While the myth of Berlin is constituted by the citys semi-seedy subculture bursting with exuberant energy, the citys cultural institutions tend to ignore the uber-creative underground. For example, the extravagant reconstruction of the Alte Nationalgalerie is in radical contrast with a plethora of alternative venues dedicated to progressive music, art and attitude. Very few intermediary structures exist between these two poles. And noticeably none of the ambitious institutions dedicated to contemporary art seem to be trying to bridge this divide. Sadly, so far in Berlin, the nomenklatura appear to privilege the citys late eighteen-century heritage more than they support its effervescent zeitgeist.
But now the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), in complicity with the citys bankrupt administration, has announced with fanfare the opening of a museum dedicated to the Berlin-born fashion photographer Helmut Newton. Located in a former military club, the Landwehr-Kasino, and built in last centurys stiff Prussian style, the Helmut Newton Foundation is sited to occupy the 2nd floor of what will become the future Museum for Photography. The militaristic architecture that remains raw on the 3rd floor has undergone extensive renovation in the lobby and exhibition areas. However, its overall appearance still seems in accordance with the martial posture of Newtons mostly nude models. There are even eight life-size black and white nude photographs of women, guarding the entrance.
Once you pass the Big Nudes, on the second floor are a pair of exhibitions. The first, titled Us and Them, is a mixture of photographs documenting the not-so-private life of Newton and his spouse, June. June is a photographer who works under the name Alice Springs, and also now serves as president of the foundation. And, despite a sprinkling of a few intimate photographs of the artist in a naturist retreat and hospitalized and on his deathbed, overall the subject matter and treatment here epitomizes the '80s decade, with its gloss, absence of color, stylish riches and glamorous depravation.
The second exhibition Sex and the Landscape, juxtaposing fashion and landscape imagery, was inspired by the ubiquitous auctioneer dealer Simon de Pury - to whose gallery the exhibition will travel. This presentation also incorporates more recent photographs, some of which are printed in color.
Concurrent to the emergence of the punk movement, Helmut Newton surfaced in the fashion world with aggressive images of women and erotic Walkyries. His dark erotica was an assault on 70s fashion iconography, populated by ethereal feminine figures in colorful dresses. His full-frontal approach was further developed during the 90s by a younger generation of German photographers including Peter Lindberg and Ellen von Unwerth. Together this group made hot, hot, hot images with an icy cool gloss. But sadly, notwithstanding Helmut Newtons enormous impact on artistic practice, this new venue does not contribute much to the todays discourse about over-saturation of photography in art. A more than a valid question might be: What really is the legitimacy of an object of contemplation framed in a museum that was first conceived for fashion magazine?
On a more conciliatory note, Mr. Newton was a friendly cosmopolitan. I remember his very English sense of humor spoken in flawless French. I remember his new world familiarity, which he brought with him from Australia where he had spent his formative youth. Despite a certain emotional and blurred attachment to Berlin - Helmut Newton left the city when he was 18 years old - the presence of his work in the context of todays Berlin appears as a postmodern political decision. It is a statement in the pursuit of a brilliance that has never been and is still not a characteristic of the local creative scene. Will the legacy of this dissolute universe of the artist come in tune with the decadent cosmos of Monaco, where he lived or, does it really correspond with the sleazy back street of the Berlin Zoologischer Garten railway station where it is now located?