'Porno chic' and women's lib: Helmut Newton's legacy
Helmut Newton Museum / Photo: Tim from Ithaca
Titled "Sie Kommen" (They're Coming), the giant print, which comes in two versions, one nude and one power-dressed, is part of a major Paris retrospective of the photographer's provocative, erotic body of work, the first since he died in 2004.
Curated by his wife of 60 years June Newton, together with France's national museum body, the show at the Grand Palais features more than 200 prints, with work for fashion bibles like Vogue or Elle shown alongside nudes and portraits.
"You can see all the facets of Helmut, every single photo tells a story," June Newton told a press conference ahead of the opening on Saturday.
"Helmut Newton did what no photographer before him dared to do. He broke taboos, he broke the forms, the codes of photography," said her co-curator Jerome Neutres.
"The aim here is to show Newton as a great classical artist, with a full, complex place in the history of art."
Born into a Jewish family in Berlin, the 18-year-old Helmut Neustadter fled Nazi Germany with his mother in 1938, resettling in Australia where he adopted citizenship in 1946, anglicising his name.
The following year he met his future wife, then a young actress, and together they globe-trotted their way from the 1950s to 1980s, between London, New York and especially Paris, revolutionising fashion photography as they went.
"The perfect fashion photo should look like something out of a movie, a souvenir shot, a paparazzi shot - anything but a fashion photograph," Newton said in a documentary shot by his wife, screened as part of the show.
So Newton captured his models striding two-by two down a flight of stairs, at nighttime in the cobbled streets of Paris, posing with meteorites as futuristic props, or sprinting down a runway away from an approaching airplane.
Even when naked, Newton's women are powerful figures, most spectacularly staring out at the camera from the "Big Nudes" series that dominates the main room, inspired by German police photos of terrorist suspects.
There is nothing natural about his many nudes, who always keep their stilettos on. These are bourgeois, elegant women. But they are not sex objects.
"Newton's nudes are like statues. They should be set alongside nudes by Velasquez, or the Olympia by Manet - not Penthouse," said Neutres.
One iconic shot shows a tanned woman reclining naked on a bed of fur, eyeing her reflection in a mirror, with a penthouse view over the roofs of Paris - a direct allusion to the composition of Diego Velasquez' "Venus at her Mirror".
"These are women in charge of themselves and of the universe," said Neutres, who sees Newton's career as indissociable from the sexual revolution and women's liberation movement.
As Yves Saint Laurent was cutting tuxedos for a generation of emancipated young women, Newton was photographing them - sometimes wearing YSL - and making use of their new-found freedoms.
For his portraits Newton chose figures like Margaret Thatcher, Liz Taylor or Catherine Deneuve: "women who each dominate their world," said Neutres.
That said, Newton loved to challenge the boundaries of taste, staging steamy sex scenes with fashion mannequins, or using bondage gear or medical apparatus as props, his edgier work earning the moniker of "Porno Chic".
"He loved all those things they called him - 'Porno Chic', 'King of Kink' - he loved that one!' joked June Newton.
Her co-curator Neutres was more nuanced: "Porno, certainly not," he said. "None of these photos is pornographic. Chic, always."
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