I generally try to be objective and somewhat professional when writing an art review. I probably don’t do a very good job of it, but I try. I decided to write about the show of Helmut Newton’s photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (White Women/Sleepless Nights/Big Nudes) and I thought that I might do well with it; that, considering my interests and the subject matter of my art, I was the right person to address this exhibition.
I have now seen the show three times and I’m baffled. I don’t think it’s art (meaning that I don’t think it transcends fashion photography) and I have no idea what it’s doing in a museum other than to lure in people who generally ignore art altogether.
My first thought was to quit this job and to never write about art again. I don’t like saying bad things about stuff. It’s bad karma. And why would I want to dignify this sort of thing with a response?
I’m a responsible person, though. I show up for appointments on time. I do what I say I’m going to do. So here I am, and here goes:
A Few Reasons Why I Am the Last Person on Earth Who Should Be Reviewing this Show:
1. Helmut Hits Too Close to Home.
I graduated from high school in a relatively affluent, predominantly white community in 1980. By 1978, if you weren’t teetering around the halls in three-inch-heeled Candies, jeans with a Calvin Klein tag on your butt, a blouse with shoulder pads that grazed your ears and a mousse-slicked pompadour or a Charlie’s Angels hairstyle with Farrah Fawcett wings, you just weren’t happening.
With that attitude in mind, I cruised into the ‘80s, looked around and witnessed Ronald Reagan’s “fuck the poor, fuck people with AIDS and fuck the homeless” mentality. MTV making it plain that music on its own was simply not enough. Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.”
Is anything different today? No. People are as superficial and materialistic now as they ever were. But that was an impressionable and meaningful time for me! That special time in a young woman’s life when “party” is the dearest verb. When all one needed to feel lucky was a line of coke on the back of a toilet in a men’s room stall and a special someone to snort it with. When all one truly wanted to do was “Shut up and Dance!”
Now the idea of it makes me cringe almost as much looking at an old high school yearbook. What was with the hair? The tee shirts that said, “Power Hungry Bitch” and “Oh My God, I Forgot to Get Married!”? It’s not particularly interesting, nor is it particularly offensive. It’s just dopey-looking.
This exhibition bombards the viewer with pictures of naked women who look like dominatrixes. Also pictures of some men, and several women dressed in very masculine style, lookin’ like they’re about to get busy with a more vulnerable naked lady. Zow! Stirred-up gender roles! Clothing as a symbolic tool for power! Totally awesome!
Maybe this stuff’s original, or was at the time. Maybe Helmut Newton thought it up himself and the sight of such power plays were so commonplace by the time I came of age that I didn’t appreciate their true origins because of the scene’s seeming familiarity. I know that Manet’s work is just a dumb painting, but didn’t he already cover that ground? I seem to remember something he did where a lone naked chick is surrounded by a bunch of guys in suits, and they’re all sitting around in the woods. And Helmut Newton’s she-male obsession doesn’t seem too original when you watch old Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck flicks. Newton presents subjects with that bold style, but the substance gets pitched out the window because there’s no way for a model in a still photograph, no matter how staged, to convey that richer essence.
Plus, in keeping with the period, the amount of work in this show is excessive. Vulgarly so.
2. Color Me Violated.
Haven’t guys always wanted to see naked ladies? And haven’t they always wanted to rope in more than one of them to do wacky stuff like feel each other up and lick and kiss each other, all seemingly for the guy’s personal enjoyment?
And speaking of “roping in,” I guess that putting a saddle on one of these gals and “riding” her is also something that guys would have no objections to seeing or doing. Y’know—if they could talk their wives or girlfriends into that sort of thing. And if they couldn’t, why, that’s what titty bars are for. Is it also because of Helmut Newton that pole dancing is called “exotic”?
Having a butch haircut and a riding crop doesn’t mean you’re not being submissive. Ms. Tucker may have a point about how people look and how they are looked at, but bottom line, Helmut Newton’s not presenting anything revolutionary in the manner of appearances. These women are models, people! They are, in the immortal words of Derek Zoolander, “really, really, ridiculously good looking.” They’re paper dolls. This isn’t a Mapplethorpe exhibition that’s either going to make you think or freak you out; it’s just the work of some dude who surrounded himself with physically attractive women.
There’s nothing wrong with Helmut Newton’s desire to surround himself with the rich and famous and ridiculously good looking. There’s nothing wrong with Hugh Hefner surrounding himself with Playboy bunnies, either. Maybe the MFAH should consider a show of Suze Randall’s photography. [NSFW Randall link, art fans.]
3. Out With the Euro-Trash.
When I wasn’t in the galleries thinking of Robert Palmer, all I could do was picture Mike Myers as “Dieter.” “Time to dance!”
During the press walk-through, Manfred Heiting, responding to a question regarding feminism, pointed out that the women looked powerful and that they wore high heels because it made them look good and that’s why they liked them. I guess so. I’m nearly six feet tall. When I wear four-inch heels, I get a great deal of pleasure looking down at particularly annoying people. And me that day in only my sneakers…
You see a lot of titty dancers in stiletto heels and not much else. I see a lot of female body builders at my gym in three inch acrylic heels, thong bikinis and a handful of grease to make their muscles look even more powerful. I guess we can chalk that up to Helmut too.
I sort of tried to talk to Heiting about Newton’s imagery and its reception when it was first published in contrast to what is acceptable today. I believe (I could be wrong, I am not the factual verification department) he said that Europeans view sex in a different manner. Meaning, I took it, that we Americans are uptight.
Indeed! I recently read an article in the New Yorker about Berlusconi’s Italy. Apparently there’s a game show where a nude woman is hung upside down on a meat hook among slain animals, and some guy stamps her ass with the Italian equivalent of a USDA approval mark. There’s also a game show where women get into a clear plastic booth and are hosed down in front of a live audience. All of that sure beats the hell out of “The Price is Right.”
And don’t forget: Italy puts prostitutes in parliament. Yes, those Europeans are a progressive bunch. And in this case, I’ll agree with Manfred Heiting—I’d much rather be governed by Ciccolina than Sarah Palin.
4. The Rich are Different: They Have More Money.
Whether any of this was groundbreaking at the time is immaterial. It’s just fashion. It’s just theater. The whole thing reminds me of the goings-on in an Edith Wharton novel, or maybe something out of “Eyes Wide Shut” or “Caligula.” It’s just a bunch of wealthy (and almost all white) people doing what wealthy white people do best: trying to entertain themselves.
Being idle and wealthy isn’t inherently bad. I wouldn’t turn it down. But if watching a hobo (I know that word’s dated, but I love it) paw through a dumpster isn’t interesting, why would watching a naked chick roll on the lush lawn of an estate be any better?
Why am I asking a stupid question like that? Hobo Kelly’s not gonna turn you on by picking through the trash, but hangin’ around all nekkid while feelin’ up her best pal Crystal next to the pool at the Italian villa will probably do the trick.
Besides, all of the privileged sorts who have the means to behave thusly and who label the rest of the world that does not understand or approve of their behavior as not very continental, or too bourgeois, are just plain irritating. No, of course your Grandma Betty is not going to understand why you’re bucking around in your bed wearing a saddle. Why should she?
Why is it important to “enlighten” folks in that manner? Or turn it around: Was there ever a world in which we didn’t know what idle “fabulousness” looked like?
5. I Don’t Like Fake Feminism
One of the most irritating things about this exhibition is that its champions defend what could be seen as offensive material (if anyone were to care) with the argument that it couldn’t possibly be sexist because Helmut Newton’s wife, June, had a huge hand in his work, including that which went into the MFAH show, and she now runs his estate. How could this possibly be oppressive if his wife was on board?
Is it okay to put women in stupid, boring positions just because a woman might have helped arrange it? Sometimes when I’m looking at this work, particularly that which has sadomasochistic or lesbian content or overtones, and I think of June Newton’s role in all of this, I think, “That’s how she kept her power as ol’ Helmut’s number one. That’s how she rode shotgun the whole ride: by continuously doing damage control.”
It’s hard to view Helmut Newton—a handsome, successful, self-made man without likening him to Hugh Hefner. Neither of them seems to have had very complicated motivations, and Newton never pretended to be anything but a fun loving, hedonistic provocateur. The film that June made about her late husband makes that perfectly clear.
But what was her motivation? I think that by helping to control all of those pretty girls who were willing to strip down and do just about anything to get their pictures in a magazine, she was controlling her man’s activity. In art if not also in life.
June was an actress and a model in her early years, and she also had her own photographic career under the pseudonym of Alice Springs. Perhaps she is or was a successful photographer; I had never heard of her. But when your looks go and your career goes with it and your partner is the undisputed king of superficiality and kink, how do you hang on?
I have no concrete proof for any of my theories concerning June Newton and I do admire the woman’s tenacity and loyalty. I also admire those qualities in Squeaky Fromm.
All of these spectacles are provided for the man, and for the male gaze, and all of that’s fine, I suppose. Men are cool. I appreciate their gazes. But does being aware of the fact that what you’re doing is, ultimately, for the male eye make you liberated or a feminist? It also seems to me that Newton’s “lipstick lezzies” with their paws all over one another’s boobs and butts for the indulgent benefit of the male gaze might piss off a few actual lesbians when this pack of pretty party girls, or the folks who arranged this pack of paper dollies, are heralded as “feminists.”
For all that, the curators missed a great chance to chart how far we’ve come by failing to expound upon the fact that all the boobs on Newton’s women seem real, and that there is a veritable jungle of bush. I’ve a feeling that if they were on view today, we’d be treated to silicone valleys, fake funbags, fabulous “Brazilians,” “landing strips,” “triangles,” and “mustaches.” It would only be fashionable.
So there you have it. It’s the best I can do.
You must believe me when I say that I tried a balanced assessment. After all, I saw a Richard Avedon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years back, and while a lot of it didn’t exactly blow me away, I didn’t question the artistic merit of the work.
I also once saw a retrospective of James McNeill Whistler’s works at the Frick Museum. Whistler was very taken with appearance and surface, and the exhibition included many of his fashion illustrations. I didn’t walk out of that one feeling weird, either.
I’ve seen more than my share of fashion photography, and a lot of it’s good. Same with art. But this whole Newton show makes me recall that immortal line from the movie “This is Spinal Tap”: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Maybe my inability to appreciate Helmut Newton’s work means it’s truly great. I’ll admit it: I’m limited.
On the subject of limitations, a friend who knows my feelings about the work sent me a quote by Helmut Newton from, as my friend put it, “some random website on Newton”:
Newton is a master of beauty and cultivates an extremely personal erotic vision. He says so himself: “I am superficial, my images aren’t deep. Good taste is the anti-fashion, the anti-photo, the anti-woman, the anti-eroticism. Vulgarity is life, is fun, the desire for extreme reactions.”
If only the feelings of not having bathed and a vague sense of nausea could be labeled ”extreme.”