Helmut Newton at the MFAH: It’s Pretty…Pretty Vacant

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.

 

©The Helmut Newton Estate/Maconochie Photography. The image is under copyright and must not be screen-grabbed, downloaded, or dragged off this website. No usage whatsoever is permitted.

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!

©The Helmut Newton Estate/Maconochie Photography. The image is under copyright and must not be screen-grabbed, downloaded, or dragged off this website. No usage whatsoever is permitted.

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.

But who cares? All I know is that during all three of my visits, I could not get Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video out of my head. And I resent the hell out of that.

2. Color Me Violated.

Anne Wilkes Tucker, who curated the show with the assistance of Manfred Heiting, is quoted on one of the gallery walls: “Newton changed how women desire to look, and how men desire women to look.”

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”?

©The Helmut Newton Estate/Maconochie Photography. The image is under copyright and must not be screen-grabbed, downloaded, or dragged off this website. No usage whatsoever is permitted.

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.

©The Helmut Newton Estate/Maconochie Photography. The image is under copyright and must not be screen-grabbed, downloaded, or dragged off this website. No usage whatsoever is permitted.

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.

©The Helmut Newton Estate/Maconochie Photography. The image is under copyright and must not be screen-grabbed, downloaded, or dragged off this website. No usage whatsoever is permitted.

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.”


 Laura Lark is an artist and writer in Houston.

 

also by Laura Lark

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20 responses to “Helmut Newton at the MFAH: It’s Pretty…Pretty Vacant”

  1. I was really afraid no one would take the MFAH to task on this horrible “show”.
    I agree with all the above, but the worst is probably the fact it is all pixelated digital prints of photos taken on film. If they bothered to have any silver gelatin or c-prints, a viewer or critic might be able to find something in the craft, but as it stands it is just offensive and un-sexy – basically a poster show that could have been emailed to the MFAH and printed out by copy.com.

  2. ha ha

  3. Also, Titian paintings are one thing, but charging members a premium for a poster show is pretty unforgivable.

  4. The mannequin section was the best IMO. It hinted the most at a “concept.”
    But…
    They’re just photos. Relax.

  5. I haven’t seen the show yet, but wanted to comment on your honesty and sincere questioning in your review. I think this gives much food for thought and allows us all to ask our own questions without just making some superficial comment…I liked it, I hated it, It is perverse, it is beautiful. Your reflection and retrospection were thought provoking…what art in any form should do. thanks

  6. I saw the exhibit yesterday. It was cold and not particularly sexy to myself or my husband. To borrow an observation from a friend, “It was too much of not enough.” It was one of the saddest exhibitions I have ever seen at the museum. I suspect it made money.

  7. I always enjoy subjective reviews as they always reveal
    more about the writer then the art being reviewed. Notwithstanding, Helmut Newton’s work still touches a chord, even if for this particularly writer, a state of nausea. Newton’s work still seems fresh and his persistant influence can be seen in the best fashion photographers today, namely Juergen Teller, to the worst in Tom Ford and American Apparel. It is all to obvious he was reflecting the vacancy and objectification of our times. He gives us, in clear technical terms, the parallax of plasticity inherent photography, fashion and life itself.

  8. ©The Helmut Newton Estate/Maconochie Photography. The image is under copyright and must not be screen-grabbed, downloaded, or dragged off this website. No usage whatsoever is permitted.

    this is funny to me.

  9. The photograph of the model with her image reflected in the mirror , etc., makes me think of a Norman Rockwell gone awry.

    Perhaps it is a “different” kind of art, “quite different”.

  10. Thank you for blowing the cover off this been-there-seen-that exhibition. ‘Historical’ titillating photography. Whatever Helmut Newton did, Annie Liebovitz could do much more creatively. Citing the Sprockets, jah! Love the real boobs and jungles of bush comments.

  11. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2001/may/05/weekend.lindsaybaker
    It is long..
    It is all in the eyes of the beholder. Even the one projecting from behind the camera. Helmut took my photo once but I was in a hurry to get back to work and never followed up.. I was disappointed to not see the real photos but instead a watered down quality, over indulgent in the over sized images. I am glad I don’t have to be a security guard for that show. It was interesting to see after many years all those photos I remembered when they first came out..and what that conjured up for me. Somehow, for some reason I don’t see this exhibit a fit for Ann Tucker to be curating, at least the poster size..I wonder who talked her into it, if so. I started to find them boring due to the obvious pixels…or mayeb I have outgrown that mentality..thank goodness.

    “Dramatic and beautiful, maybe, but are his photographs also misogynist, cruel and pornographic? As Lindsay Baker discovers, Newton considers himself a ‘feminist’ who celebrates triumphant, strong women. You decide”

    Check out Guy Bourdin as well.

  12. Hi Laura, I loved reading your review and had some reactions to some stuff. Your excerpts are in quotes.

    “I have now seen the show three times and I’m baffled.”

    I saw the show twice and really loved it. And I’m baffled. But I’m OK with mystery. I like being baffled.

    “I don’t think it’s art (meaning that I don’t think it transcends fashion photography).”

    You’ve just suggested that fashion photography isn’t art. But I’m sure that there are several photographers who do fashion shoots that you’d consider artists, right? Inez Van Lamsweerde comes to mind. When she shoots a fashion session, does she cease being an artist? When David Lynch shoots a 16-minute film for Dior, is he an artist, a propagandist, a purse-seller? Can he be all three? Can Lady Gaga produce a catchy pop song and at the same time satirize pop-music history at the same time? These are just thoughts.

    “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?”

    Please don’t quit. It’s not bad karma. You saw the show three times. You’ve already dignified it. That’s good karma.

    “This exhibition bombards the viewer with pictures of naked women who look like dominatrixes.”

    No it doesn’t. And dominatrixes will agree. There’s not enough narrative on display to accurately suggest a palpable S&M component. It’s not a bombardment. Yes, there is a photo of a woman spanking another woman, but there are no “tropes” of S&M on display in the photo, no sense of clear differentiation, in costume, of dominant and submissive. Neither female is visually labeled in an S&M sense. If there is an S&M vibe in this show, it only pops up here and there.

    “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.”

    Check out the Titian show upstairs. Now there’s something not worth the price of admission.

    “All I know is that during all three of my visits, I could not get Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video out of my head. And I resent the hell out of that.”

    I understand that. Everybody has weird hang-ups. Didn’t crop up for me. But are you also saying that Robert Palmer video isn’t art? As stupid as an image it may be for you, and me as well (it’s a horrible song), it’s still unforgettable, which gives it a kind of value.

    “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?”

    See Titian exhibit. Why is the Helmut Newton exhibit any different? Because it imagines circumstances and scenes outside of classical myths? They’re really the same if you think about it. Those Titian paintings aren’t far off from some of Newton’s scenes. Sub in some couture clothes.

    “Maybe the MFAH should consider a show of Suze Randall’s photography.”

    Randall is definitely a pornographer. What you didn’t mention is that there is a photograph of Randall in the show. I think the MFAH didn’t go far enough in disclosing the fact that she became a hardcore porn photographer (her daughter did too). It adds a bit of perspective, certainly to that photo.

    You seem to think there’s something about these photos that women could find disturbing and offensive, but at the same time you classify it as fashion photography—images that, in the majority, are viewed by females. Let me tell you, the lesbians I know love this show. Just saying. And the straight women get a kick too. I think the MFAH realized that a broad group of museum goers (largely women) would enjoy this show.

    All this said, I very much appreciate the personal perspective of your review, Laura. It’s something we don’t have enough of in art criticism. I have been attempting to do it, and I hope to use a more personal approach in my reviews in the future, because I think it’s important. I think critics should move beyond formal, academic and objective moods of writing and write more from the heart and the gut.

    I think your closing comments are refreshing. You can’t help it, and I respect that.

    The experience of art is a very personal thing. And the success or failure of a work of art, I think, depends on the ability of people, including critics, to take it personally. Even though I disagree with you, I still enjoy reading about your own personal experience, which was a very entertaining read.

  13. Hilarious and well-said, thank you for taking the time to write it despite the bad taste it left in your mouth.

  14. Photographed in the 70’s to look as if they were photographed in the 50’s. Retro erotica nostalgic for an imaginary pre WWII Europe. Newton’s titillating fashon photographs portray women as distant sexual predators. Objects of adoration, admiration, envy, lust and greed, they are anything but human. They are idealized: fat, wrinkles, and facial expressions other than chic disdain do not exist for Newton’s women, who embody a sexual power based on simultaneously suggesting and withholding sexual availability- the cock-tease translated into pictures. Photographs are peculiarly well suited to this game, as their very nature is to show things in the most detailed, seemingly present way, and make them utterly unavailable in reality.

  15. I’m wondering if “vacant” is really the best word? Particularly when you’ve seen the show 3 times and are left baffled? If anything, I’d say it’s provocative, as painfully cliched as that word is when it comes to art shows. Not that I necessarily disagree with the review…there’s much food for thought in it and I also enjoyed the comments. Also, I too am offended by the way the photographs are shown, per Damon Smith’s observations above.

    That said, at least a show like this can even happen in Houston. The Amarillo Museum of Art will be cutting their regular hours IN HALF because of “some nudity” in a national juried show of figurative paintings mostly reminiscent of 19th century academic nudes. Per their website: “The exhibition, which contains some nudity, will be on view Tuesday – Friday from 1-5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. from August 27 through October 23.”

  16. Sorry, I forgot to link to that AMoA website announcement:
    http://www.amarilloart.org/index.php?module=article&id=109

  17. I think you bit the bait on this one. Helmet’s about sarcasm, irony, the opposite of what is appropriate. I see his work as very bitter, yet brilliant in the fact that he nails “fetish” at its extreme in media ruining our private lives and relationships. Fashion ties emotion and desire to product for one purpose only–selling.Men are supposed to get excited about women, not their adornments, but that doesn’t pay for the Porsche, does it? Verhoeven tried to tell us this in “Showgirls”, but the message failed. Maybe one reason was that people were in too much denial to admit they enjoyed it! Helmet is titillating but the sets or notions are incongruous with power, money, product for that kind of natural reaction. He is holding up a mirror to his audience and challenging them to stop looking and buying if you resent this extreme exploitation of natural human responses twisted into selling tools. I see it as a huge raspberry to the fashion/entertainment industry. And a smarmy gotcha to us all. That’s why it’s Art.
    Sorry for rambling . . .

  18. Comparisons with the Titian show are ignorant and dated. Titian was a great painter & very rare to see in the US. That show is unquestionably within the Museum of Fine Arts scope – Titian’s place in art history cannot be disputed. It may not be the most exciting thing to me (the contemporay landscape show has more interest for me personally) but I was happy to see those paintings in person – especially considering Titian’s influence on Jeff Wall and other modern & contemporary artists.
    I think the printing of the photos is the one insurmountable issue since it makes nearly impossible to make a case for Netwon as a photographer. Add in all issues Laura raises just end up making it a pretty dead, limp show.

  19. It is dangerously easy to view photography in the rear view mirror of the present. Newton’s photographs may have at some point served a relevant social purpose, as Playboy once did. Obviously, we’ve moved on. These images are historical artifacts that remind us of how far we’ve come.

  20. Love your writing Laura. Have enjoyed the comments as much. Maybe it is art, and good at that. Your remarks and the mixed responses have created a caldron of reaction dependent upon the personal experiences with this subject matter. Is that not part of what makes art, as Susan Sontag would remind us that it “… needs to make us nervous.” Not everyone is an A-type, thus not everyone will see your reaction, Troy Schultz’s or Bill Davenport’s as missing nor hitting the mark. Isn’t the exhibition another BRAND to be followed or dismissed as your proclivities respond? All brands have an agenda, with a given perspective. Who’s perspective counts. Actually I’m with Bill, Troy and YOU, of course. it’s the differences of perspective I enjoy.

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