The Pirelli Calendar 2017 strips 15 beautiful women bare

This year’s eagerly anticipated calendar by Peter Lindbergh is all about exposing the women it features, but not in the way you’d expect.

Back in 1964, the Pirelli Calendar was just a bit of eye-candy, kindly provided by the Italian tyre maker to be hung on the walls of car mechanic garages far and wide. Forty-four editions later, and the trade calendar has become a kind of cultural barometer through which societal perceptions of beauty are reflected, examined and contested.

This year’s calendar, presented on Tuesday in Paris, is perhaps the farthest away from the original format as you could possibly get, with not a naked bottom or heaving bosom in sight. The world famous photographer Peter Lindbergh made the 2017 calendar about what he calls a “different type of sexy” to “high heels and bikinis”. 2016’s calendar, shot by Annie Leibovitz, represented the first leap away from the carefully curated, impossibly glamorous images of half-naked models for Pirelli, and the 2017 edition is in a similar vein.

Sorry gentlemen, but this year’s nakedness is purely figurative. The 14 internationally renowned actresses – hand-picked by Lindbergh, who believes them to be “the most talented women in the world” – are presented in minimal makeup and fully clothed. Instead of focusing on perfect bodies, Lindbergh conveys his idea of natural beauty and femininity by “stripping down to the very soul of the sitters, who thus become more nude than naked.”

Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Charlotte Rampling, Lea Seydoux, Uma Thurman, Alicia Vikander, Kate Winslet, Robin Wright and Zhang Ziyi, as well as a professor of Political Theory from Moscow University who Lindbergh met at a dinner, are presented across forty black and white photographs that are the very antithesis from the digitally enhanced, commercial images we see everywhere today.

This calendar is still at it’s core, a celebration of beauty, but about what Lindbergh sees as a “different beauty, more real and truthful – not manipulated by commercial interests”. Bemoaning the “blank faces” of the the “retouched, photoshopped woman you see everywhere today”, Lindbergh chose to present these actresses, some of whom are notably older than Pirelli’s previous women and all of whom in his eyes “stand up for something”, in a completely natural, unpolished and un-airbrushed format, and the results are pretty spectacular.

2017’s images are more sensual than overtly sexy – the calendar as a whole feels like the artistic equivalent of waking up next to a beautiful woman. You know that moment, when a woman is wearing no makeup and is at her most natural and vulnerable? The subjects have been captured in exactly that kind of a guise. The images are strikingly honest and stunningly personal; Lindbergh was all about getting the actresses to be themselves. Penélope Cruz spoke of how different these portraits are from any other photos you’ll see of the 14 actresses because their inherent intimacy: “it’s just us, we don’t have this other character protecting or covering us.”

From Cruz, who has photographed in New York after a knackering night of child care, to the image of Kate Winslet’s hands, which celebrates the grace in getting old, the kind of beauty celebrated here is a far cry from your typical glossy shoot. Nor are they anything like what Helen Mirren calls “red carpet faces” – the actresses all stare down the lens with unflinching eye contact. The images are sensuous because they feel so real, from the carnal close up of one actress’s lips to the wide shot of the House of Cards actress Robin Wright, it’s the sort of sexiness that we come across with the women we interact with in everyday life that’s celebrated here.

By rejecting impossible beauty standards, Pirelli has shown once again why, despite the fact that you can’t even buy the iconic calendar, it remains relevant today. Speaking at the press conference today, Helen Mirren argued that the 2017 calendar reflects a “cultural shift” towards widening conceptions of female beauty and spoke of her hope that young women could find solace from societal pressures in this year’s calendar. In the same way we’ve been trying to redefine masculinity in the modern day by asking “how to be a man”, this calendar is about restrictive notions of femininity and of female beauty. Lindbergh’s rejection of popular representations of beauty emancipates the women it features from rigid cultural expectations in a move Uma Thurman calls an act of “human empowerment”.

Speaking at the launch, Nicole Kidman reasoned that “being yourself is the epitome of confidence and power” and that’s precisely what this year’s photographs are all about. In our age and appearance obsessed society, Lindbergh’s cry against “the terror of perfection and youth” is one of resonance. It might not be the kind of Pirelli calendar we’re used to, but this is a format we can certainly get on board with.

This piece was originally published on GQ.co.uk

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