Fotograf Magazine

The sufferings of Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton (October 31, 1920 Berlin – Schöneberg – January 23, 2004 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles) did not have a solo exhibition until 1975, in Paris. When the first exhibition of his work was held in Prague, the personal impression he made here was the most memorable: at the press conference the temperamental septuagenarian artist was open and free, and moreover he actively supervised the installation as well as the lighting of the fifty prints of Archives de nuit at the basement gallery of the French Institute in Prague. In 2003 the Leica Gallery in Prague brought 220 Newton photographs. 88 of those were exhibited within their premises, while the rest were displayed in the Prague Castle’s Imperial Stables. There one felt as if in a locker room, with mock-ups and pin-ups blown up to poster size displayed in place of the cut outs which decorate the metal doors of workers’ lockers. The double exhibition was held over a period of nearly three months, drawing 68 thousand visitors. That is to say an average of 809 per day. (To provide a comparison: the second most popular exhibition in the Czech lands in 2003, a retrospective of the Modernist painter Jan Preisler, achieved an average of 338 viewers per day). Slovart Publishers brought out a translation of the artist’s German autobiography to accompany Newton’s second Prague opening. I only discovered recently that Slovart revisited Newton by publishing a Czech version of the album entitled Work, available in the original English in lieu of a full catalogue of the retrospective which preceded the artist’s death (originally prepared by the curator, June Newton, to celebrate her husband’s eightieth birthday, and held in Berlin, a city drawing far more visitors than Prague; Newton’s copyright is also dated to 2000). I was interested to see to what degree browsing through the book would evoke a different experience than visiting the exhibitions. And above all, provide a clue as to what it is that so irritates me about this popular artist.

It is clear that what Newton was after was provocation – it is sufficient to see the title of his debut book White Women (1976). The man who “made it” by working for commercial magazines overtook even his most ferocious colleagues or rivals. I remember registering him in the late 1970s as the author of a strikingly simple black-and-white portrait of Karl Lagerfeld in the monothematic “Parisian” issue of Pentax Photography. Still, in the end his Work strikes one as kitsch. Françoise Marquet, the author of the foreword, claims that beyond the provocation and the surface – fashion, nudes and portraits – there lie explorations of the hidden depths of the subconscious, of collective memory, echoes of the longings of childhood dreams and years of apprenticeship with Else Simon in her fashion studio Yva. She launches into some unbelievable word juggling in order to draw Newton closer to her readership. According to her, “Newton’s contribution to the history of 20th century lies […] in his ability to imagine and visualize women exactly as they are today, at the dawn of the third millennium: women who take the lead rather than follow it…” Unlike the author I fear that feminists may instead have it in for Newton for his unreal scenarios, in which he manipulates his models like marionettes. His Work simply bears the mark of decades of thinking within the confines of the consumerist media. And yet behind these images, so many times commented on, there is in fact a more compact core, as well as the “access to the obscure” promised in the foreword. Uncovering these mysteries may occupy even those viewers who lack in the book evidence of a more substantial creative evolution.

The focus of the book – and as a result, its static quality – lies in the impressions that haunted a man, forced by the Nazi regime to flee his native country, throughout his life. He reveals his predestination in his autobiography. This opens with the author relishing in the memory of his half-undressed nurse in front of a mirror. According to his own testimony, ten years later the fourteen-year old Helmut liberated himself from the trauma of virginity in order to subsequently arrange a tryst with a woman seven years his senior while on the bus coming home from school. The reader might find a little unlikely Newton’s failure to remember whether what was reportedly his most exciting romance was actually crowned by intercourse. Still, it does appear that whether dreamt or not, this Aryan mannequin, a full head taller than himself, became for him a personification of all the fruit forbidden by the Nuremberg laws, and the archetype of the Newtonian model. One may ask whether these were the dreams that followed Helmut Newton into exile. Were they not rather nightmares? 

 

Newton H. Vlastní životopis. Praha: Nakladatelství Slovart 2003.

Newton H. Work. Köln: Taschen 2007. Czech edition: Dílo. Praha: Nakladatelství Slovart 2007.

Josef Moucha