New York

Helmut Newton

Marlborough | Midtown

In Emile Zola’s Nana, the critic Fauchery pens a vitriolic article for Le Figaro in which he likens the fabulous whore of a heroine to a golden fly: “And it was at the end of this article that the comparison with a fly occurred, a fly of sunny hue, which had flown up out of the dung, a fly which sucks in death on the carrion tolerated by the roadside, and then buzzing, dancing, and glittering like a precious stone, enters the windows of palaces and poisons the men within by merely settling on them in her flight.” Count Muffat, Nana’s guilt-ridden protector, reads Fauchery’s piece while covertly watching his mistress luxuriating before her mirror. “Slowly, slowly she spread out her arms to give full value to her figure . . . She bent herself this way and that, and examined herself before and behind, stooping to look at the sideview of her bosom and at the sweeping contours of her thighs.” As Nana continues to explore her body, Muffat lets the newspaper fall from his hands and watches until, “For a moment he saw her as she was, and he despised himself . . . And, unable to take his eyes from the sight, he sat looking fixedly at her, striving to inspire himself with loathing for her nakedness.” Of course, Muffat fails. Nana, as the essence of self-absorbed eroticism, cannot be resisted. It is not her sex which destroys; it is her amorality.

Looking at Helmut Newton’s recent photographs, I felt a kinship with both Fauchery and Muffat. On the one hand, there arose an almost instant desire to warn people away from the facile decadence of the work; on the other, there was a soporific urge to shut up and give in to it. The Fauchery gremlin kept needling away, recalling all those nasty, inane layouts of bored-to-stone models striking tired dominatrix poses; the Muffat gremlin was sighing, “yes, but .. . really, what’s the harm?” Fauchery reminded me of how much I loathed Newton’s book, White Women—of how it triggered images of a cultural gestapo officer beating his thigh with a riding crop, honing stiletto heels in electric pencil sharpeners, paying extra for models with dueling scars. Muffat countered with a litany of antihero role models I’d suffered uncomplainingly: Helmut Berger in The Damned, Donald Sutherland in 1900, and so on. “See,” he said, “fascism’s really rather glamorous.” I groped for the light, trying desperately to find Fauchery in the onrushing darkness, Muffat was cackling smugly in a corner. He knew I’d been bitten by the golden fly.

What is so creepy about Newton’s work is its unrepentant capitulation to the realm of the golden fly. It serves no purpose other than chilly titillation. There isn’t a moment of spontaneity in any of it. It’s all hauteur and inaccessibility and damn-your-eyes elegance. And, by cracky, when it works, it’s unbeatably alluring. The most compelling photographs in the show (all black and white) are three larger-than-lifesize images (81 1/2 inches high) of nude models standing in a neutral ground. They are not on the grotesque Brobdingnagian scale of Anita Ekberg in 8 1/2, but rather on the noble sculptural scale of an Aristide Maillol or an Auguste Rodin. Like a detachment of Nanas the women are completely self-absorbed, caught up in moments of what appears to be cosmetic reverie (one seems to be meditating on her nails)—more Step-ford wives than Dionysiac Bacchae. (The only hint of a sexual leitmotiv is in their perilously high-heeled shoes.) And like Nana’s before her mirror, their concentration is undistractable.

Two other photographs (an overlapping diptych) maintain a large scale (77 7/8 by 33 3/4 inches) and studio-nude format, but here the women are animated, albeit pointlessly and decoratively. Uniting the women in all these images is one unavoidable, ultimately distancing common feature—their glossy, pampered professionalism. Curiously, the models’ luxe, high-fashion perfection neutralizes their nudity and turns them into prêt-à-porter armatures with more corporate than erotic potential. Yet the very aloofness of the images is perversely seductive, and their scale, with its implication of inaccessibility, works insofar as the photographs suggest hieratic equivalents for sexual frustration. And therein lies the leaden soul of fascist chic.

Elsewhere, the work is less confrontational. When the format is more discreetly scaled, the formal properties of the work click into clearer focus. Some of the photographs are dreadful Newton clichés (a model with a Paloma Picasso bob harnessed in a breast-revealing leather vest, another adjusting her black rubber hose, yet another teasing her abdomen with enameled mandarin nails); others are perfectly fine Newton standards (expensively accessorized nudes sculpturally juxtaposed with architectural vignettes or sited in moderne resort locales). Two pairs of photographs, shot in Brescia, Italy, are engagingly schematic: the first shot of each establishes a fancifully overdressed mannequin caught in purposeful midstride; the companion shots are in every way identical except that the mannequin is nude. It’s a concept that manages to be simultaneously humorous and elegant, and one that interestingly coordinates the models’ paid-by-the-hour hauteur with the photographer’s ironic fracturing of the commercial mode. Quite clearly, when one is handsomely reimbursed and egotistically reinforced, the emperor’s new clothes are every bit as viable as any time-honored court regalia.

Finally, in two sets of photographs Newton eschews the leggy, pear-breasted uniformity of high fashion models in favor of women athletes. The subject of one set is body-builder Lisa Lyon, who seems to have brought out the photographer’s worst side. Posed in an over-stuffed interior she strikes a series of passive/aggressive poses in minimal Dallas Cowgirl drag, looking, in the silliest shot, like an eager road-company chorine miming “Atlas Unchained.” Newton’s other athletic subject is runner Gayle Olinekova, and here the merger of subject and photographer is completely symbiotic. One photograph shows Olinekova’s essential locomotion—her legs, in “go” position. The slightly off-center framing and the minimal reference to studio context heighten the animal dynamism of the extravagantly muscled legs. The companion image shows Olinekova full-frame; the effect is of a zoom out—of taming and contextualizing the overstatement of the legs. Seen running Olinekova appears very human in her aspiration, and almost mythic in her achievement. Physically she is, if anything, more extreme than Newton’s other models, and she certainly exemplifies a competitive program of narcissistic involvement; but Olinekova also represents a strength of purpose and pride in achievement not glimpsed elsewhere. Hers is the only image in the show that mediates against passivity and suggests a purposeful life beyond the frame of a photograph. As Fauchery suggested to me on the way out the door, she may be Newton’s only antidote against the bite of the golden fly.

Richard Flood