15
Mar
15

Exhibition: ‘Florence Henri. Mirror of the avant-garde 1927-1940’ at Jeu de Paume, Paris

Exhibition dates: 24th February – 17th May 2015

Curator: Cristina Zelich

 

 

Objects in and of space, the two the same

Florence Henri is rapidly becoming one of my favourite photographers, an artist who emerged during one of the golden periods of photography, the avant-garde of the 1920s-30s. While we have seen some of these photographs before in a previous posting, there are some new and delightful images to enjoy here.

If you believe the text by Priscilla Frank, “Meet Florence Henri, The Under-Acknowledged Queen Of Surrealist Photography,” on the Huffington Post website, you could be forgiven for thinking that her photography is based on Surrealist themes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is nothing about Henri’s photographs to suggest that they are based on the creative potential of the unconscious mind exemplified by the irrational juxtaposition of images. Henri’s photographs are quite logical and ordered, being an investigation into space, time and object using the “extension of the formal and structural aesthetics of Cubism, Purism and Constructivism.”

Her geometric abstractions “exploited the dialogue between realism and abstraction… and she explored spatial extension and fragmentation in her utter modern vocabulary. Her still life and abstract compositions achieved by balancing abstraction with a pure and essential subject were created in the spirit of the machine age. She viewed space as if it were elastic, distorting figure and ground and altering planes through the use of mirrors and lenses.”

Through attention and attentiveness to subject, Henri achieved her results by using created space to investigate the fragmentation and distortion of the world. Her art is not about the production of phenomena (the spectacle), but about the creation of volumes that are in an of space itself. As Donald Judd’s observes of his created volumes in 1981: “… familiar objects, objects as we habitually perceive them, assume physical neutrality because they and their environment are deactivated: “They are points in space, and space is an empty surround. Instead, what is needed is a created space, space made by someone, space that is formed as a solid, the two the same, with the space and the solid defining each other.” Objects in and of space, the two the same: this was the crux. Judd did more than set new solids into existing voids. He formed solids and their correlative spaces as an integrated operation, as if he were establishing an architecture from the ground up, creating the entire environment, intensifying it, saturating it with its own sensation.”1

In a photographic sense, Henri can be seen as a precursor to Judd’s volumes, creating her own worlds from the ground up, creating the entire environment where the space and the object are one and the same thing… only to then record and flatten that space into the essential nature of the photograph, its physicality. Her sensory affects “remain fixed in the concatenation of materials, structure and placement that generates it. They are the lived equivalent of those conditions, experienced as continuous in time – hence, timeless – remaining wholly the same until interrupted.”2 How appropriate for Henri’s photographs for they do indeed have a timeless “air”, a transcendence of the time and place they were taken, a transcendence of the space which her volumes inhabit. Objects in and of space, the two the same.

As Judd observes, “Time and space don’t exist [as idealized absractions]; they are made by events and positions. Time and space can be made and don’t have to be found like stars in the sky or rocks on a hillside.” Time and space are grounded in being human: they exist when someone experiences them.”3 Here is the nub of the matter, for it matters that we experience Henri’s photographs each in its definite time and space. Henri’s being is immersed in these volumes and they hold our interest because the created environments are saturated with her own sensations.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

1. Donald Judd quoted in Richard Shiff. “Sensous Thoughts,” in Marianne Stockebrand (ed.,). Donald Judd. The Multicolored Works. Yale University Press, 2014, p. 106
2. Ibid.,
3. Ibid., p. 107.

.
Many thankx to the Jeu de Paume for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“With photography, what I really want to do is compose the image, as I do in painting. The volumes, lines, shadows and light should submit to my will and say what I would like them to say. All of this under the strict control of the composition, because I do not claim to be able to explain the world or to explain my own thoughts.”

.
Florence Henri in an interview with Attilio Colombo, “Specchio, essenzialità, geometría,” in Florence Henri (Milan: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1983)

 

“Henri soon recognised the medium’s capacity as a pictorial language and outlet for creative expression. Upon returning to France [from the Bauhaus], Henri began to develop a large body of photographic work based upon her Bauhaus experience and an extension of the formal and structural aesthetics of Cubism, Purism and Constructivism. These non-objective principles forged an alternative to the then-dominant French art movement Surrealism. Henri transcended the avant-garde of one art form to that of another…

Henri’s greatest experimentation with geometric abstraction occurred during the period between 1929-1930… In the photographic work, Florence Henri exploited the dialogue between realism and abstraction, but always maintained a recognisable subject. She was concerned with transparency and movement, and she explored spatial extension and fragmentation in her utter modern vocabulary.

Her still life and abstract compositions achieved by balancing abstraction with a pure and essential subject were created in the spirit of the machine age. She viewed space as if it were elastic, distorting figure and ground and altering planes through the use of mirrors and lenses.”

.
Lynne Warren. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 3-Volume set. Routledge, 2005, p. 691

 

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition' 1928

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition
1928
Gelatin silver print, vintage
27.2 x 37.5 cm
Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti Photo
© Bauhaus Archiv

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition' 1928

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition
1928
Gelatin silver print, vintage
27 x 37.1 cm
Museum Folkwang, Essen
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition abstraite [Still-life composition]' 1929

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition abstraite [Still-life composition]
1929
Collage, gelatin silver print cut and pasted on paper
12 x 14 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Portrait Composition, Tulia Kaiser' c. 1930

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Portrait Composition, Tulia Kaiser
c. 1930
Gelatin silver print, vintage
23 x 29.2 cm
Achat grâce au mécénat de Yves Rocher, 2011
Ancienne collection Christian Bouqueret Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti Photo
© Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci, Dist. Rmn-Grand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian

 

 

Summary of exhibition

Florence Henri. Mirror of the avantgarde illustrates the desire of the Jeu de Paume to highlight the important role played by women photographers from the 1920s to the 1950s, and follows on from previous exhibitions devoted to Claude Cahun, Kati Horna, Eva Besnyö, Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Laure Albin Guillot and indeed,Lee Miller.

The exhibition brings together, for the first time in France, over 130 vintage prints by Florence Henri, as well as rare documents and publications, revealing the artist’s photographic production. Influenced by Constructivism, Cubism and Surrealism, Florence Henri’s work is part of the exciting creative tenor of the period, during which, photography, like cinema or architecture, embodied a spirit of innovation and progress, as well as a certain unconventionality in terms of the dominant visual order.

Familiar with Bauhaus, Florence Henri was one of the figures of the European artistic intelligentsia of the time. Her friendship with Fernand Léger, the Delaunays, Hans Arp, László Moholy-Nagy and Theo van Doesburg would have a profound influence on her work. In 1929, Florence Henri opened a photography studio in Paris. It soon rivalled that of Man Ray’s. Her classes were very well-attended and her talents as a portrait photographer were quickly recognized.

It is not so much the image alone as the constant research that brings Florence Henri’s work to life. Lines and geometric compositions are recurring elements in her photographs. Over the years, she made her compositions increasingly complex through the use of mirrors, industrial and natural objects, or through collage and superposition. The exhibition attempts to both decipher and highlight the work of Florence Henri in terms of reflections, perspective, the depth of field and photomontage – key technical experimentations in the history of modern photography.

 

Florence Henri. 'Mannequin de tailleur [Tailor's mannequin]' 1930-1931

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Mannequin de tailleur [Tailor’s mannequin]
1930-1931
Gelatin silver print, vintage
17.1 x 22.8 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
©Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition Nature morte [Still-life composition]' 1931

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition Nature morte [Still-life composition]
1931
Gelatin silver print dated 1977
23 x 30 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Pont [Bridge]' 1930-1935

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Pont [Bridge]
1930-1935
Gelatin silver print dated 1977
23.5 x 23.8 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition, The Glory that was Greece' c. 1933

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition, The Glory that was Greece
c. 1933
Photomontage, gelatin silver print dated 1975
23.5 x 29.5 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

 

“All that I know, and how I know this, is primarily made up of abstract elements: spheres, planes, and grids whose parallel lines provide numerous opportunities, without taking into account the mirrors I use, to present the same object from several different angles within a single photograph, in order to yield, in the same way, different visions that complement and complete each other, and which when taken as a whole, are better able to explain it. Essentially, all of this is much more difficult to explain than to do.”

.
Florence Henri in an interview with Attilio Colombo, “Specchio, essenzialità, geometría,” in Florence Henri (Milan: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1983)

 

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne (France) 1982) was a multi-faceted artist, who was first known for her paintings before making a name for herself as a major figure in avant-garde photography between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1940s. She lived in Silesia, Munich, Vienna, Rome and above all Berlin, before finally settling in Paris in 1924 and devoting herself to photography. This medium enabled her to experiment new relationships with space, in particular by the use of mirrors and other objects in her compositions.

The Jeu de Paume is presenting a vast panorama of Florence Henri’s photographic production from 1927 to 1940, including her self-portraits, abstract compositions, portraits of artists, nudes, photomontages, photocollages, as well as documentary photos taken in Rome, Paris and Brittany. The exhibition comprises vintage prints, various documents and published material.

When she was young, Florence Henri studied music and painting in England and Germany. In 1919, when she was a student at the Berlin Academy of Arts, she made the acquaintance of writer and art historian Carl Einstein and became friends with several figures of the avant-garde, including Hans Arp, Adrian Ludwig Richter, John Heartfield and Lázló Moholy-Nagy. She took classes with Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In 1924 she moved to Paris, where she followed classes at the Académie Montparnasse, whose director was André Lhote, then at the Académie moderne (founded by Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant). In 1927, after a visit to Bauhaus in Dessau, she abandoned painting in favour of photography. It was at this time that she produced her famous self-portraits in mirrors and her still lifes; the result of her first steps in the spatial research that she would carry out through the medium of photography.

Between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, three mythical exhibitions in terms of the history of European photography took place in Germany: “Fotografie der Gegenwart” at the Folkwang Museum in Essen (1929); “Film ind Foto” (Fifo) organised the same year by the Deutscher Werkbund in Stuttgart and “Das Lichtbild” held in Munich (1931). These exhibitions bore witness to the rapid expansion of new photographic concepts and a rupture with tradition. Fifo marked the zenith of the Neues Sehen (New Vision) movement of which László Moholy-Nagy was an exponent and “Das Lichtbild” marked the triumph of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), whose leading representative was Albert Renger-Patzsch.

Florence Henri was invited to show an important number of prints at these three exhibitions in recognition of her photographic production during this fundamental period that saw the photography used to free our vision and open out onto new experiences.

Florence Henri’s studio rivalled that of Man Ray, even if she had also opened a school of photography where Lisette Model and Gisèle Freund, amongst others, would enrol. In fact, despite the central position that her oeuvre occupied in avant-garde photography at the end of the 1920s, her reputation as a portraitist in Paris, and the fact that her photos had been published in many of the period’s illustrated magazines such as Arts et Métiers and Lilliput etc, Florence Henri’s body of work remains largely unknown.

László Moholy-Nagy’s* comments are a perfect illustration of Florence Henri’s position: “With Florence Henri’s photos, photographic practice enters a new phase, the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today. Above and beyond the precise and exact documentary composition of these highly defined photos, research into the effects of light is tackled not only through abstract photograms, but also in photos of real-life subjects. The entire problem of manual painting is taken onboard by the photographic process and is manifestly given a whole new depth thanks to this new optical instrument. Reflections and spatial relationships, superposition and intersections are just some of the areas explored from a totally new perspective and viewpoint.”

*László Moholy-Nagy, “Zu den Fotografien von Florence Henri”, i10, No 17-18, Amsterdam, December 20, 1928.

Press release from the Jeu de Paume website

 

Florence Henri. 'Double portrait' 1927-1928

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Double portrait
1927-1928
Gelatin silver print dated 1977
24 x 18 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Autoportrait [Self-portrait]' 1928

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Autoportrait [Self-portrait]
1928
Gelatin silver print, vintage
39.3 x 25.5 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

 

Her most well-known work is a self-portrait, in which Henri sits before a mirror, dolled up almost as if in drag. Two silver balls lay reflected up against the mirror, equivocal symbols of both testicles and breasts. Henri, influential in both her artistic style and personal styles, toyed with gender binaries, using her personal appearance to emphasize the performative nature of gender. The artist was married to a Swiss house servant, but went on to have other relationships with both men and women, including a longtime affair with artist and model Margarete Schall.

Henri established herself as a formidable photographer, and remained consistent in her work up until World War II. Then her work declined considerably, both due to lack of materials and the prohibitions imposed under the Nazi occupation. Henri briefly returned to painting, but her central period of output remained in the 1920s and 1930s. Her compositions, simultaneously warm, playful, clever and inquisitive, set the stage for future explorations into the limits of photography, or lack thereof.

Priscilla Frank. “Meet Florence Henri, The Under-Acknowledged Queen Of Surrealist Photography,” on the Huffington Post website, 20th February 2015.

 

Florence Henri. 'Femme aux cartes [Woman with cards]' 1930

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Femme aux cartes [Woman with cards]
1930
Gelatin silver print, vintage
39 x 28.5 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Portrait Composition, Cora' 1931

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Portrait Composition, Cora
1931
Gelatin silver print, vintage 13.6 x 11.4 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Fernand Léger' 1934

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Fernand Léger
1934
Gelatin silver print, vintage
30.4 x 24 cm
Private collection, courtesy Archives Florence Henri, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

 

Earliest compositions

Her earliest compositions introduce an element that would be fundamental for her artistic investigations, namely the mirror. Using a very limited number of elements, Henri created extremely complex images characterised by the fragmentation of space and the use of multiple viewpoints. They include one of her best-known works, the self-portrait looking in the mirror with two metal spheres, which may be said to embody the spirit of freedom typical of that period, conveying the image of a modern and emancipated female artist, one who failed to conform to the societal status traditionally assigned to women.

Multiple exposure

Florence Henri uses methods such as multiple exposures when shooting, or a combination of several negatives, some inverted, to obtain abstract images, in which she manages to bestow static objects with a sense of dynamism. Florence Henri’s output during this early phase can be described as a perfect synthesis between abstract geometrical painting and the innovations of New Vision photography.

 

“Florence Henri’s work lured me to come to Paris in 1929. I wanted to live in a place where images were made that coincided with my own concepts.”

Ilse Bing, quoted in Gisèle Freund’s preface to Ilse Bing 1929/1955 : Femmes de l’enfance à la vieillesse

 

Advertising photography

In the field of professional photography, Florence Henri stands out for her very personal approach to advertising photography. Indeed, her images are the natural extension of her photographic experimentation and investigations using objects and mirrors.

Collages

She quickly substitutes industrial objects with natural elements in her compositions. In addition, she introduces a new tool in her work: collage. She makes them with fragments of prints, and then reproduces them to create the final print. She also introduces a new technique into her work –  collage – thereby underlining her interest in autonomous images that move away from a simple reproduction of reality, all the while emphasizing the conceptual work of the artist.

Shadows

Her quest for experimentation leads Florence Henri to work on the shadows passing vertically through the frame, creating a dark gap that interrupts and fragments the continuity of the image.

Nu composition

Their aesthetic characteristics clearly place the works grouped under the title Nu composition as part of the formal research Florence Henri carried out from the early 1930s, where the mastery of the composition obviously remains the central concern of her work.

Here, the camera is positioned at a slight distance in order to capture the sensuality of the female form, while natural objects – hyacinths and shells – or other more enigmatic elements, such as a comb or cards, also appear in the frame.

Rome

In late 1931 and early 1932, Florence Henri visits Rome where she takes a series of photographs, notably at the Roman Forum, but also at Saint Peter’s Square, which she uses, upon her return to Paris, as material for numerous collages, developing the technique she had already used in certain of her still lifes.

Portrait composition

The series Portrait Composition, is characterized by the tight framing of the central figurer – though some are models, most are her friends, including Grete Willers, Sonia Delaunay, Woty Werner, Kurt Wilhelm-Kästner, Fernand Léger, and Tulia Kaiser. The artist often makes use of harsh lighting, which marks the traits or make-up of her subjects with a diagonal composition or even distorts the image.

Brittany

The photographs taken in Brittany, which at first glance could be seen as purely documentary, reveal a very carefully considered attention to structure. In some of the more general shots, Florence Henri inserts a blurred, graphic element between the lens and the landscape, thereby going against the idea of photography as merely capturing reality, and once again, reinforcing the notion of composition.

Store windows

When Florence Henri strolls through Paris with her camera, her images reveal a very different preoccupation to that of other photographers. Faithful to her attention to structure, in the reflections of store windows she finds the same spirit that brings life to her studio compositions using mirrors. In 1936, Florence Henri moves to the Rue Saint-Romain in Montparnasse, where she makes use of the terrace to work in natural light, and to pursue her study of the fragmentation of the image through the use of shadows and reflections. She also returns to her self-portrait work.

 

Florence Henri. 'Fenêtre [Window]' 1929

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Fenêtre [Window]
1929
Gelatin silver print, vintage
37.3 x 27.5 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Jeanne Lanvin' 1929

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Jeanne Lanvin
1929
Gelatin silver print, vintage
36.7 x 28.7 cm
Collection particulière, courtesy Archives Florence Henri, Gênes
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition Nature morte [Still-life composition]' 1931

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition Nature morte [Still-life composition]
1931
Gelatin silver print, vintage
45.9 x 37.7 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Composition Nature morte [Still-life composition]' c. 1933

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Composition Nature morte [Still-life composition]
c. 1933
Photomontage, épreuve gélatino-argentique d’époque
29.4 x 24 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Robert Delaunay' c. 1935

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Robert Delaunay
c. 1935
Gelatin silver print, vintage
49.5 x 39.7 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 - Compiègne 1982) 'Bretagne [Brittany]' 1937-1940

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Bretagne [Brittany]
1937-1940
Gelatin silver print, vintage
28.2 x 24.2 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Structure (intérieur du Palais de l'Air, Paris, Exposition Universelle) [Structure (Interior of the Palais de l'Air, Paris, World's Fair)]' 1937

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Structure (intérieur du Palais de l’Air, Paris, Exposition Universelle) [Structure (Interior of the Palais de l’Air, Paris, World’s Fair)]
1937
Gelatin silver print dated 1976
17.5 x 17.5 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

Florence Henri. 'Autoportrait [Self-portrait]' 1938

 

Florence Henri (New York 1893 – Compiègne 1982)
Autoportrait [Self-portrait]
1938
Gelatin silver print dated 1970’s
24.8 x 23.1 cm
Private collection, courtesy Florence Henri Archive, Genoa
© Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

 

 

Jeu de Paume
1, Place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
métro Concorde
T: 01 47 03 12 50

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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