In a digital era, it’s hard to imagine the word “nude” was once one that held esteem and dignity. Gritty bathroom selfies and dick pics are produced and shared in abundance and as such, the female nude has shifted from the realm of high art — the reserve of institutions and the bourgeoisie — to the everyday — a trashy little secret resigned to the contents of a WhatsApp message. Nudes have become pawns for trade in a sexual barter system, rather than subjects of aesthetic or conceptual expression. The kind of mystique embodied by Picasso’s Demoiselles and ancient goddess the Venus of Willendorf was shattered by the onset of photography, as depictions shifted further from representation and closer to reality, and visions of intimacy became more explicit than ever before. What was once viewed predominantly through the male gaze has now been reclaimed by women. The accessibility of photography in the digital age has given each of us greater opportunity to control our image and as a result, the position of the female nude has shifted from fertility goddess, to artistic subject, to sexualised self.
But even as depictions of the female body have perforated our everyday lives, the intrigue surrounding the nude as an art form is still raging. Artful nudes are hard to come by and we’ve become so desensitised to the naked form that it takes an distinguished perspective to command our attention. And perhaps no gaze is as distinct, eerily captivating, alien even as cult director David Lynch, whose photographic nudes first graced the world in a photobook published last year. Now on display at Berlin’s Helmut Newton Foundation, Lynch’s nudes, captured in Lodz and Los Angeles, are emblematic of the auteur’s distinct signature. The images (mostly in black and white though a few are in colour) are meditations on intimacy or the illusions thereof. Although created independently of his cinematic work, Lynch’s nudes are shrouded in the same aura of mystery that gives his films their uncanny allure. Though it must be said that Lynch’s nudes epitomise the male gaze, much like the pressing questions of his filmic oeuvre ( “Who killed Laura Palmer?”) propel audiences into the depths of his imaginary worlds, each disorienting photographs begs for further inspection. Cigarette smoke often clouds the subjects, enveloping them to create visual enigmas that make for thrilling viewing. Bizarre angles and extreme close ups abstract the female body, transforming familiar shapes into foreign concepts. No different than the shocking Blue Velvet ear, stark lighting serves to sever body parts — reducing them to shape and form. The images’ beguiling eroticism stands as a testament to Lynch’s ability to translate his esoteric visions into a variety of mediums. And they’re worth experiencing in the flesh.
The show, titled Saul Leiter. David Lynch. Helmut Newton: Nudes marks the first time in the history of the institution that an exhibition will be dedicated exclusively to the genre of nude photography. While we needn’t be shy in admitting Lynch is the star of the show, the work of Leiter and Newton should not be missed. Leiter, known for colourful fashion images for Harper’s Bazaar, kept this collection of nudes private during his lifetime. The images of his friends and lovers represent a more personal and elusive side of Leiter’s work. Newton began photographing nudes in the 1970s, when incorporating them into his own fashion photography. The exhibit features 40 not yet exhibited Newton images as well as numerous original polaroids that invoke the timeless elegance that has become the staple of his legacy. All three photographers work separately to accomplish the same task that may inspire the female nude’s return to grace; transforming the pedestrian into the reverential.
Saul Leiter. David Lynch. Helmut Newton: Nudes opens 1st December.
All images copyright David Lynch, courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin.