In reviewing my posts from this past month, I realize that while I have been busy going, seeing, and doing, I have not been quite so busy writing. For those of you familiar with May in France, you know that we’ve been enjoying quite a few jours fériés, or bank holidays, this month–which means lots of long weekends and leisure time. The month of June, however, promises a return to my regular schedule and more quality time with my computer. So in these next few weeks, I hope to get posts to you with quicker turnaround!
Before my last (and final) long weekend getaway in May, I went to visit the Helmut Newton retrospective exhibit at the Grand Palais. Helmut Newton, for those who are not familiar, was an Australian photographer of German origin, known for his erotic nudes and provocative fashion photography. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938, Helmut Newton (then Helmut Neustädter) settled in Australia, where he changed his name and joined the Australian army in fighting against Axis totalitarian regimes in World War II. After the war, he worked internationally as an independent photographer, shooting for upscale fashion magazines and Playboy alike. In 1961, Newton moved to Paris to focus more exclusively on fashion photography, working primarily for French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. As he continued to shoot international fashion spreads throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, Newton photographed the likes of Cindy Crawford, Catherine Deneuve, and Claudia Schiffer, among many others. During his final years, Newton divided his time between Monte Carlo and Las Angeles, where he continued to photograph fashion, portraiture, and nudes. In 2004, Newton died in a tragic car accident at Chateau Marmont, his residence in Southern California.
I found the exhibit fascinating, and I thoroughly enjoyed viewing such an esteemed collection of Newton’s most memorable works. One of the most intriguing aspects of this retrospective was the mystery of Newton’s personality and inspiration. As a Jewish boy growing up in 1930s Germany, he was clearly influenced by the growing power of the Nazi regime. The impact of the Holocaust seems to have inspired many of his more scandalous series–the “Big Nudes”, for example, which he photographed in homage to the nude identity pictures taken at Nazi concentration camps. Could the profound mark of WWII violence also have inspired his propensity towards the creation of sadist-masochist, fetish, and taboo images? A picture entitled “Soins Esthètiques”, or “Beauty Treatments”, features a naked woman, with limbs spread, being blasted by a power hose. She screams in fear and agony as she falls back against the wall of a large communal shower. This photo was one of many in a series of suggestive images, both violent and sexual, that characterized Newton’s work in the 1980s. Whips, chains, and handcuffs served as props in his fashion photography, giving a raunchy energy to editorial spreads that bordered on the obscene. However his portrayal of the taboo was not confined to the bedroom–Newton also played with gender roles, photographing women as men and vice versa. Always pushing the boundary between sexy and salacious, Newton certainly achieved the shock value he hoped for. But what drove the artist’s need to raise eyebrows?
The question of stylistic inspiration leads to another puzzling aspect of Newton’s personality: his portrayed relationship with his work as art. Newton often claimed to be detached from his photographs, denying his viewpoint as an artist with a creative perspective. Meanwhile, his wife June claimed, “it’s an obsession,” and his photographs would indicate that she was right. In 2004, the year of his death, Newton said, “Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum that’s fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire.” Likewise, in the voiceover of the exhibit video installation, Newton continued to express that for him, photography was just a job. Then conversely, he later describes himself as an artist using “human flesh” as his material. He often worked with polaroids, avoided retouching, and was a perfectionist about capturing the exact image he had conjured in his mind. I found the dichotomy between Newton’s distinct creative viewpoint and his claimed detachment from his work as art a fascinating aspect of the retrospective.
Though the exhibit was enjoyable and certainly thought-provoking, its downfall was the design. A difficult layout and a confusing sequence of galleries made for a frustrating experience as a viewer. Space was not the issue–in the four large galleries, there was plenty of room to exhibit the photos. However, the organization left something to be desired, as smaller photographs were clustered in corners and hung one above the other. Thus it was difficult to view the smaller pictures at eye-level, a feat made even more complicated by the large crowds competing to catch a glimpse. What’s more, the lack of directional indication and contextual explanations made for a puzzling photographic sequence, both thematically and chronologically. While Newton’s quotations were interesting and provocative, more information would have greatly enhanced the experience. A major benefit of visiting an exhibit particular to one artist, I find, is that I learn so much about their story as well as their style. Here, however, viewers are left to their own deductions, with the works and a few quotations as both inspiration and explanation. Better planning and more information would have vastly improved this (otherwise stellar) exhibit.
That being said, I cannot deny that I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and was surprised by how much those images have stuck with me since. His innovative fashion photos and ironic portraits, as well as the more racy and provocative nude shots, made for a stunning retrospective. So despite the lackluster organization, I would highly recommend a visit. A final tip: buy your tickets online and avoid the massive queue!
“A ceux que mes photos scandalisent, je réponds : il faut être à la hauteur de sa mauvaise réputation.” -Helmut Newton