From now until September 25th, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hosting a comprehensive exhibition of Helmut Newton’s photographs from three of his major monographs: White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1978) and Big Nudes (1981). This exhibition only proves that Houston’s art scene is far more diverse and liberal than most people give it credit for and that it has the guts to ask Baptists and Joel Osteen to pay to see naked women, in public. Thank you H-town.
Newton’s body of photographic works straddles the fashion and art worlds, features both celebrities and unknowns, and always evokes the erotic. His work pioneered a new way to portray women in photography by challenging traditional notions of femininity and sexuality. Working heavily with nude models, Newton’s works created a middle ground for the representation of the female form – looking beyond the traditional choices of lady in repose or porn star. He became the photographer who asked us: what does nudity mean and how have women’s identities been shaped it.
Prior to this review, I was already a fan of HN. But existing esteem aside, his photos can still be hard to look at and it takes time and effort to situate yourself with them. There is graphic nudity, (homo)sexuality, violence, and decadence, which, when seen in the privacy of your own home, can be delish but can prove uncomfortable when you are gazing at it in a museum. And that is why this show is important for Houstonians: we should seize opportunities to see works that are difficult – we should seek out experiences that might make us uncomfortable.
As you know. nudity in painting is nothing new. We come to expect some t&a when we go to the museum. What has always intrigued me, though, are the random acts of nudity. From Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” (1830) to Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” (1863), we can find countless examples where women are nude for just no good reason at all. HN, inheritor of this tradition, moves us away from the canvas and onto the photograph where he, too, uses random acts of nudity to tell a specific story.
But why participate in random acts of nudity? For Delacroix, his bare breasted patriot represents the fertility that peace can bring to a war worn country. For Manet a naked picnic-er could be a first glimpse into the absurdism of an industrialized society. But for Newton, his use of nudity demonstrates the accidental nature of our own nakedness, a more biological critique to the pervasively eroticized stereotype of being naked. In short, he uses nudity as a mechanism to de-objectify his subject.
We are all naked underneath our clothes, Newton reminds us. And so when you look at his photos more closely you begin to see that whether the model is nude or clothed, the integrity of the image is the same. The photograph is still complete. The nudity is, indeed, accidental or random.
So, again, if the nakedness is random, why use it? By using nudity in this way, Newton’s photos become less about nudity as an indicator of woman’s vulnerability or fragility as we might have seen with one of Degas’s Bathers or her ability to turn us on as we might see in any Playboy centerfold, but simply a reminder that nudity is a piece of a woman’s biological construction. It’s simply a part of what she is, not who she is completely. Here’s how: as we investigate Newton’s photos, look beyond the initial nudity, we begin to realize that his use of the nudity is not what makes the photo great. It might titillate, it might draw us in but the photo is more than that. It’s structure, concept and narrative all work together to create a complete image and story. In this way, Newton is telling us something basic about women (and men) in general. Sexuality is alluring, but it’s not very exciting if that’s all you’ve got going on for you. Newton’s pictures become truly interesting when you move beyond the nakedness and begin to think about what else the photo has to offer.
To me, Newton’s utilization of objectification (showing models naked) as a tool to humanize his models (by revealing that their nakedness is not all that is interesting by itself) is profound.
I would like to take this notion one more step forward here. In sections from Big Nudes, Newton demonstrate his peep show sensibility. Here he takes two photos, identical in scene, model, and pose. One he takes with the models fully clothed and the other with his models disrobed.
Seeing a person both clothed and nude simultaneously is something he also inherited from a previous master, Francisco Goya, who did the same thing with his “Maja” paintings. Through this technique, Newton and Goya give us the ultimate voyeuristic experience – we get to clothe or unclothe the models with our mind. But, again, even though it seems as if this objectification would emotionally disconnect us from the subject, in a sense, she becomes a more unified image. Her nudity does not lack depth and her proper dress does not conceal her intimacy. In short, we are, again, reminded that like the subjects, we are multi-dimensional creatures ourselves.
And so, if you can look beyond the slick photography and powerful eroticism you can see that Newton uses traditional fine art techniques within a technological format to assert the erotic and biological characteristics of women, creating a unified image that is equal parts classical and contemporary. He tricks us into thinking we are looking at a world that is separate from us, one where our own sexuality is boring (I don’t usually wear saddles on my back, but maybe you do) but he is really reminding us that our own sexuality is latent and pervasive, that is can randomly show itself, though perhaps not as obviously as a some of his models. Newton not only invites you into his world – he shows you that you are already there. Well, perhaps without the fashion shoots or travel budget.