Cranium Architecture sees Irving Penn create a beautiful, absorbing study of animal skulls from the collection of the Narodni National Museum in Prague. From gorilla to giraffe, the photographer treats each subject with fastidious equality - zooming in or moving away to ensure that all the skulls are the same size and placing them in a simple white background. Abstracting the objects so is disorientating and challenges the viewer to look at them in a different way. As the series' title suggests we are encouraged to view each skull as a unique but familiar construction, created by the powerful yet sensitive hand of nature, to house the most precious of organs - that which defines and directs us, both physically and mentally.
Penn rarely spoke to explain his work, but these spare words printed in the first exhibition catalogue (1989) serve to enlighten us somewhat on his inspiration, "An exquisite edifice of living machine. Hard chambers of bone to guard soft organs, protected conduits and channels." The photographer's appreciation of his subject is clear here and reiterated by the care he took producing the series' exquisite silver prints.
Although well known for his portraits, Penn did on occasion throughout his long and illustrious career, turn his attention to still life, notably human skulls in the late 1970s. Penn's masterpiece, Poor Lovers (1979), an image of two nuzzling skulls, is a seminal example of many compositions that reveal his interest in classical 'vanitas' painting. Further, the photograph seems to connect us directly with the very living, emotional character of these 'lovers'. Similarly, the skulls of Cranium Architecture allow us an insight into the character of the animal they belong to. Despite being separated from all the fleshy, soft elements of themselves, the personality and temperament of each animal seems to leap out at us. As with Poor Lovers Penn has, through his remarkable skill and sensibility, once more transformed still lives into sublime and enlightening physiognomic portraits.
The largest exposition of this series for over two decades was shown at Hamiltons throughout the summer of 2013. A catalogue raisonné, which includes an essay by renowned photography critic Francis Hodgson was published by Hamiltons Gallery, in collaboration with the Irving Penn Foundation at this time. For further details and availability, please contact the gallery.