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Art Watch : Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton is in focus for our Art Watch for today. This section is brought to you by Art From Us and Divvya Nirula. The Artists we spotlight here can be from any field, across any discipline, and using a variety of media. We share here why we think they are important and worth watching. Be it genius creators of eras gone by. Or the upcoming contemporary artist who is yet to have their first show. All come under the purview of Art Watch.


Born to a Jewish family in Berlin, in 1920 – Helmut would be witnessing turbulent times as a youngster. However, in his formative years he was well loved and cared for. His father was a wealthy owner of a button manufacturing unit. Newton was doted upon by his mother. He also grew up as a rebel with the confidence of wealth backing him up. While he played truant from school, it was photography that really attracted him.

When he was 16, he finally had his father’s permission to pursue a career in photography. He also secured an apprenticeship with the popular portrait and fashion photographer, Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon, known professionally as Yva.

The Nazi oppression during WW forced his father to lose his business, after his death his mother remarried. Sensitive, and eager to learn, Helmut was interested in photography. But, it was difficult to pursue it at that time and unfortunately, he was sent away to a concentration camp for a while.

Why Helmut Newton ?

It was the winter of 1938, escaping Hitler’s armies, Helmut fled to Singapore. A short job as a photojournalist and a quick expulsion followed and Helmut found himself in Sydney, Australia. After the war in 1945 he officially changed his name to ‘Newton’ – he claimed that he was a bad Jewish. When asked about his past and his faith as he never set foot in a synagogue after he left Berlin.

Newton went onto establish his own studio in 1950 where started to create some of the most famous images for renowned fashion magazines namely French Vogue, Playboy and Elle and of course Harper’s Bazaar.

Helmut’s work was different. His lighting was excessively dramatic, a deliberation and his models definitely held unconventional poses. His work has been criticised and has come under the scanner for being overly subversive and obsessive and subversive; for his incorporation of the themes of sadomasochism, prostitution, violence.

His persistent use of overt sexuality, that coloured his narratives made him the cynosure of a lot of debate. For his part Newton maintained ” Demureness is not his thing, surely? “No. A woman who is a shrinking wallflower, who is not intelligent and strong and self-assertive, is uninteresting – to put it mildly. I have a lot of male friends who prefer having bimbos at dinner than interesting women, but not me. But a woman can be extremely sexual without showing everything.”

His work displayed a cold sharp voyeurism as though he deliberately wanted to expose the underlying truth.

Newton’s Work & Inspiration

In his “X-Ray” series of pictures, which are certainly darkly witty, Newton claims that they’re not meant to amuse. It was his endeavour to uncover what was “under the flesh” and took some of his models, draped in millions of dollars-worth of Van Cleef and Arpels jewellery, to a radiologist.

Under the rays, the jewels disappeared, leaving only the skulls and the metal settings. The work was macabre and beautiful, and along with that unforgettable. For the Bulgari campaign where he showed a models hand encased with diamonds and dismembering a chicken, he faced outrage. The brand threatened to withdraw its advertising from French Vogue.

Helmut Newton staunchly lived by the maxim and often he was lauded for his submerged feminism, which was perhaps to bold a statement and too thickly veiled for his times.

His portraits of celebrities are famous, from photographing everyone from David Lynch and Madonna to Nicholas Cage, and Andy Warhol. He also captured controversial political personalities, including French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He had the innate ability to convey the character of the sitter, bringing the viewer closer to these seemingly untouchable people.


For more Artists handpicked by Divvya Nirula – explore the ART WATCH archive.

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