The infamously risqué Pirelli calendar reaches 50: Has it moved with the times?

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Or does it even need to? Golden anniversary edition of 'the Cal' has just launched, with great pomp, in Milan

Before the unveiling of the 2014 Pirelli calendar in Milan on Thursday, there was intense speculation about the direction that “the Cal” would take for its 50th-anniversary issue. Would the greats such as Naomi and Helena return, or would they go with a newcomer such as Cara? And just how nude would the women be this time around?

Click here or on 'view gallery' for more pictures from the Pirelli 50th anniversary calendar

The Pirelli calendar, which began in 1964 as a way of marketing the Italian tyre company, has gone on to pair the biggest models of the day with the finest photographers in the world. It is familiar to some for its gratuitous use of the female form; to others, it represents high art.

Hiring award-winning photojournalist Steve McCurry for the 2013 edition, who insisted that the models (including Karlie Kloss and Adriana Lima) kept their clothes on, was a shrewd move for the company. With particularly racy contributions from Mario Sorrenti and Terry Richardson in earlier years, the company was facing almost annual accusations that its product was no more than soft porn.

In the end, it was announced that the 2014 edition would be an unreleased black-and-white calendar by the late Helmut Newton, originally intended for the 1986 issue but which was never published due to an error in commissioning. Featuring three clothed models cavorting around Monte Carlo and Tuscany, according to the press release, it channels Newton’s “love of vitality and vibrant eroticism”.

 Among recipients of the calendar - of which there are 20,000 - are corporate clients, CEOs, and, perhaps more surprisingly, members of the British royal family and our Prime Minister. The gift cannot be purchased in shops, although, depending on the year and condition, can be found for up to a few thousand pounds on eBay.

But at a time which has fierce discussions about the lack of women in positions of power, and their continued objectification (see how the “No More Page 3” campaign has gained serious traction), does an old-fashioned pin-up, however glamorous and well-executed, seem a bit out of touch? Pirelli must be aware of such accusations: prior to the unveiling, there was an on-stage discussion between leading art experts and professors about how the calendar is an important cultural document.

However, all those involved in the calendar insist that it marks a prestigious moment in their careers. Far from feeling exploited, models appear overjoyed to take part. In a film shown at the presentation, Kate Moss, who has appeared numerous times in the calendar, describes her first time participating in 1994 as “the best job ever”. “I think Pirelli is always of the moment – it’s such good quality and something you haven’t seen before,” she added. Sienna Miller, who featured in 2003, insists: “It feels great to be a part of something that is so famous and has been around for so long.”

Past photographers are equally proud of their involvement. “It’s like joining a club,” says Annie Leibovitz, who took the reins in 2000. “A very exclusive club.” Clive Arrowsmith, who shot the calendar in 1991 and 1992, told The Independent. “It’s a very unusual thing. It’s like a knighthood of photography really.”

While walking with Arrowsmith around a retrospective exhibition in HangarBicocca, Pirelli’s contemporary art venue in Milan, he highlights the diversity of images on show. “What I tried to do with mine was to bring some creativity mixed with eroticism,” he says. “There is the same mix in the Renaissance paintings. These pictures have a presence about them. It’s not all just tits.”

Throughout the morning, there was much talk about how the calendar has always reflected a changing society. Pirelli’s chairman, Marco Tronchetti Provera, concluded the press conference by toasting “to the next 50 years”. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

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