Newton’s stark sexuality on display

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Newton’s stark sexuality on display

It’s a bit jarring to walk into a gallery run by the country’s most powerful right-wing newspaper and see Helmut Newton’s provocative images of naked women.
Mind you, this is the Chosun Ilbo Art Museum, the center of “alumni shows” for good-old-boy schools and a nest for traditional painters. But on a recent Monday afternoon, there were people in this gallery that one wouldn’t otherwise find at this time of the day, fashion-conscious college students to middle-aged men dressed in suits.
Maybe it’s not that big of a surprise, considering what the surface of Newton’s photographs suggests about modernist ideals.
Glossy, black and white prints mounted in chic silver frames in the gallery feature images of fashion celebrities and Hollywood actors. There is a shot of Elizabeth Taylor wrapped in sapphires taking a bath in a Los Angeles mansion; actress Charlotte Rampling at the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles, France; the model Iman on a leopard skin. These stylish portraits evoke fantasies about high-class society, advocating bourgeois decadence and 1980s sensibilities.
In many of Mr. Newton’s works, style supersedes content. A photo of Nastassja Kinski pretending to breastfeed a doll is an example of his visual sensationalism. His photos are visually arresting but often empty in meaning other than simply reiterating past notions of the femme fatale.
Voyeurism, which describes models in sexual situations in great detail, is another selling point of Mr. Newton’s work.
A German photography giant who died in a car crash in January at the age of 74, Mr. Newton has always been blunt about the commercial value of his works in the world of fashion photography.
The Seoul show, “Helmut Newton: Fashion Nude Photographs,” includes a documentary on the photographer, “Frames from the Edge.” In it, a German journalist asks Mr. Newton about his position as an artist and commercial photographer. “There are two dirty words in photography,” he answers. “One is art, and the other is good taste.”
Mr. Newton built his reputation with the magazine French Vogue before gaining notoriety for producing a series of bold, erotically charged portraits of naked women. His models include actresses such as Catherine Deneuve and Sigourney Weaver, the artist Salvador Dali and Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld.
He also shot images of his wife June, a model and actress. In one 1973 series of photos, she was portrayed as Hitler, wearing a cropped mustache, with model Jerry Hall posing as Eva Braun.
The nudity in his photographs has provoked constant debate among those in the artistic sector and feminist groups. A close-up shot of a rear-end view of a woman wearing only a pair of stockings was featured on a giant billboard in Times Square as a lingerie ad, but was later banned.
There are also critical questions about Newton’s photographed subjects. Almost every one of the nude women in his photographs is young, tall and white, sporting similar tan lines and wearing high heels.
He uses some non-white women in his pictures, but unlike his Caucasian models, who are the epitome of Western beauty, the minority models almost always have some notable feature that plays into ethnic stereotypes, whether it’s slanted eyes for Asian women or unusually large hips for black women.
As for the other sex, Mr. Newton has one male nude in his vast collection of photographs, which isn’t included in the Seoul exhibit.

by Park Soo-mee

“Helmut Newton: Fashion Nude Photographs” runs through Aug. 22 at the Chosun Ilbo Art Museum. Call (02) 737-2505 or visit the Web site at (Korean only) for more information.
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