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Irving Penn: Traces of passage

Irving Penn: Traces of passage

The American photographer Irving Penn’s still lifes capture moments in passage or the remnants of a meal. These meticulous compositions are on view at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris.
Irving Penn, New York Still Life, 1947 © Condé Nast

These are highly polished tableaus, in which every element has been carefully handpicked like in classical still life paintings, such as Chardin or Cézanne. When we look at Irving Penn’s compositions, we are immediately struck by the fact that they belong to a long pictorial tradition even though they use the language of modern art and feature modern objects. 

The photograph opening the exhibition is thus a close-up of a lamp: this common appliance found in every modern home is revealed through the work of the photographer, and specifically framing, as uncanny. The lightbulb looks like a huge, monstrous eye glaring at us intensely. 

Irving Penn, Summer Sleep, New York, 1949 © Condé Nast

A giraffe skull

Penn’s capacity to make objects speak is at work in the following images. In one, we see two spoons containing oil and vinegar next to a few leaves of lettuce placed nonchalantly on the table. Another image shows a cracked milk pitcher lying on its side. Yet another presents a giraffe skull in all its ghostly, sculptural beauty.

Irving Penn creates inventive stage-sets where organic matter vies with inanimate objects. Sometimes he lets a fly alight on a piece of fruit the way a classical painter might: it symbolizes vanity and decay, what we will become one day, insect fodder. 

Penn’s still lifes are like a meal abandoned on a table that the diners had deserted in a hurry. The half-eaten food and broken dishes are what remains of human passage, traces of life, the legacy of dissolution.

Irving Penn, Still Life with Watermelon, New York, 1947  © Condé Nast 
Irving Penn, Ospedale, New York, 1980 © The Irving Penn Foundation
Irving Penn, The Empty Plate, New York, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation

By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Irving Penn, Still Life

From November 7, 2019 to March 7, 2020

Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery 

7 Rue Debelleyme, 75003 Paris

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