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Beauty Turned Inside Out 

Wednesday, Jul 6 2011
When we think of classic glamor — pencil skirt, gloves, and arched-eyebrow glamor, the kind that would have looked askance through perfectly lined eyes and French milliner’s netting at you and your holey shoes and yoga pants — the image we conjure probably has its roots in the work of legendary photographer Irving Penn. His austere brand of elegance dominated fashion photography throughout the 1940s and ’50s, when he shot more than 150 covers for Vogue. The less-celebrated period of his career, however, is one he pursued independent of the fashion juggernaut, and one that chafed against the narrow concept of beauty extolled in his day job. “Radical Beauty” is an exhibit of this work from varied experiments spanning 60 years. Before United Colors of Benetton, before Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, before RuPaul, Penn was already exploring just how vast and varied the realm of human beauty might be. He shot a series of images in the late 1940s of women who were overweight (by the aesthetic standards of the time and, probably, those of modern medicine, too), in postures more Venus of Willendorf than Marilyn Monroe or even Rubens. He photographed laborers in London, Paris, and New York in their work clothes. In Africa he captured people in their native costume and toilette, including Dahomeyan mudscarring. He often directly subverted the very idea of physical beauty by photographing models with their faces covered by fabric, fruit, hair, or deliberately misapplied makeup. Penn’s concept of beauty, if he ever embraced only one, was not prescriptive, exclusive, or conventional.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 9:30 a.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: June 30. Continues through Aug. 20, 2011

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Larissa Archer

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