April 2017

Arts & Letters

Art walks a tightrope

By Sebastian Smee
Bill Henson exhibits recent photographic work at the National Gallery of Victoria

I remember the day that I first fell in love with Bill Henson’s work almost 30 years ago. Of course, I have no diary entry to prove it. Such experiences are like the shadows cast by passing clouds – they can’t be substantiated or verified. But I know I stood in a small, darkened room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, surrounded on four sides by blurred black-and-white photographs of pedestrians in crowded city streets. I say “crowded” and “city” and “streets”, but the location and nature of these ghostly human congregations were unclear, as was everything else about them. The people, all of different ages, were shown in various aspects of isolation and tender attachment. They were enveloped in shifting accretions of darkness, their hands and faces picked out by pooling, smoky light.

I was suddenly in a new reality, which was also (and this was the breathtaking thing) my own, but made deeper, more enduring. It was as if the skin-tight pocket of time I occupied had suddenly become immensely elastic, and I was intimately connected not just to these anonymous, faraway faces but to something much, much older. I honestly ascribe the beginning of my love of art to this moment, above all others.

Much, of course, has happened since. In 1995, Henson represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, where he exhibited a series of large spliced-up photo-collages showing naked youths in a penumbral landscape littered with abandoned cars. Ten years later, a critically acclaimed retrospective of his work opened in Sydney before travelling to his hometown of Melbourne. It attracted record numbers for an exhibition of contemporary art.

Three years after that, in 2008, a scandal erupted over the image used on an invitation for Henson’s upcoming show at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. It was a photograph of a pubescent girl with budding breasts, simply standing there, her torso and face carved out of darkness.

The whole country knows what happened next. A newspaper columnist went feral. Police removed Henson’s photographs from the gallery’s walls, and the opening was cancelled. A typhoon of overreaction ensued (on both sides). The offending image was published widely, but with vile black redaction marks covering the model’s face and chest. Politicians frothed and fulminated like the bad actors they are.

Many other, more reasonable, people had honest, and complex, responses. Some were alarmed by the image, made anxious by what little they could glean of Henson’s approach to youth, and baffled by yet more evidence of the peculiar tunnel vision of powerful artists – their strange sense of private immunity to the moral riptides sweeping over society at any given time.

Others in the art world and beyond were shocked that art’s special dispensation – its right to cherish ambivalence, speak ancient truths, and to enter the heart in privacy – could be so egregiously violated in a modern, free society.

For many, these apparently contradictory positions proved strangely compatible.

In retrospect, the so-called Henson affair seems eminently foreseeable – though no less lurid and incommensurate for being so. The surprise, perhaps, was only that it hadn’t happened before. Nine years later, an acrid odour still lingers in the air, and, although the hysteria has subsided, Henson’s name will always, you feel, be associated in some people’s minds with creepy weird shit.

That seems a great pity. It makes the decision by the National Gallery of Victoria to mount a show of Henson’s recent work appear simultaneously courageous and squarely in line with the fulfilment of its core mission. The exhibition (until 27 August) is hauntingly beautiful. It comprises 23 large-scale, deeply shadowed colour photographs with bright white borders and black frames hung against the darkened walls of a single spacious gallery in the NGV’s St Kilda Road building. Works by Balthus, Bacon, Degas, Rembrandt, Rubens and Ribera are just around the corner. Henson was given his first show at the NGV when he was just 19, and the gallery owns more than 100 of his works. Twenty-one of the images in the exhibition were acquired as a suite by the collector William Bowness and given to the NGV. All were made between 2008 and 2013.

For those who may have seen isolated reproductions of Henson’s work but are unfamiliar with his exhibitions, this one reveals, again, what a gift he has not only for creating singular, indelible images but also for combining and arranging them in suggestive, soul-stirring ways. One is struck by the scale of the works, and by the care with which Henson manipulates colour and tone in the printing process, and afterwards. Cumulatively – by force of strange juxtaposition – as much as individually, the photographs break through the carapace of the contemporary, image-saturated mind to admit older, more beautiful and death-haunted recognitions.

Some show ancient sculptures (and in one case portions of a late painting by Rembrandt) in dim museum interiors, where onlookers surround these venerated objects. Blurred and arbitrarily cropped, the living people are captured just as they are. But the camera’s alchemy also transmutes them into insubstantial spectres, here one moment, gone the next. The effect is to make the obdurate, centuries-old art objects feel, by contrast, more tremblingly full and alive.

Or is it that they seem more anciently other and dead? The confusion opens up a new susceptibility in the heart.

Other photographs here show solitary nature: A volcanic island asserting its presence against veils of sea and mist. Cascading water arrested – and silenced – in the midst of its roaring vertical plunge. An odd-shaped promontory silhouetted against sea and keening sky. A bosky Italian landscape poised between sensuous invitation and indifference. In the latter, Henson choreographs alternating passages of light and dark as the eye moves up the picture plane and the landscape itself recedes. The effect is to reinforce this poetic dynamic of access and obstruction – a dynamic that is in many ways at the very core of his whole sensibility.

Others still show young naked figures, male and female, in states of silent self-absorption – sometimes in what appear to be excruciating agonies of pleasure, often expressionless, always unknowable. Set against pitchy darkness, their bodies float and twist or recline. A young woman’s head is propped up by jackknifed elbows. A hand comes to her mouth in a gesture of feeling and thought in transition. (The same gesture, with similar implications, obsessed Degas for a period in the 1860s.) A boy emerging from the left side of another, remarkable, image is suspended in space, foreshortened, one arm dangling.

Seen at close quarters, the knees, hands, necks and thighs of these youths (two of whom appear together several times in poses of great tenderness) have an almost wretched pallor, one that paradoxically evokes great age. One thinks of oxidised metal, weather-damaged marble, or the extraordinary amalgam of coloured oil paint Rembrandt used to describe veins, arteries and ageing skin in his late paintings. One powerful image shows a girl gracefully squatting (the pose suggests a goddess of the hunt on the prowl), with one richly mottled hand pressed to the floor beside her foot.

Perhaps the most beautiful photograph shows the same girl, made slender and insubstantial by encroaching shadow, resting her head on the boy’s wrist, which is hinged at the end of a still slenderer forearm, which mysteriously enters the picture from the right. (Nothing else of him is shown.) Thus unified, the two bodies, each under the spell of what Katherine Mansfield called our “profound and terrible” desire to make contact, traverse the horizontal picture plane like some giant pictogram from a forgotten language.

Indeed, like a calligrapher brushing white ink on black paper, Henson finds ever new ways to set pale skin and flesh against deep rectangles of black. Some poses echo ancient sculptures – most notably the so-called ‘Spinario’, a much-copied bronze of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot. Some – the reclining head turning away into darkness – are familiar from countless earlier works by Henson himself.

It would be ideal, at this point, to sign off, as does the Swiss writer Robert Walser in his charming short piece ‘A Discussion of a Picture’, by saying, “And with the assumption that things are approximately as I have described them, I shall step away from this picture that I believe I have presented to you with a modicum of grace.”

But such grace eludes me, and so I interrupt our current programming to mutter the smallest of misgivings. The spell of Henson’s work is broken for me – shattered, if I’m to be honest – when I become too conscious of his studio lighting. This happens only in three works here: the boy in the pose of the Spinario, the boy seated and embraced from behind, and the younger blond boy turning his forehead into warm, golden light.

It’s tremendously hard to speak of how and why a spell is cast, or broken. Can it really be as simple as a shift in the lighting, or a change in surface tension, such that the skimming stone no longer ricochets off the surface but plummets to the deep?

I’m really not sure. When you know what you think of art and how (more or less) to put it in words, it’s often because something in the work itself is lacking. The connections between image and feeling or meaning are too obvious. The mind is left with nothing to do but check boxes.

When the reverse occurs, it can be either because you are struggling to make sense of something new or because old, anticipated, intensities of feeling elude you. Which can, confusingly, produce its own kind of intense feeling: “And we,” wrote Rilke, in the last of his Duino Elegies, “who have always thought of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls.” And this feeling, too, is in no way foreign to Henson’s visual poetics: one astute writer has detected a quality of self-mourning in the faces of Henson’s models, as they emerge from childhood into adulthood, with all its attendant pains.

I have always been aware of the artifice in Henson’s work and in most cases succumb instinctively to his invented worlds. As he himself is always saying, art is artifice. And yet when he manipulates his lights to gild shoulders and thighs from behind, setting strands of hair ablaze or picking out patches of perspiration, it sets my teeth on edge. It may simply be that this warmer, golden light clashes (in poetic terms) with the cooler, almost moribund blue and white light in his other works, or that it betokens an aesthetic rhetoric, as of gods descending, or perhaps just high-end fashion photography. In any case, it feels dissonant, and instantly banishes me from Henson’s floating world, jamming the signals, as it were, in my heart.

Never mind. All truly affecting art walks a tightrope, and it’s never clear what will make either artist or viewer lose balance. Plenty of artists conjure with images from the history of art, but none has been so ambitious in their attempt to marry the immediate, over-brimming present with the haunted past. And the fact remains that no other living Australian artist has produced as many images so full of tenderness, silence and longing.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.


Bill Henson, Australian born 1955, Untitled 2008/09, inkjet print, 127 x 180 cm. © Bill Henson

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