Bill Henson @ Tolarno Galleries
I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition of recent photographs by Bill Henson at Tolarno Galleries. It features a cross-section of the artist’s favourite subjects, including nudes, landscapes, and photographs of the crowds. The latter consists of two images undoubtedly taken by the artist at the State Hermitage in St Petersburg, in front of two remarkable Rembrandts from their collection – The Return of the Prodigal Son and Danae. These two works reference some of the earliest photographs of the crowds taken by Bill Henson back in the 1970s. They witness an unmistakeable influence of Italian cinematographers, especially Federico Fellini, for there is always someone who unsettlingly stares directly into the camera.
It is tempting to think that in the aftermath of that most ridiculous debacle of 2008, Bill Henson is now taking more care to contextualise his works and educate the viewing public about his images. By including photographs of people in a gallery in front of classical Old Master nudes, he creates a semantic context within which his own nudes ought to be viewed, examined, and considered – as iconographic descendants and inheritors of a rich and diverse artistic tradition of the female nude, one of the most pivotal elements of Western European art. Furthermore, these photographs parallel our own experience of viewing Bill Henson’s contribution to – and interpretation of – the genre.
Rembrandt references also point towards main influences on Henson’s photography – Old Masters paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Henson’s nudes are overlayed with bluish and purplish tinges, which make contemporary models barely distinguishable from their seventeenth-century ancestresses. The skin tones are desaturated; the marbling of the veins and capillaries is emphasised; the positioning of bodies is structured and sculpturally formalised.
The exhibition deserves to be seen in the flesh, so to speak, as no amount of digital online imagery or printed reproductions can relate the physical sensation and quality of these works. It is only in their presence that one can truly appreciate the depths of the enveloping darkness, into which Henson’s figures dissolve; marvel at the artist’s ability to pick out flashes of the model’s bright auburn hair; and fully experience the emotional weight of his compositions.
[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]