September 8th, 2011
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has Helmut Newton’s Big Nudes
The Helmut Newton exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is awesome. There’s your capsule review if you wanted one. In the interest of full disclosure, however, it should be known that I am a fan of naked ladies, and this was a prime motivation for my visit to this exhibit. It might be considered significantly less awesome (though never offensive) if you do not share my proclivities. You might also enjoy Helmut Newton’s work if you enjoy photography, fashion, athletes, Paris, lingerie, shoes, or hair. If you like more than one of these things, then the exhibit is a no-brainer.
Some of you may ask, “Helmut who?” I know I did when I first saw the advertisement. Then I was told he was a fashion photographer whose work involved very few clothes. The logical part of me was concerned about the inherent contradiction in that statement, but the rest of me said, “Wait, very few clothes?” Prudes should probably visit the other exhibits at the MFAH because Newton was enamored with the female form, even going so far as to express disgust and terror at the American opinion of women’s bodies.
The exhibit moves in roughly chronological order with general themes emerging in each room. It starts with several pictures of the same model in a swank 1950s apartment. This initial room is kind of like seeing stills from what Mad Men would have looked like if Don Draper were an attractive female nudist. From there, you move to a series of models in medical restraints generally reserved for spinal injuries. I’m going to go ahead and credit this photo series with the beginning of Goth culture. You could argue this point, but the fact remains that old Helmut was dressing women up in spinal braces when the lead singer of Bauhaus was 12.
Also of note is the theme of big women. Not quarter-pounder-with-double-cheese big, but tall and athletic. It’s pretty obvious in his Big Woman, Little Woman series, which is exactly what it sounds like. I hope the Big Woman got paid a lot because several pictures involve her carrying another woman on her shoulders while walking in a grassy field wearing nothing but high heels. Is that a spoiler? Maybe it is, but if it also doesn’t make you want to go see the exhibit, I don’t know what will, except maybe the Big Nudes series, which he is famous for. The title of the series is just as informative as the last one. The naked women generally tower above you and make you feel like an insect. They truly represent what is fashionable and beautiful beyond the artifice we generally associate with models.
And that really seems to be the message of the entire exhibit and of Helmut Newton himself. People can cry exploitation all they want, but the overarching message is always that women don’t need any help being beautiful. Almost any model in any picture could believable step out of the frame and declare, “I don’t need you.” The best example of this is the series of dressed/undressed portraits scattered throughout the latter half of the exhibit. Several women are posed in high-fashion clothing side-by-side with them in the same positions but nude. Most of the poses are designed to reveal just how many things are hidden by their clothes. It’s a far cry from America’s Next Top Model.
The exhibit ends with a series of athletes (literally strong women), which is a logical, if somewhat heavy-handed, capstone to his work. It does have one of the most striking images of the display though: a runner’s legs as she sprints past the camera. I won’t go all wonky trying to come up with some magical critic’s interpretation of his art (I’m not that much of a foppish dandy), but it’s a beautiful picture regardless. I’m not saying you should stop and ponder the ultimate meaning of your existence while staring at naked pictures of women who could beat you at pretty much any sport ever, but I certainly did.
Finally, there’s a small room with a documentary playing on loop. Normally I skip these things because they’re usually at the beginning of an exhibit and dominated by a narrator so dry he (always a he) sounds like he’s been munching on dry wheat toast and stale bran muffins for the past decade. Also, I’m allergic to stock footage, especially when there’s a real exhibit on the other side of the wall. This one was different, however. First, it was at the end of the exhibit, which means I’m actually invested in the content. More museums should do this. Second, it’s an actual documentary that splices scenes of photo shoots in with an interview in Newton’s house. It’s worth sitting down and actually watching. Yes, it includes Cindy Crawford naked, but the real gold is the interview, which mostly consists of an old man drinking tea and talking about America. He says America likes to pretend most parts of a woman don’t exist except when it’s time to have babies. The actual quote is more eloquent than that, but also far less family-friendly, so I’ve paraphrased. And then he says something that adds context to the whole exhibit: “The way modern Americans view women is disgusting.” And then you spend the next week thinking about every woman in every picture ever.