December 1988 I.M. Pei photographed by Irving Penn
While principal ly a fashion magazine, L’Uomo Vogue has never simply been one. Its history spans some of the most challenging decades in fashion and taste, art and culture. But it must be said that magazines of our kind tend to celebrate the young and the restless, the fashionable and the upcoming, rather than the established and benign.
How r efreshing t hen t o f ind t his portrait of I .M. Pei. The Pritzker Prize-winning a rchitect was 71 when photographed by Irving Penn, one of the titans of American photography. Penn was also 71, younger by t wo months. This portrait, t aken at the t ail end of the 1980s, when the speed of l ife was at its most excessive, stands a s a t ribute to permanence.
A portrait by Penn, nearly forty-five years after his first for Vogue, was always going to be a big deal. And this is everything a Penn portrait would always be: the truest depiction. Here, laid open for us, is the rebelliousness and the restiveness, the charm and the exuberance of I.M. Pei, the ‘Mandarin of Modernism’.
At 101 Pei may yet design his last bui lding. And who is to say it wi l l not be as controversial as his glass-and- steel pyramid for the Louvre, as ful l of meaning as it is of form and light? If his skyscrapers are impressive, the designs of his later years are subtle and sympathetic. The Museum of Islamic Ar t, Doha, opened in 2008, assimi lates the ideals of Western modernism with the histor ical and cultural imperatives of a modern Islamic state.
When in 1964, the President’s widow asked Pei to design the John F. Kennedy Library, he considered it “the most i mportant commission of my l ife”. Jackie Kennedy said it was “an emotional decision”, adding, “I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him. He was so full of promise, like Jack. They were born i n the same year. 1917.”
And what a year that was for g iants of American l ife.