Art is in the mind, say its protectors, not in the crotch. Is this sanitizing of art truth or compulsive hand washing?
-- Robert Stoller, Erotics/Aesthetics
Only those strong enough to trust will let others in, allow intimacy. But if we have reason to feel unsafe ... we shall be on guard, fearful of what others may find were we to let them in and how they will use what they find. So we seal ourselves off, a process that dehumanizes us. Then, to be doubly safe, we dehumanize them. They convert to fetishes. For those who do not fear dissolution, intimacy is a joy. For those who do, there is an even more primitive threat: if I let someone in -- if I thereby merge with that person -- may he or she not, like an evil spirit, possess me, take me over entirely? Then, the great terror, I shall lose myself. It is against such fundamental menace that perversion is invented.
-- Robert Stoller, Perversion and the Desire to Harm
Helmut Newton's photographs are not about sex, as is usually thought, but about power. While they are clearly about the power of woman -- sex is an instrument of that power -- they are also about the power of the photographer to create the illusion of power.
For Newton, as for all decadents, the power of woman resides in her artificiality, not her sexuality -- in the artificiality that announces that she is not really human, but rather the perfect machine, all the more so because it so perfectly mimics the human.
Like the photograph, she is a simulation of the real thing -- an unreality that passes itself off as real even though it is clearly unreal, indeed, in the case of many of Newton's photographs, clearly a fabrication of clothes and cosmetics, that is, a construction of style.
The photograph is the perfect vehicle for woman, for like woman it seems natural but it is completely artificial and constructed; both are deceptions -- stylized versions of a reality that may or may not exist. Even when Newton's fashionable woman is naked, her body seems constructed, indeed, manufactured, like the mannequins Newton sometimes uses, and, more crucially, clothed in a fashionable arrogance. (For the decadent, sex is too natural to be of direct artistic interest; only when it is performed in an artistic, indeed, artificial, unnatural -- perverse -- way does it become convincing and arousing.)
Baron Adolf de Meyer invented the staged fashion shot, but Newton, one of the great innovators of fashion photography, conceived of it as a kind of short story -- a mini-drama in which the female figure was more of a star than her clothing, which became a stage prop, thus reversing the priorities of fashion photography, in which the model is supposed to be anonymous and inexpressive, while the clothes had all the "personality."
Newton's models are not simply glorified clothes-hangers, but actors in a make-believe life. For him clothes are the attributes of woman's pretentiousness-- symptoms of her deluded grandeur. Fashion gives her an aura of unfathomable significance, but it only begins to satisfy her insatiable narcissism. Disguised as the grandest of social illusions, she remains resolutely self-absorbed.
Fashion exaggerates her difference -- fashionably dressed, she proclaims her superiority to the rest of humankind (it will never be able to afford her expensive clothing) -- in order to mask her indifference to everyone but herself.
Newton implicitly identifies with woman, as a 1987 photograph of him, wearing high-heeled woman's shoes, suggests. (The photograph was taken by his wife, Alice Springs.) Newton acknowledges his "fascination with high-heeled womens shoes." They appear, larger than life, by themselves in 1983 and 1998 photographs (one shoe has sharp spurs, suggesting the violent "edge" to its elegance), and worn by models in many other photographs.
In 1994 he had the shoes x-rayed; the result, as he said, "was most interesting": a barbed, abstract, snaky line on a thin skeletal foot. The female foot was stripped of its allure by the x-ray -- pared to the bone of death -- but the sinister character of woman was revealed: she was truly undressed -- reduced to her evil essence. It is an ingenious rendering of the snake within Eve.
The high-heeled shoe is a standard fetish, and the fetish is womans missing penis, as Freud tells us. When Newton shows a woman smoking a rather thick cigar, as he does in several 1997 photographs, he also gives her a penis. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud says, but it is not when a woman smokes it.)
Early in his career Newton suffered a near-fatal heart attack, which apparently changed his outlook on life, as such traumatic, life-threatening events will. He remained committed to fashion photography, but he was determined to do it his way -- to make it "personal," as he declared. Fashion photography became the vehicle of his feelings, rather than simply a way of displaying clothes -- which themselves became full of strange feeling.
Immediately after his heart attack Newton began photographing women wearing rather elaborate prosthetic devices, as though to confirm their artificiality. Secretly they were machines -- on the inside they are dead robots -- and the prosthetic devices seemed to show their workings, that is, the technology that made them tick.
But these photographs also suggest the reason Newton unconsciously -- and not so unconsciously -- identified with woman: he felt castrated by the heart attack. It in effect changed him into a woman, that is, in his imagination he felt he had lost his potency. The prosthetic device -- like the high-heeled shoe and the cigar (both are also implicitly prosthetic replacements and substitutes for a missing body part) -- restored him to ironical manhood: the prosthesis was, symbolically, the penis he had lost to the trauma of the heart attack.
That is, the prosthesis was an artistic or imaginative way of correcting the defect in his body image. I think that ever since his heart attack Newton regarded womans fashionable clothing as a kind of esthetic prosthesis. Photography -- art itself -- became a prosthetic device -- a way of correcting and compensation for the deficiencies of reality, especially of emotionally traumatizing reality.
But there is even more to Newton's prosthetic conception of art, and of woman's person and clothing, which embody art. Every bit of ornament that Newton associates with her, from cigars to high-heeled shoes to guns to jewelry to pet dogs to fancy clothes to luxurious furs, is in principle phallic.
Whatever she aggrandizes as her attribute -- and what doesn't she aggrandize? (Newton shows her with automobiles, a shovel, plumbing piping; even the environment submits to her, turning into a stage set that mirrors, in a distorted, allegorical way, her body's artificiality in the act of mythologizing its fashionable performance) -- is in principle a symbol of her phallic pride and power.
Newton identifies not simply with woman, but with the proverbial phallic woman -- the woman who, in the child's imagination, is ideal, indeed, perfection itself, because she is simultaneously male and female. She has the sexual attributes of both sexes, however much one exists in symbolic form and the other as physical reality. She possesses real breasts and a symbolic penis -- often a multitude of phallic emblems -- making her omnipotent. (Eve's mischievous snake was her penis, indicating that she is the primordial or archetypal phallic woman.) The phallic woman is the mother as she appears in the child's primitive vision.
She sometimes turns nightmarish: the phallic woman is often disguised -- as she invariably is for Newton -- as the femme fatale, that is, a woman who is seductive and desirable but indifferent and ungiving. (No doubt this is in part because you can't have her all to yourself -- certainly not sexually, except in spirit -- even though you may remain profoundly attached to her.) In Newton's fantasy the phallic woman has no inner life -- she is emotionally empty, unfeeling and unable to reciprocate one's own feelings, respond to ones own inner life -- which is what makes her a femme fatale.
The femme fatale is the simulation of the mother, that is, a woman who is a young mother in appearance but who lacks a mothers warmth and empathy. Virtually every one of Newton's women is incapable of empathy -- inwardly as cold as death. They often display voluptuously full breasts, but these lack the milk of human kindness, indeed, offer no nourishment at all: they're all spectacle masquerading as substance, or ripe substance that has become sterile spectacle.
Newton's woman is unable to care for anyone but herself. But then being unable to care for anyone is self-defeating, which is why she is invariably isolated, even when she seems to relate intensely to others. She is in fact incapable of establishing any intimate relationship -- only a perverse one.
Newton's women may embrace, but they wear masks or helmets, as in a 1999 photograph. A 1982 photograph of a woman adjusting the band on the high-heeled shoe of another woman makes the point succinctly: she relates to the shoe not the woman, who is all but invisible. Even her cigarette is more meaningful to her than the shoe. Her face is impassive: expression is not simply stifled, but altogether absent, for there was no feeling to begin with -- nothing to inhibit -- except, no doubt, a certain feeling for clothes, that is, for her own phallic superiority.
Many of Newton's photographs deliberately illustrate familiar perversions, in a calculated attempt to shock. There are a number of "Venus in Furs" images, to refer to Sacher-Masoch's notorious novel. (He gave masochism its name.) There are also a number of homoerotic images, and a few which involve transvestism. There is one transsexual, as though Newton finally wanted to get beyond sex as an issue of power, which is better at filling an emotional vacuum than sex.
But most important are the "Big Nudes" series of 1980, the "Walking Women" series of 1981 (in which the same models are shown both clothed and unclothed), and, perhaps most revealing of all, a number of crotch shots from 1994, particularly La Hollandaise and L'Allemande. There are other crotch shots, such as Fiona Lewis, 1977, Evi as a Cop, 1997 (in one photograph she wears men's pants, in the other she doesn't), and a number of 1998 photographs of Yvonne.
All these photographs are, implicitly, about woman's power over man. This is also true of the Venus in Furs photographs and many of the homoerotic ones, which often show one woman dressed as a man or playing the man's "aggressive" role, while the other is implicitly a "victim," that is, dominated. The balance of power is in fact always tilted towards the dominatrix.
The Big Nudes and Walking Women stare down at us in mild contempt and permanent indifference -- the walkway look carried to an extreme that would be comic if it were not tragic (animated corpses with masks for faces rather than clowns in absurd costumes) -- and in the crotch shots we stare up at the vagina, forced to render homage to it as though it was an abstract icon. We are not expected to perform cunnilingus, however much that may be implied, as in Dummy and Human III, 1977, but rather look, like an awestruck child, in admiring perplexity and cautious disbelief, wondering how something that symbolizes, to the child's mind, woman's vulnerability -- that looks like a wound -- can have such power. The universe was born from it, as Courbet's painting tells us. That is, it is the place, at once holy and unholy, obscene and the true scene of life, where we first saw the light of day.
Newton's photographs are about dominance and submission -- woman's dominance and the spectator's submission -- and the reason that woman is dominant is that she has this mystery in the middle of her being, this entrance to the underworld of confusing feeling. We don't dare touch Newton's women, however close we may get to their bodies -- however much they may flaunt their bodies, waving their crotches in our face like a red flag. What adds to their provocativeness is that they're not interested in physical pleasure, only power over the mind of the spectator. They are cryogenically hygienic -- preserved forever in cynical perfection.
Newton's photographs have a clinical look -- a look that goes back to his images of young women in prosthetic devices. These restraints are all that keep them from engulfing us, although they make them all the more intimidating. Newton means his photographs to be just as intimidating: his eye is as unempathic as his women, suggesting the deepest level of identification with them. (Except for his 1987 Berlin photographs, made on a nostalgic visit to the hometown he was forced to flee because he was Jewish. Many of them show a certain empathy for his models, suggested in part by their relaxed poses and especially by the shadowy, intimate atmosphere. Even when they picture the braided, unapproachable Aryan girl of his youth, they are profoundly private works.)
Newton wants photography to have the same power over the world as woman does. For him the camera is an ironic x-ray machine: it strips emotionally naked even as it creates an alluring illusion. It simultaneously constructs and deconstructs, as it were. It analyzes in the process of imagining -- dissects woman in the process of re-inventing her.
More particularly, Newton's camera disenchants in the act of enchanting. It makes woman more seductive than she appears to be in everyday life -- furthers the illusion that woman is forbidden territory, partly because she has less conscience than man (as Freud thought) and is thus capable of anything (including murder, as Newton shows; it is always a shock when a woman kills -- it seems so unmaternal) -- even as it documents the artifacts that compose the illusion, including that most malleable artifact of all, woman's body.
Francoise Marquet argues, in the catalogue essay, that Newton thematizes the "new kind of freedom" that woman acquired with "the sexual revolution," and "the fantasies which this freedom engenders." But I think Newton thematizes the power of woman. He dresses it in modern clothing, but it is archetypal. It looks like freedom from the outside, but, on the inside, as Newton makes clear, it compensates for the failure of empathy.
Newton gives the lie to woman, and to power in general, as his portraits indicate. They are the faces of power, which has corrupted their flesh into inconsequence, and dehumanized them into social mannequins. All they are left with, like Newton's women, are their delusions of grandeur. These Dorian Gray portraits, in which Newton subverts the charisma of the rich and famous he claims to be obsessed with, make his subliminal critical purpose explicit. He is, after all, despite himself, a German New Objectivist -- a debunker rather than glamorizer.
"Helmut Newton: Work" is on view at the International Center of Photography in New York, Sept. 28-Dec. 30, 2001.
A selection of Newton photographs is also on view in New York at Staley-Wise in SoHo through Oct. 27.
"Helmut Newton: Sex and Landscapes" opens at Mary Boone Gallery in midtown on Oct. 27, 2001.
Helmut Newton editioned photos are also on view at Eyestorm's Chelsea office, 526 West 26th Street, Suite 9E.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.