A Generous Serving of Small Trades

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If you have the slightest interest in the art of photography or fashion, you will undoubtedly recognize the name Irving Penn, whose artistic achievements have had a major influence on the contemporary art scene of the last sixty years. Born in 1917 and still active today, Irving Penn might have started his career as just a fashion photographer, but he quickly developed a distinctive style which set his images apart. To compliment his images for their elegance and superb technique is almost beyond the point, as it seems that he was born with these skills. Just think about seeing a great performance of Swan Lake, where every member of the corps de ballet is exquisitely trained, but your eye focuses on the prima ballerina, who effortlessly transcends the technical demands of the role to make her character fully human and fully alive. That's how I think of the artistry of Irving Penn.

at090915b.jpgHis elegantly installed exhibition of 210 black and white photographs (mostly shot in the 1950's, in Paris, London, and New York) just opened at the Getty Center and its title, Small Trades, says it all, as it presents skilled tradespeople dressed in their work clothes, tools in hand. All of them posed in his studio, away from their 'natural habitat,' which immediately sets these images apart from a similar body of work made by the German photographer August Sander in the first half of the 20th century. Creating his famously comprehensive 'catalog' of the German population, Sander allowed each of his subjects to tell a unique story, while Penn's characters seem to be performing a role, though doing it convincingly.

at090915c.jpgThe peculiar thing about Penn's Small Trades series is that these gelatin silver and platinum/palladium prints are so exquisitely produced that their technical virtuosity becomes almost a distraction. And considering the sameness of their composition and background, one cannot help but feel admiration mixed with slight fatigue at the glorious monotony of this work.

at090915e.jpgOh, these pesky critics, always whining about something. So let me switch gears and put on my detective cap. One of the most ubiquitous images in modern art is the irresistibly seductive Venus torso by French artist Yves Klein, a small sculpture covered in his trademark intense blue pigment. Take a look at the photo of it on our website, and then check out the portrait of a young nobleman by Italian Renaissance painter Bronzino belonging to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

at090915d.jpgA couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon it there and couldn't believe my eyes. In the portrait, behind the sitter, we see what appears to be an ancient Greek or Roman torso of Venus, but with a surprising twist: the goddess is painted blue. I'm still trying to figure out what this is supposed to mean, but meanwhile, I wonder if Yves Klein knew about this painting, and whether in the multiple edition of his own Blue Venus he was simply paying homage to Bronzino by borrowing from him, or, have I caught him red-handed, stealing from the Old Master? If you have any clue to this mystery, let me know...

Irving Penn: Small Trades
On view at the Getty Center through January 10, 2010

Banner image: Irving Penn, Charwomen, London; Negative, 1950; Print, January 1977
Copyright © 1951, restored 1996 Condé Nast Publications, Ltd
Partial gift of Irving Penn. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles