Irving Penn: cranium architecture

Francis Hodgson

Research output: Other contribution


Critics and historians of the work of Irving Penn often note that he was attracted to thememento morigenre, otherwise known asvanitas. A number of the conventional markers are there: broken jugs or the frequent appearance of all-too-human bits of debris in otherwise idealized still life pictures and portraits. There is even an elegant intimation of mortality in the subtle way that the frozen block of beans in Frozen Foods with String Beans(1977) is just beginning to thaw. This connection to vanitas can be seen in examples of Penn’s work over a period of many years. Colin Westerbeck noted that Penn’s groups of non-commercial still lifes are all intimately connected to the theme of vanitas: the Cigarettes, the Street Material, and specifically the series of memento moristudies that was published asIrving Penn: Archaeology. A 1941 image,Funeral Home, published in Passage: A Work Record, Penn’s major retrospective book, depicts the shop front of W. S. Watkins & Son, Embalmer. Even in Venice in 1945, the young Penn was making studies of the scummy surface of the canal in deliberate opposition to the Ruskinian glories just above. Those images of foul water describe grassy stalks directly reminiscent of some of theStreet Materialfrom thirty years later, and of the fibrous shards that poke out of theCigarettes. For an artist with such an enduring interest to go on to make this astounding series of studies of the skulls of animals,Cranium Architecture, might seem quite natural. Penn was interested in death, goes the argument, perhaps as a counterpoint to his professional career working (both atVogueand for his commercial clients) with people obsessed with youth.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherHamilton's Gallery
Place of PublicationLondon, UK
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jun 2013


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