Earlier this month I visited “Newton, Riviera” at Villa Sauber (part of the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco) in Monaco.
I have been loving photography since I was seven-year-old, when I started using a disposable Kodak during school trips, and this passion has grown with me over the years; “Newton, Riviera” was one of the best exhibitions about photography I have ever attended.
The German-born photographer already had ties with the French Riviera and the area around Bordighera, Italy, when he first arrived in Monaco in 1981. He was also a regular at the annual Cannes Film Festival and would spend his summers in Ramatuelle with his wife June.
Moving to Monaco at the age of 61, he was established as one of the greatest fashion photographers of his generation; the period from 1981 until his death in 2004 is one of the most interesting and productive of his career.
Monaco was the ideal setting for Newton’s fashion photographs. The city’s construction sites have often served as backdrop for fashion campaigns and this also gave Newton the chance to take numerous portraits of iconic people like David Bowie, Paloma Picasso and Michael Cimino; some of them were Monaco residents while others were just visiting the city.
He also worked on a series of photographs with stars of the Ballets de Monte-Carlo and the princely family, especially Princess Caroline, a close friend of his.
In Monaco, Newton was fascinated by the elegant way of life and immersed himself in a world of appearances and glamour in which he was both an actor and a privileged witness.
Helmut Newton was a lover of swimming and swimming pools (which I adore too, as I have previously written in this article. Like painter David Hockney, he was fascinated by the shimmering blue water of the pools that conveyed fantasies of well-being and luxury. He shot a large number of images involving swimming pools, which soon became one of the key elements in his photographic universe. He sometimes switched from photographing the swimming pools of villas or hotels in the French Riviera to capturing the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea, even though the latter didn’t have the same appeal and often served as a simple background in his photos. Newton was rather the photographer of artificial things, as he once declared: “The most beautiful lawn is plastic.”
The 1960s and 1970s are now considered “the golden age of fashion photography.”, thanks to the advent of ready-to-wear clothing. This gave photographers a huge amount of work and some of them began to lead a lavish lifestyle, like the character of Thomas in Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie Blow Up, that came out in 1966.
In the same years, Newton bought an apartment in Paris and a mansion in Ramatuelle, where he used to stay with his wife every summer, from June to August. He took a lot of photographs of his wife June and their friends while staying there.
When he later settled in Monaco, he quickly turned the city into an entire setting for his images: terraces, hotels, construction sites and garages were the perfect background for an amazing series of photographs he took in 1986, especially for Versace. He often imposed his point of view on clients, because Monaco freed him from constraints and gave him “carte blanche” to fully develop his vision. However, he also maintained the style he was known for and a taste for staging that didn’t include spontaneity. His years in Monaco are definitely the most creative and prolific of his career.
The Ballets de Monte-Carlo are considered the heirs of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which revolutionized dance at the beginning of the 20th century.
Newton was invited by H.R.H. Princess Caroline of Hanover to photograph the company’s dancers; this collaboration began in 1985 and continued over the years. Newton portrayed the company’s soloists in images typical of his style that were used to illustrate the ballet programs, focusing on the dancers’ plasticity rather than their movements.
Newton’s fashion photographs have been so successful that they have largely eclipsed the rest of his work. Nonetheless, his most personal images are sometimes the most interesting. They reveal a deep-rooted photographic culture and they are reminiscent of classical painting; they often represent a re-appropriation of Surrealism, and its themes like the mirror, the eye, the mannequin and the night (the latter being considered an artistic practice by many Surrealists like Bataille and Brassai).
I had a great time attending this retrospective, which also includes a documentary about Newton, a commercial film shot for Lampo Lanfranchi in Milan (whose cold nuances reminded me of David Lynch’s work) and the reconstruction of Helmut Newton’s French Riviera studio.
The beauty of his work is mesmerizing and I felt so inspired by these images that evoke a past both decadent and glamourous. My friend Anna recently visited Berlin and she highly recommended me to see the Helmut Newton Foundation (Museum of Photography) in Newton’s native city; I suggest you visit too if you live in Berlin or are planning to travel there anytime soon.
NEWTON, RIVIERA is held at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (NMNM) at Villa Sauber, 17 Av. Princesse Grace, Monaco, until November 13, 2022.
Thank you to the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco for giving me combined tickets to see their wonderful exhibitions and for providing insight on Newton’s work with the captions that went along with his works. Unfortunately I could not include in this article some of Newton’s images because of nudity and unsuitable content for minors.
All pictures from the exhibition are my own.
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