Today we look at Bernice, Monte Carlo by Helmut Newton for Artwork in Focus. Join me Divvya Nirula as I explore and present my experience of the selected artwork.
Artwork in Focus
Title: Bernice, Monte Carlo
Artist : Helmut Newton
Year : 1994
Medium : photolithograph
Dimensions : 15 1/8 x 11 5/8 in
Location : Milan
The Lens of Helmut Newton & Bernice
Featured here is Bernice Coppieters, the famous Belgian ballerina, who has had an extremely illustrious and successful career in Ballet. She has been former Principal Dancer and Ballet Master at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. In the realm of dance and performance, of creation and presentation – she has had and continues to have a close creative and collaborative relationship with Jean-Christophe Maillot. Beyond the realm of dance Coppieters has in her lifetime been muse to many artists. One of whom was Helmut Newton.
She fit perfectly into his very particular artistic vocabulary. She was strong, confident and exuded power in every frame, pose and space. Here we see Newton’s innate affinity for darkened decadence coming though the image. The starkly dramatic black and white calls out – never to be ignored.
Not just Fashion Photography
Newton’s work always pushed the boundaries of accepted fashion photography. We know about this process through his own declarations in many interviews in print and media that he did not believe in retouching his photographs. He clicked and that was it. So, one might say he was documenting moments and creating history.
At times it seems that he is mocking the very notion of fashion, or the vanity and artifice of it. Newton prefers to shoot his elaborate and elegant tableaux outdoors. Mostly shot on location rather than in the studio, each image is an invitation. There is invariably a sly subversion – often a reminder of real life. As is the case here, Bernice, Monte Carlo takes us as the viewer to a mundane beach, but as a voyeur. We feel we shouldn’t be witnessing this, is she is distress – should we call for help!? Everything about her and the moment screams dangerous fantasy. Are we even allowed to participate is an uncertain excitement that takes birth in our belly as the viewer/voyeur.
Many of his detractors have blamed Newton for taking fashion photography to the edge of pornography. There was and is, amongst some, a belief that the cold and sexual images that were his specialty, ruined fashion photography. The impact of this one man and his aesthetic, his gall, say some, has created a level of objectification of the body (specifically the female body) that is now being pushed further and further. Others argue he liberated the classical image of the Woman through his lens. Whilst others still seem to be of the opinion that he added additional bonds to the Feminist cause. For me the artist never truly creates freedom or bondage, it is us – the viewer and Her, the muse that are truly part of the conversation. It is the emotions and the experiences of the two that determine the push and pull, the knots and the release.
Newton Always Gets a Reaction
Strangely, even as recently as the mid-90s, one of his exhibitions was spattered with paint by protesters. Undoubtedly Newton’s photography is extreme. But we have to remember that this is intentional. Some may view them as plain fetishist presentations of a heteronormative gaze, but I would disagree. Each photograph of Newton’s presents the subject to us – as an appetiser and feast. He wants us to devour the object and subject of the image, as he does. Without apology or regret.
June Newton (who has famously created a remarkable body of photographic work under the pseudonym Alice Springs) was in addition to being an artist, also wife to Newton from 1948 till the year he passed away, 2004. And in that intimate relationship as muse and collaborator her testimonies of him we always kind, that his real life persona was far gentler than what his artistic productions would suggest.
Raquel Welch once commented, “Here you are, thinking Helmut is this little sweetie pie, this little honeybun, and here he has this perverse lens trained on you. There was such a paradox.”
The German-born Helmut Newton was Jewish. During the First World War, he and his family left Berlin. Helmut took off for Singapore in December 1938, a month after Nazi-led persecution programs began. He eventually settled in Australia and became a citizen, then took up residence in Monte Carlo. His house overlooked the Mediterranean which was a frequent backdrop for his nude images.
In 1936, he began working for the German photographer Elsie Simon, who went by the name Yva. After he was interned by authorities in Singapore and sent to Australia. After his release, he served in the Australian army for five years, enabling him to become an Australian citizen. This is when he changed his name to Helmut Newton in 1946.
Newton quickly became an iconic fashion photographer. He was loved for his radical, edgy, and, at times, racy subject matter. He was deeply inspired by film noir, Expressionist cinema, S & M, and surrealism. This is what lends his images a controversial, provocative, and heavily voyeuristic streak. Feminists criticized Newton as overly suggestive and unnecessarily risqué. But then again he believed that he women that he photographed were strong and beautiful and nude. He had absolutely no appetite for the mediocre, sweet and unimpactful. This is why he was a much sought after profile photographer of his times and he shot many celebrities.
Newton’s iconic legacy lives on even today. In fact, the Helmut Newton Foundation opened a retrospective of his work in Berlin on 31st October 2021. The exhibition titled Helmut Newton. Legacy is scheduled to run through 22nd May 2022. Curated by Matthias Harder, visitors will get to experience around 300 of the photographer’s works, most of which are on public display for the very first time. Furthermore, each work promises to highlight Newton’s distinctive and unorthodox approach to fashion photography. Interestingly, as an extension to the show, the Foundation will also be exhibiting works by June Newton, Helmut’s wife, who died in April 2021.
The exhibition is also accompanied by a detailed picture catalogue of Helmut’s works, published by Taschen and edited by Matthias Harder.
Fun Fact : Bernice, Monte Carlo will be on display at Newton’s upcoming exhibition, Newton, Riviera, scheduled for June 2022, at Villa Sauber in Monaco.
Want to read more of my views on artworks that hold my attention ? Visit the archive for Artwork in Focus.