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Helmut Newton: Work (London)

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10 May – 8 July, Barbican Gallery. An opportunity to see both classic Helmut Newton images and works never seen before. Through his uncompromising photographs Newton allows us a tantalising glimpse into the world of extreme sophistication and flaunt

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      06.06.2001 04:26
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      The Barbican Gallery isn't one that I have particularly frequent cause to visit. Not least because of my dislike of the veritable rabbit warren that is London's Barbican Centre! The Gallery is, however, one of the easiest things to find in the building, and its entrance is located just beside the lifts, on the third floor. The admission fee for the Gallery is depressingly steep, weighing in at a shocking £7 (£5 concessions). However, some exhibitions merit this not inconsiderable entrance fee. At the moment, for example, the Gallery is holding two exhibitions, and the admission fee buys you admission to both, so that if you don't like one, at least there's a chance that you might enjoy the other. The two exhibitions are a retrospective collection of Helmut Newton's photography, and a celebration of contemporary art in Tokyo and London entitled 'Jam'. The two are radically different in terms of style and approach, so it's not immediately clear what demographic they're aiming at with this pairing... but it seems to work in an oddly jarring kind of a way. NEWTON Helmut Newton will be 81 in October this year, and is one of the best known and most celebrated photographers of our time. You've almost certainly seen his work, in the pages or on the front covers of glossy magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire, or in Athena poster displays. His photographs are as ubiquitous as those of Henri Cartier-Bresson or the Magnum group. Newton first became known to the world in the early 1970s while working for the French edition of Vogue magazine. He soon established his own inimitable style, combining elegance and style with an uncompromising vision for challenging taboos. Time and again, Newton challenges the viewer to see things differently, and directly targets established cultural mores. This style Newton attributes to a massive heart attack, which he suffered while working in New York in 1971.
      The incident caused Newton to reassess his work, and changed his outlook on life. His photography became more intense, and he broadened the acceptable style of fashion photography by incorporating aspects of aggression and eroticism. EXHIBITION The exhibition looks at the last forty years of Newton's career, and consists of 200 of his works over that period. The selected works were displayed last Autumn in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and include works from all three of Newton's main areas of photography – fashion, nudes an portraits – displayed thematically. The gallery leaflet informs the visitor that chronology has been deliberately ignored in deciding on the layout of the gallery. However, it soon becomes obvious, upon touring the exhibition, that the differences in Newton's interests and aims over time have forced a good deal of chronological organisation upon the gallery. CHALLENGE The first thing that you see upon entering the gallery space set aside for the retrospective of Newton's work is an enormous black and white nude photograph of a woman. The painting is larger than life size, hanging a little way above the ground so that the average visitor's line of sight will be at around breast level. The woman stands squarely, her legs apart, her hands linked in front of her pelvis. There is nothing else in the photograph to distract the viewer, nothing there but the woman. She adopts a strong expression, challenging the viewer, a look of defiance seemingly designed to indicate that there is nothing wrong in her nudity. This is one of Newton's 'Big Nudes' series, ten of which are on display in the exhibition, which were produced between 1980 and 1993. It's a deliberately shocking opening to the exhibition, giving the visitor an idea of what to expect, and showing the sheer emotion and strength of imagery that Newton is capable of injecting into such a simple concei
      t. From the 'Big Nudes' room, the visitor passes through three rooms of Fashion photographs taken by Newton, some in black-and-white, some in colour. As the visitor walks through these rooms, the pictures go chronologically back in time, beginning with Newton's more recent pictures. The more recent fashion photographs seem less striking than the later ones, in my view. Perhaps this can be partly attributed to the sheer numbers of fashion photographers who have emulated Newton's style over the years, meaning that his recent works seem little different from those of scores of other photographers gracing the glossy magazines. There are some exceptions to this, not least of which is the almost artificial-looking image of a woman walking down some stairs used in a Laurence Steele publicity campaign in 1996 – the image currently being used in the posters promoting the Barbican's exhibition of Newton's work on the Underground. Newton's earlier fashion work, however, is indisputably impressive. Some of the most striking images are almost certainly familiar to most visitors. In 'Sie Kommen', we are presented with a pair of images of four women, originally taken for French Vogue in 1981. These are printed very large, again probably larger than life size. In the left hand image, the women are shown dressed in fashionable clothing (at least for the 1980s), and shown mid-stride, as though walking down an unseen catwalk. It's a striking image in itself. The women look in different directions, with expressions of aloofness. In the right hand image, the same women are shown in the same positions, with the same expressions. However, in this picture, they are naked. The imagery is shocking in its honesty, and is impressive in its realisation. Several pairs of images like this, with models shown in identical stances and with identical expressions in the two images, but clothed in one image while
      naked in the other, are on display in the exhibition. Generally, Newton has selected singularly monotonous or uninspiring backdrops for these photographs, drawing the viewer's eye unerringly towards the subject of the photograph. In the next four rooms of the exhibition, we see some more diversity to Newton's portfolio, and hint at his voyeurism. The first room is entitled 'X-rays', and examines Newton's attempts to satisfy his curiosity over what "three million dollars worth of diamonds look" like under an X-ray. He took various models to a radiologist and posed them under the X-ray machine, to produce some stunning images. Most impressive is a simple image of a foot in a high-heeled shoe taken using the X-ray machine. The series of nails holding the heel of the shoe in place seem bizarrely sharp and hostile alongside the gentle organic curves of the model's foot bones. In the following room, 'Autoerotic', we see art from Newton's recent art project to promote the new Volkswagen Beetle. The next two rooms, 'Decadence' and 'Berlin' explore his voyeurism further, with what are often quite candid photographs. The next room, 'Dummies' blurs the line between fashion and eroticism. When, in the late 1970s, criticism was levelled at Newton's work for being too erotic, he hit back by producing even more erotic imagery, but featuring mannequins to make the images more acceptable. In the final room of the exhibition, we see a series of Newton's portraits. Newton is increasingly in demand to take portraits for magazines, of celebrities, newsmakers and trendsetters, and a selection of his work in this field is on display here. The room is dominated by a larger-than-life photograph of German premier Gerhard Schroeder, and photographs hang of people including Anthony Hopkins, Sigourney Weaver, German artist Anselm Kiefer, and Marlene Dietrich. IS IT PORNOGR
      APHY? So the oft-drawn conclusion from Newton's work is that it's simply pornography passed off as art by using black-and-white film, and taking pains over composition. This is a pretty reasonable conclusion to come to, given how many breasts are on display in the exhibition, however, think how many Renaissance paintings featured scantily clad cherubs, or women heavily reliant upon narrow strips of gossamer to protect their dignity. Newton is doing little different from Titian or Rubens. If you choose to consider mere depiction of the naked form as pornography, then yes, his work is pornography. If, however, you're prepared to think beyond mere prurient dismissal of the photographs due to the depiction of nudity, you'll be treated to an exhibition of truly striking, eye-opening, work. CONCLUSIONS The exhibition represents the most impressive collection of Newton's works, ranging from throughout his career as a photographer, and showing the diversity of his work. Since the price of admission covers both the exhibition of Helmut Newton's photography and the 'Jam' exhibition of the art of Tokyo and London, it seems reasonable value for such an impressive and inspiring collection. The works are well displayed in the Barbican Gallery, photographs are reproduced at appropriate sizes, and generally hung a good distance from each other. Lighting could be improved slightly, as the Barbican Gallery exhibition space is heavily reliant on artificial light, and some of the exhibition space seemed a little dingy.

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