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Helmut Newton: Big Nudes, big fallacy


Karen Whiteley
WVoN co-editor 

Helmut Newton is big news in Paris right now. The illustrious Grand Palais is holding a retrospective of the photographer’s work.

For those not familiar with  Newton, who died in 2004, his status as an iconic fashion photographer is seldom questioned.

Starting out in the 1960s, Newton’s work regularly featured in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for almost five decades.

However, he is probably most famous, outside the fashion world at least, for his 1980/90s series ‘Big Nudes’, a selection of photographs of tall, slim, large-breasted women, naked.

It is these photographs that form the centrepiece of the exhibition, with each photograph standing two metres tall and dominating the exhibit’s main room.

So he’s most famous for taking pictures of women, with body shapes considered the most attractive by prevailing cultural mores, with no clothes on.  This is where I start to yawn.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this sort of thing before, somewhere.  Oh, yes, that’s right: everywhere. In art since the beginning of recorded time, in advertising, in my daily paper. Everywhere.

What distinguishes Newton’s work from adverts for Spearmint Rhino seems to be a sliver of lingerie.

Yet talking of Newton, the curator of the Grand Palais exhibition Jérôme Neutres, says ”Helmut always said, “I want to do everything forbidden, everything you don’t do.”’

Because unlike Spearmint Rhino adverts, Newton is art. His work – especially his Big Nudes – is routinely gushed over by the art establishment, despite the fact that they’re about as forbidden as Page 3.

Newton, far from being derivative, was ‘avant garde‘ according to Neutres. For the curator, the exhibit’s aim is ”to show Newton as a great classical artist, with a full, complex place in the history of art.”

If this adulation of a man who photographed women naked stopped there, we could just shrug our shoulders. It’s not as if he’s the first man to represent his vision of a woman’s naked body as some kind of objective truth and get a round of applause for it.

But Newton is not only regarded as an innovator, but as a feminist. Newton’s status as a one-man female empowerment machine is as firmly established as the depiction of female nudes is old and tired.

His Big Nudes models are ‘powerful‘, posed in ”traditionally male or dominating positions’, the images are ‘full of erotic power’.  With so much empowering going on it’s a wonder these women aren’t now running most of the G8 countries.

In this frenzy of female empowerment, however, one portrait really sticks out.  You can’t help but notice that in her Newton portrait Margaret Thatcher, the one female with any experience of actual power, is fully clothed, resolutely so.

Newton’s photograph of Thatcher  was taken the year after she was forced from office, yet she still didn’t apparently feel the need to ’empower’ herself by showing off her fleshy bits.

Can anybody imagine Margaret Thatcher posing nude?  Can anybody imagine anybody even asking her if she would?  Now that would have been avant garde.

But as they are, Newton’s Big Nudes leave me cold and, more importantly, no less powerless than I felt before.

In his 1972 book ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger, after noting that women were almost inevitably the principal subject in European paintings of nudes, said, ‘To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.  A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.’

Women as people can be empowered, though they aren’t by Newton.  It is, however, impossible to empower an object no matter how you dress it.

Whether Newton saw himself as a feminist seems unrecorded, but on the evidence offered by his wife, June Newton, he certainly didn’t apply feminism’s principles to his home life:

‘When [Newton] came home he’d ring a little bell saying: “Junie, I’m here.” And that, of course, meant I had to make the dinner.’

The exhibition, ‘Helmut Newton 1920-2004’ runs until June 17.

  1. Excellently written article. I think you raise some really valid points. I’d love to see how ‘those in the know’ would respond to the views you’ve highlighted here.

  2. vicki wharton says:

    I always felt distinctly uncomfortable with Newton’s work – most of it seems to totally dehumanise women and make them into fetish objects of desire but without personality and characters of their own. I think his lack of acknowledgement of women’s humanity in his work is rather creepy.

    • They made me uncomfortable, too. They’re women, naked but empowered? Which is different from naked and just on display?? Huh?

      Then I realised that the ‘Huh?’ was a completely valid reaction to what is just another example of the exploitation of the female form sold to women as something it isn’t in line with whatever cultural myth is in vogue at the time.

      Then I was just annoyed.

  3. Geert Devos says:

    Happy to see someone is having a swing at Old Helmut and his fetishist sexist representation of women, even if I consider he remains a master in composition, and a portrait photographer hors-pair.

    What shocked me even more is the cr.. uttered by Anne Wilkes Tucker (“curator” of the exhibition in Houston in march 2011) : “In the ’70s it was so shocking the way the women are standing there naked staring at the camera staring at you. They are looking directly into the camera with no reticence or discomfort.”

    Anyone passing more than a fleeting glance at his pictures knows that only a small minority of “his” women look directly at the lens,and those that seem to do mostly look somewhere “off” just beside the optical axis.

    As for the “with no reticence or discomfort” mrs Wilkes talks about: sure. They are, after all, professional models, used to being naked in front of other people, being treated as objects even if it’s in a very professional way.

    The women that do look directly into the lens are mostly in artist portraits, clothed. Funny…

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