Homage to Helmut Newton

The ‘Porno Chic’ Photographer

By: - Mar 29, 2012

The Grand Palais devotes a first Parisian retrospective to the German-born Helmut Newton (October 31, 1920 – January 23, 2004).  Having worked most of his life for Vogue and Elle – Paris; an exhibition at the august museum seems natural and fitting.

Newton’s women appear sculptural and domineering, dressed or naked but always adorned and decked out with stilettos shoes, full of erotic power and formal beauty.  There is nothing natural about these women while they are not sex objects, Newton empowers them not unlike Yves St. Laurent with whom he collaborated closely.  Walking through the show, one is struck by how “provocative, sometimes shocking, Newton’s work tried to capture the beauty, eroticism, humor – and sometimes violence – that he sensed in the social interaction within the familiar worlds of fashion, luxury, money and power,” states Jérôme Neutres, the exhibition’s co-curator and adviser to the President of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais.

The exhibition brings together nearly two hundred photographs most of them original or vintage prints made under the photographer’s direct supervision and selected by June (Browne) Newton, his wife for nearly sixty years.  At the helm of the Helmut Newton foundation in Berlin, she is herself a photographer working under the pseudonym of Alice Springs.  Jérôme Neutres who helped Newton’s widow in mounting this exhibition states: “It’s Newton by Newton.”

June began as one of those women who populated the artist’s work.  The Australian actress made his acquaintance in 1947, by posing for him as a model.  They married a year later.  Newton served in the Australian army during World War II and has acquired that year the Australian citizenship.  A Jew from Berlin, born in 1920 into a wealthy family, Helmut Neustädter was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938 with his mother.  He landed first in Singapore before joining Australia.  He anglicised his name from Neustädter to Newton.  However, he never forgot the Berlin of his childhood, that of the early 1930s “when one encountered women naked under their fur coat,” says Neutres.

When Helmut was only seven years old, his half-brother, who was ten years older, presented him to the Red Erna, a prostitute with red thigh hi-boots and a whip.  This mnemonic moment often related by the photographer became one of the fundamental elements and cornerstones of his imagination, an obsessive leitmotif in his photographic narrative.  As a teenager, Helmut dreamt of becoming a movie cameraman, or a photographer.  In 1936, he was placed as an apprentice to a well known photographer Yva.  She introduced him to portraiture, to the nude as well as to fashion photography before he fled Berlin at the of 18 years.

In the 1960s, Newton revolutionized fashion photography while working for Elle and Vogue in Paris.  His unique style unravelled, full of fantasies, provocation and humor.  He is most well known for his impeccable staging and non-retouched photographs. “The perfect fashion photo should look like something out of a movie, a souvenir shot, a paparazzi shot – anything but a fashion photograph,” he proclaimed.  “You can see all the facets of Helmut, every single photo tells a story,” says June Newton, during the press conference preceeding the exhibition opening.  The show includes a huge range of his work, from fashion to formal portraits – and oddities like a bull in a Scottish pasture.  References to film and art abound in his work as well.  For instance, in his 1967 photograph of a young woman in white boots chased by a plane, this is a direct reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “North by Northwest.

Newton’s celebrated nudes of the 1970s and 1980s are on ample display.  The 1980s “Big Nudes” powerfully dominates the main room fixing the camera.  Inspired by suspected terrorists in Germany suspected by the police, naked women in warrior poses stare at the viewer.  Particularly striking is the 1981 “Sie Kommen” (They’re Coming) that is a giant proof of conquering, in charge, quadrille women photographed in two versions, side by side, one nude, the other power dressed. “Newton’s nudes are like statues, they should be set alongside nudes by Velasquez, or the Olympia by Manet – not Penthouse,” said Neutres.

Dubbed as the so-called “porno chic,” Newton featured large naked bourgeoises standing at the edge of pools or in luxury hotels.  He claimed that he “always” had in the trunk of his car, chains and handcuffs ready for his sado-masochistic photo-op.  Prosthetics and casts are also present in these staging to cause trouble, thus making one ponders.  “I am very attracted to bad taste, more exciting than the pretended good taste that is just only the standardization of the look,” he would explain. “Helmut the provocateur always said, “I want to do everything forbidden, everything you don’t do,” says Neutres.  Newton’s forbidden world on view at the Grand Palais, gives us ample opportunity to bask in the photographer’s prohibited world.

The exhibition that opens March 24, 2012 will last until June 17, 2012 is on display at the Grand Palais, Paris.  It is rounded up with a film made by June Newton as well as numerous press clippings. (South East Gallery), entrance from Avenue Winston Churchill. Open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except Tuesday and May 1st, 2012.
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