Bill Henson

May 25, 2017
Bill Henson, Untitled
Bill Henson, Untitled

Walter Pater famously opined that all art aspires to the condition of music, but Bill Henson is an artist who views the boundaries between art, music and literature as completely porous. In his case one might go further and blur the lines between painting, sculpture and photography. No photographer is more skilled at creating images reminiscent of the shadowy canvases of Caravaggio, more adept at making flesh look like marble and marble like flesh. Henson carves forms in space with almost surgical precision.

If this sounds like hyperbole I can only urge a visit to Bill Henson at the National Gallery of Victoria, which is the centrepiece of a Festival of Photography that includes a brilliant display of portraits by the oddball American master, William Eccleston; a monumental collection of visual ephemera assembled by Patrick Pound; a survey of recent contemporary photographic acquisitions; and shows by younger artists, Zöe Croggan and Ross Coulter.

Although it’s become a sad old refrain, I can’t help but point out that our beloved Art Gallery of NSW hasn’t even managed to participate in the Head On Photo Festival, which has become one of Sydney’s great events, attracting participants and viewers from all over the world. The stats for this year read: 843 artists, 147 exhibitions, 92 locations. If I haven’t managed a review of the 2017 Head On, which winds up this weekend, it’s only because I’ve been overseas for most of the month.

The Henson show consists of 21 photographs donated by Bill Bowness – an exceptional gift that the gallery has acknowledged by publishing a high quality catalogue, and finding an unorthdox location for the work in the midst of the Old Master collections. Henson has been given creative control, and has painted the walls an indefinable shade of brown-purple-black. The pictures are spot-lit and arranged at regular intervals, alternating figure studies, landscapes, images of classical statuary and museum interiors.

Entering the transformed gallery from a room of French 19th century art, the impact is stunning. One minute we are looking at the large, stilted drawings of Puvis de Chavannes – an artist who was idolised by Australian painters in Paris; next we are in a space that feels like the inner sanctum of a temple, two parts melancholy to one part ecstasy.

The transition is not as drastic as it first seems because Puvis’s work is steeped in a sense of the sacred, and Henson connects with the same current. One can see the affinities between his work and that of the Symbolists and Decadents of the late 19th century who rejected the perceptual emphasis of Impressionism as stultifying to the imagination. They argued that the purpose of art was not merely to record the surfaces of everyday life, but to seek a underlying reality, visible only to the inner eye. This led to a preoccupation with arcane rituals, the occult, the exotic East, medievalism, and the power of dreams.

Henson is strongly attracted to that period. He loves the eclecticism and high drama of Mahler’s music, he reads writers such as Vernon Lee (AKA. Violet Paget) whose prolific output included gothic tales, Renaissance history, musicology, aesthetic studies and travel stories.

It would be wrong, however, to identify Henson with any one period or style, as his tastes in art and literature range from the ancient Greeks to the contemporary era. What he seems to like most are things that are complex, idiosyncratic and impure. He prefers artists who step outside the known paths and seek ineffable truths.

Ineffability is the keynote of Henson’s work. Even the most detailed description would not prepare viewers for the experience of standing in front of these images in a darkened room. We are accustomed to the idea of a photograph recording a fleeting moment, a slice of life extracted from a more-or-less familiar continuum, but Henson’s Untitled images strive to transcend time and location.

Bill Henson, Untitled

Bill Henson, Untitled

The landscapes are deceptively straightforward at first glance. They might be shot from the front, with a simple, symmetrical emphasis. Henson doesn’t tell us where a picture was taken, but many will recognise a temple in Sicilly, the island of Stomboli or the Faraglioni Rocks in Capri, which play a starring role in Visconti’s neo-realist film, La terra trema (1948). Yet the complexity of taking the picture from exactly the right position with the right quality of light, (perhaps from a boat or helicopter), is immense.

Bill Henson, Untitled

Bill Henson, Untitled

It’s one of the miracles of art that the most difficult and complicated processes result in works of pristine simplicity. With the figure studies Henson has posed his teenage models in inky darkness, where the play of light on flesh creates a strange, swarming texture, allowing us to believe we can see every pore and capillary on a leg, an arm or a torso. Drops of sweat, bruises and scars are plainly visible, but the overall effect is hypnotic. The models don’t look at us – they are absorbed with each other, or held in some unfathomable reverie.

In one of the most striking, a girl bends forward, her back arched, arms and legs reaching towards the floor but cut off by the bottom edge of the picture. Her long hair catches a glimmer of light that lends it a reddish gleam. There is something architectonic in this image, with the arms and legs supporting the body like pillars holding up a central chamber. There’s also a purely animal aspect, reminiscent of William Blake’s picture of Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness.

Bill Henson, Untitled

Bill Henson, Untitled

It’s probably the same girl who appears in another photo, resting her head on the wrist of a long, thin arm that snakes out of darkness in the top left-hand corner of the picture. The serpentine rhythms of the composition are breathtaking. There’s an immediate, primal charge; a mystery and sensuality; and a sense of mythical, archetypal associations that can be felt but not readily identified.

Henson makes the associations a little easier with a photo of a boy examining his foot, and an image of the classical marble statue known as the Spinario in the British Museum. This is our doorway into a mind that forges connections between the classical past, now consigned to the darkness of history and represented by only a few precious fragment in museums, and the living flesh of beings still in the process of discovering their own bodies, their own personalities and destinies. It’s a celebration of fragile, malleable, idealistic youth for whom the darkness lies not the past, but the future.

Bill Henson
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Until 27 August

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May, 2017