will cavil at the lack of a press kit, or any printed documentation at all (and, just to assure you: no reduction on the hilariously overpriced catalogue either, we’re all in the same boat here).

In the beginning, there's a self portrait with camera, soon to be followed by one of the artist’s major interests: still lives. Irving Penn made extensive use of photography’s power to treat objects and images alike. A photographic print preserves no difference between a cook book and the prepared dish, both are equally nourishing to the eye. The drawing of a cow thus joins “actual” vegetables, where a meat cleaver’s handle might be drawn on the wooden background and its blade just another photograph. Another early work in colour treats the (clothed) human body, a foot, as pure form, one more sculptural element adding to the spilled contents of a handbag –traces of a Theatre Accident (1947).

At about the same time – still in the 1940s -, Penn began to portray celebrities for Vogue Magazine, and here they all are, and all in monochrome: Alfred Hitchcock, Le Corbusier, Truman Capote so very Wilde-ish dandy, Marcel Duchamp, Igor Stravinsky with one hand on his ear (“come again?”), Joe Luis cornered like he never was in the ring, Salvador Dali, George Grosz desperately trying to escape into his chair, Spencer Tracy, WH Auden – was his head really that small, or is it some photograpic trick? -, Peter Ustinov, and many more, a who’s who of post war elites and socialites. On the one hand, personalities become exchangeable where the photographer’s style never changes – a corner, a carpet, a chair, and always a limited space –, and on the other, each one of them will still manifest his uniqueness. The individual - and all of these had massive egos, we might safely assume - appears menaced, sieged by a shooting squad, well: the photographer and his lenses. Repetitive or not?

These works laid the foundation for Penn’s career and lasting fame, but soon he went (or was sent) to where the money is: Fashion. It would affect his style in one of two ways: Zooming in, frequently cutting away parts of bodies and heads, to focus more strictly on a dress, - or, on the contrary: zooming out to a wider frame -, but either way abstracting from a face and reducing its impact. Less personality and more superficiality, more cover; and yet, paradoxically: that dress of Capote in the earlier - decidedly non-fashion - shot was all the more memorable.

Later, in the 1960s, Gianni Versace and other elite tailors joined the likes of T.S. Elliott, Audrey Hepburn, Tom Wolfe and Pablo Picasso in Penn’s portraits.

The Met’s visiting curator (just why do all American curators seem to look, and talk, alike, so very, very, very pro?) insisted on Irving Penn’s works being more comparable to objects than to photographs. This sculptural character shows best without clothes. Whoever needs Mapplethorpe when you got these? Abstract-ified bodies, slender or fa-, er: big boned, almost abstract, freakish, mountains of meat. Irving Penn appears a firm believer in the power of the human form – no wait, that’s wrong: in its irrelevance!, its sculpturality, surface, lines, and covers – in forms.

There’s still more. Frequent travels led the photographer to Peru, Morocco, Papua New, and Guinea, eagerly documenting the fashion(s) of the world. In Northern Africa, Penn found himself most impressed with veiled women, sculptural indeed. Almost all skin is covered (even the mouth, for some quiet finally?). Occasionally, the photographer’s eye reveals their resemblance to body bags, particularly where they've donned a necklace over the burka. These belong among the rare exceptions when more than one person takes the focus. In other parts of the world, people were wearing masks, and it would really not come as a surprise if some of those Papuans still kept a pretty collection of shrunk heads in their huts. You might decry the Exotism, but that’s how the world was, and they were. (Today, these people and peoples are probably equal/ized, “liberated”, mainstreamed, emancipated to tame consumers.)

Irving Penn: Centennial is a huge show, and yet it feels as if after the first few rooms you’ve seen it all. Once Penn had found his trademark style, he hardly ever changed. There’s no evolution in his work, no variety (of course not, because he worked for Vogue... sorry, bad pun). Penn experimented a lot with different printing techniques, but in the end he always favoured the same raw-but-smooth aesthetics. You could not even say, he perfected it, because the very first examples were quite perfect already. On the upside, this translates into levels of recognisability that few photographers ever attain. That’s the art.

Small Trades(-men) in best August Sander tradition are true Penns too, and even where the human body gets replaced with inanimate objects - cigarette packs and butts, paper cups, rubbish and Merian-esque flower portrays – the subject remains ultimately exchangeable. C/O Berlin (/the Met and Penn Foundation) further add some gimmicks, an authentic theatre curtain from the artist’s studio, an - inauthentic - corner to take selfies in his fashion. And finally, a pleasant surprise: Irving Penn’s tries at drawing and painting. Not bad, really. Refreshing, to say the least.

The gallery shop also has two reprinted books to offer, Flowers and Cranium Architecture (no examples of the latter in the show, unfortunately). Would that be a good investment for 150 Euros each, where the original editions currently sell for €130 to €500 on the internet? One thing is for sure: If you take these and add a portray collection, you’re good. You will carry home all variants of the Penn-ish still life, coloured or monochrome, life and death - both still.

Still lives and portrays are not fundamentally different in the centennial of Penn.

Irving Penn, 24 March-1 July, Centennial, C/O Berlin

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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