Models Heloise Guerin, Rianne Ten Haken and Gracie Carvalho are body beautiful in Greg Kadel’s ‘Curls Gone Wild’ beauty editorial for Allure Magazine’s February issue. Paul Cavaco styles the trio in jewelry and skin, producing a beauty effect that is sensitive, sensual and — for me — introspective.
I remember seeing the ‘Earthly Bodies’ exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and finding it disruptive. These Penn bodies weren’t ‘perfect bodies’ to me, a woman who has been buried in photoshop visions of womanly perfecton for 25 years. Intellectually, I know the stupidity of my responses to nudes like Penn’s women. Emotionally, I am ambivalent.
Irving Penn’s Earth Goddesses
ArtNews reflected on ‘Earthly Bodies’, writing When Irving Penn Shot Real Women:
Although he had access to the best facilities and fine assistants at Vogue, he still yearned for authentic qualities—for bodies that had not been dieted, painted, directed, or styled for the printed page. Following his impulses, he hired a heavy-set model who was willing to pose nude and photographed her in a truncated corner flat he had built—a shallow chamber a little like a rudimentary stage set that served to focus his subjects and limit the arena of the picture.
Resting her bulk on a cube-shaped block, her arms tucked behind her back, the woman is a compact mass. The rounded forms of her breasts, belly, and thighs, laved in soft light, have such lithic weight and texture that she becomes an archaic fertility goddess existing outside time. The photograph, which he later titled Nude No. 1, so strongly resembles the famous Venus of Willendorf that Penn presumes he had been struck by that image. Yet he was not consciously reverting to a primitive form but was reaching for forms that carried a positive charge for him and responded to his plastic needs as an artist.
This terrain is psychologically complex for women, In my own case, seeing ‘Earthly Bodies’ sent me directly to the gym in an attempt to come to grips with the woman in the mirror. It was one of my most important journeys ever, one that made me a believer in exercise and healthy eating.
I could appreciate the beauty and sensuality of Penn’s images, but these were not bodily visions that I claimed for myself. Nor did I ever seek it’s opposite, the body of a BMI 18 woman. For myself I sought the middle, the curvaceous, well-toned middle road.
Two powerful arbiters of beauty and taste — photographer Edward Steichen and Alexander Liberman of Vogue found Penn’s images highly problematic. Let me say that Penn’s ‘Earthly Bodies’ nudes had great appeal to me as symbols of the ancient Goddess Gaia, or mother earth. But as physical archetypes for myself — I found them unsettling.
The Rarefied World of Models
‘Earthly Bodies’ came to mind yesterday, posting Annie Leibovitz’s ‘Stormtroppers’, Vogue’s February tribute to New Yorkers who performed at peak capabilities during Hurricane Sandy. Seeing Karlie Kloss standing like an interloper among emergency care (mostly) women — nurses who saved those little babies by breathing air into their mouths while carrying them down stairs with no electicity in the building — reminded me of what Penn was feeling, as he fled his Vogue studio to Haiti, then back to Manhattan in search of ‘real women’, his ‘Earthly Bodies’.