If today’s fashion world pushes a narrow concept of beauty — tall, thin, young, more thin — 70 years ago that concept was even narrower, as the tall, thin young girls in the magazines also had to be white.
For several decades and 150 Vogue magazine covers, Irving Penn worked within these confines to produce images iconic for their beauty and graphical power. Compositions uncluttered by props, and frugal with color (usually black and white) left the simplest and most arresting elements for the eye to focus on: the sweep of a ruched sleeve, the black grid of netting against white plains of skin, the neck as long as the waist, the waist as slender as the neck.
Yet while Penn employed the same thoughtful, deliberate techniques in the work he pursued on his own, the aesthetic he explored was vastly different; in fact, there wasn’t just one. Not the rarefied ideals of Vogue, but the inexhaustible range of human physiognomy and toilette interested him, 25 examples of which, spanning more than 60 years, are on display at Fraenkel Gallery in “Radical Beauty.”
What strikes one upon seeing them all together is how nonjudgmental the representations are; Penn was not a fetishist of human imperfection. Bodies that Vogue would have shunned for their avoirdupois are treated with appreciative attention toward their generous curves and folds.
“Angel,” a French wrestler and poet who suffered from acromegaly — a disorder in which too much growth hormone exists — poses in a classic athlete’s stance, his fists up and his disfigured chin raised in challenge. Penn did not photograph people in a context that would “explain” their appearances or indicate that the images are about something other than aesthetics.
He didn’t photograph Dahomeyan tribespeople journalistically, in their native setting, or Doug the Hells Angel on the road, or a French waiter at work in his café. He always used the same nondescript backdrop, forcing us to consider these people for how they looked — what their eyes, posture, attire and makeup conveyed, and nothing else.
Even in Penn’s later work in fashion, he seemed determined to compose images that render the question of beauty, or the formulae by which it is traditionally judged, irrelevant.
In these images, he used models that look like, well, models — slender ectomorphs with that insouciant slouch only models seem able to pull off — but he covered their faces, one with football leather, another with her headdress, another with fruit. In one shot for Loréal, a woman’s mouth is made up in eight different colors of lipstick smeared on like a painter’s palette.
The best art is said to “open our eyes” to human experience, variety, and potential. Penn does this with a combination of subversion and reverence that make this collection fascinating, both a celebration of beauty and a revelation of the blinkered narrowness of our ideas about it.
IF YOU GO
Where: Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary, 4th Floor
When: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; through Aug. 20
Cost: Admission is free
Contact: (415) 981-2661 or www.fraenkelgallery.com