Eva Besnyö, 1910-2003: l’image sensible, until 23 September at the Jeu de Paume, Paris.
Helmut Newton, 24 March-17 June at the Grand Palais, Paris.
When walking into Paris’s first retrospective exhibition of the photographs of Eva Besnyö at the Jeu de Paume, I was met with three mysterious images, visually linked by their askew perspectives. One is a self-portrait of Besnyö, who was born in Budapest in 1910 and broke free of Hungary’s provincial constraints to become a Berlin-based photographer at the young age of 20. The image of the woman in the portrait looks, in a word, contemporary. Unconventionally beautiful, Besnyö looks intensely into her medium format camera, hair tousled as her neck cranes above the view finder to which she is acutely focused, projecting an image of herself as an intense, slightly bohemian artist at work. Besnyö orchestrated this image of 1931 so that the viewer looks up to her from down below, and thus elevated before us is a powerful figure who directs our gaze and controls her own image long before similar strategies were conceived by feminist artists of the 1960s. It is from this point that the viewer commences into an exhibition of 120 prints by a photographer who has been given too little attention.
Albert Ranger-Patsch influenced Besnyö as a young photographer, and this is evident in her early still lifes and portraits, characterized by the extreme angles of their compositions and the attention to tonality and texture that lend dramatic effect to detailed close-ups. Thus her subjects — whether they are objects, people, or buildings — have a supremely poetic realism. Even early in the exhibition, one is struck by Besnyö’s range, the sublimity of her eye to find at once a unique composition that reaches to the essence of every object, building, street, couple, and child that she captures. And then with the rise of Nazi Germany, we see in her work the rapid evolution of a socially minded street photographer whose images of laborers and farmers reveal her socialist leanings.
Perhaps it was Besnyö’s artistic, intellectual, and political sensibilities that gave her the foresight to recognize the nationalist fervor in Germany early. Also deeply sensitized as a Hungarian Jew, she fled to Amsterdam in 1932. There, she was able to continue her commercial work, mainly as a photographer of architectural projects. Familiar with Besnyö’s keen attention to the formalist effects of light and shadow, the avant-garde architects known as The Eight, purveyors of the Dutch New Building movement, were friends and clients. Using a Linhof 9x12cm, her public and private commissions go beyond documentation to an exquisite recording of the mood of the space.
Even Besnyö’s commercial work is a testament to her powerful vision and her personal activism. Installed across from the photos of great Dutch modernist buildings are those of Rotterdam following the 1940 devastation of the city by German aerial bombing. In this way the viewer senses more profoundly the great cultural loss in the leveling of Europe and the tragic halt to the progress of early twentieth century modernism. Besnyö continued to follow her political consciousness for the remainder of the 1930s in Amsterdam. Despite her Jewish identity, she took part in and helped organize an exhibition called The Olympics Under Dictatorship that was critical of the Olympic Games in Berlin. But it was also her Jewish identity that led her into hiding after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. She joined the underground, and eventually had legitimized a fake family tree. After the war, Besnyö continued a deep connection to social activism, and her legacy could be recognized under the tradition of great humanist photographers.
Nearby at the Grand Palais is another first retrospective of a very different photographer, Helmut Newton. The similarities between Newton and Besnyö are so surprising, one can’t help but consider them. Both Newton and Besnyö were Jewish. Both fled Germany in the 1930s following the Nazi rise to power (Besnyö was 22, Newton was just 18). They died within a year of each other (2004 and 2003 respectively) and their vast bodies of work are beginning to receive retrospective attention.
But this is where the similarities end. Helmut Neustädter fled to Singapore, then on to Australia in 1940 where he lived until 1957. He became Helmut Newton only after the war to provide an easier pseudonym for a working photographer living in Australia. One of the most important fashion photographers of the twentieth century, it is Newton who perhaps best summarized his career in a quote leading into the exhibition: “Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that’s fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire.”
However, Newton’s critical astuteness toward the act of looking perhaps belies his comment. His initial color images of women springing about in awkward poses for Paris Elle in the late 1960s were without question a fresh approach. His original compositions also reveal a unique perspective of gender, evident in the ways by which Newton references women’s relationship to the media apparatus of the time. A photo of a model, echoed on two television monitors that are seen from behind the head of a man intentionally places the viewer alongside that gaze, and we consciously join in the act of his looking. In works where Newton places his self-portrait alongside the model in the image, he emphasized the preeminent role of the photographer as creator, perhaps making apparent his knowledge of preoccupations aligned with the practices of canonical painting while revealing the artificiality of the commercial images of women.
Hired gun or not, Newton solidified his prominence as a top fashion photographer in the late 1960s, a period of an increased scrutiny of the media, particularly among artists and critics. Newton would continually address his own subjectivity as a male photographer, and was not unconsciously aware of the necessity of voyeurism to maintain the world of chic high fashion to which the woman’s body is so indelibly adhered. He evoked from these beautiful models a daunting hardness that complicated our voyeurism and instead fascinated us, and this set his work apart from the soft feminine image of advertising before. The active poses he commanded from his early models mocked their roles as passive objects. Similarly, the assertiveness of the models in his photographs of the 1980s defies their role as a glorified clothes hanger.
This would all seem to promote Newton as a feminist. But complicating this assessment are the erotic photographs Newton began in the 1970s. Beautiful, long-legged women engaged in pseudo-lesbian affairs appear placated to a male fantasy. Likewise, moments of sexual liaison where only the woman is partially unclothed communicate a power imbalance between the participants — the male is active while the female serves both physical and visual pleasure. Who these images are for remains ambiguous, and whether these women are empowered sexually or not is equally uncertain.
This work elicited a more personal series of sado-masochistic images of an array of women, not necessarily models, but eminent belle du jours of women spanking one another or gyrating on the floor for a Playboy filmmaker. Nude images of women in bodily contraptions that fetishize while indicating the ephemerality of the body gradually lead into the final room where the exhibition ends with to-scale images of the anatomical machines of the eighteenth-century Prince of Sansevero, who murdered two of his servants in order to embalm and fully display their revealed skeletal and arterial structures on pedestals under glass. Alongside these are additional photographs that reference the carnage of flesh, such as a barking, ferocious Doberman next to a beautiful long leg or a bejeweled hand splaying a roast chicken. Newton’s disquieting allusions to human temporality are no less stylized than his high fashion imagery, further eliciting the viewer’s investigation of his or her own desires and impulses.
Newton’s and Besnyö’s circumstances during World War II and their resulting work could not be more different. While Newton was brought under British internment in Singapore and sent to Australia where he then joined the Australian Army, Besnyö was in the midst of the war in Europe working illegally under Nazi occupation to help people secure false identities. Newton would go the way of fashion photography and fame, and Besnyö was a socially committed photographer who would work tirelessly for the women’s movement in the Netherlands and, by mainstream standards, fell into obscurity. I’m left pondering these two different legacies, why one is more widely known than the other. Such a consideration depends much on gender, the images that compel us, and the ways in which our experiences of photography are constructed for us, even under the long shadow of World War II.