Helmut Newton, a native Berliner, cosmopolitan man and provocateur of fashion and portrait photography, would have turned one hundred this October. On the occasion of the centennial, Kicken Berlin, together with Berlin galleries Friese and Meyer Riegger, are repositioning some of Newton’s works from private collections in a dialogue with works by contemporary artists. At Galerie Friese, Newton’s works are shown alongside the erotically charged paintings of American artist William N. Copley (1919—1996). Meyer Riegger has invited British artist Jonathan Monk (b. 1969) to react directly to Newton’s photography. The parallel exhibitions encompass the subjects of physicality, sexuality, fetish, and power. The conversations among the various works — photographs, paintings, drawings, and installations — transcend eras and genres and illustrate how roles and identities, moralities and society can be provocatively charged and discussed on new terms. Helmut Newton, whom Galerie Kicken represented exclusively from 1989 for more than a decade, establishing his oeuvre on the international art market, laid bare in his work the artistic potential of commercial photography. He united the genres of fashion, portrait and nude photography in complex ways, blurring the boundaries between them. His contribution to the history of photography reflects the history of the medium and traces, as though enlarged under a magnifying glass, a psychogram of the societal developments of his time. His work picks up the traditional lines of each genre and exaggerates each in glamorous, sexually charged scenes. Newton, born in 1920 as Helmut Neustädter, had his roots in the culture of the metropolis of Berlin. His heroes were the illustrious reporters of his day: Egon Erwin Kisch, Martin Munkácsi, Erich Salomon. In Yva’s photography atelier between 1936 and 1938 he learned the arts of writing with light and subtle installation. In 1938 he emigrated to Australia where he established himself as a photographer. From the late 1950s, Newton worked for British and French publications like Vogue and Elle from London and then from 1961 from Paris. After 1981, he lived alternately in Monaco and Los Angeles.
In the years to come he would hone his unmistakeable visual language. Whereas some of his earlier fashion reportages drew on cinematic motives by Luis Buñuel or Alfred Hitchcock, he began in the 1970s to develop his own tense scenes of high-society worlds and the metropolises of old Europe. Newton’s protagonists are “strong” women in two senses. They present themselves to the camera with challenging self confidence and aggressive sexuality but also sometimes in poses of voluntary submission and ambiguous androgyny. Newton aggressively situated the female body in his images, such as in the monumental nude portraits Big Nudes. Sex and power but also his fascination with strong personalities shaped Newton’s visual realm. From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, Newton dedicated himself to the portrait. Assignments for Vanity Fair and other magazines put stars and politicians, socialites and artists before his camera. He expressed his interest in his counterparts: “I photograph the people I love and admire, the famous and especially the infamous.”
Newton’s work retains its relevance in conversation with contemporary art, as the exhibitions at Galerie Friese and Meyer Riegger demonstrate. Newton’s contemporary William N. Copley (1919—1996) dedicated his work since the 1950s to the subjects of desire and power and the relationship between woman and man. At Friese, a selection of Newton’s photographs encounter drawings and paintings by Copley. The American artist was rooted in the traditions of European surrealism and connected as both gallerist and artist with proponents like Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, and Max Ernst. With their pointed semiotic character and the use of specific symbols, his motifs manifest stylistic elements of American Pop Art. Like Newton, Copley implemented humorously ironic and challenging elements to question the moral implications of the society of his day. Paintings and drawings from the 1950s through the 1990s display the continuity and stylistic diversity of Copley’s cosmos.
Jonathan Monk (b. 1969) works with practices of appropriation and repetition. His 2006 series Newton Illustrated already used Newton’s photography. Exclusively for the encounter with Newton’s own “best of” selection for the portfolio Private Property (1984), on display at Meyer Riegger, Monk has created the central installation Kicking Legs (a variant of the earlier work All the Possible Combinations of Eight Legs Kicking (2012/13). The origin of this current preoccupations is, as Monk reminds us with subtle tongue-in-cheek irony, the coincidence of two fetish incidents in 1981: Newton’s creation of Big Nudes and Monk’s own experience of two fish-net-stockinged, synchronised kicking legs over the entrance of a punk store on London’s Carnaby Street. Monk’s installation creates a host of ways to move among the 45 images from Newton’s Private Property.
Courtesy Galerie Friese, Berlin
Fotos: Eric Tschernow, Berlin