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RETRO AVANT-GARDE: FLORENCE HENRI AT THE JEU DE PAUME

 

 

By Alan Behr

PARIS, 29 APRIL 2015 — Literalism is the blessing and the curse of photography.  A photograph is commonly accepted as an authentic reproduction of reality, the honesty of the photographer standing unquestioned. Photojournalists are therefore routinely trusted more than the writers whose stories their images illustrate. Photography has always strained to perform to that level of trust, but photography would never have been recognized as an art form if it had—because even though good art may often be about verisimilitude, it is never about literalism.

All photographs are abstractions. Cameras see nothing; it is the photographer who has the vision that turns what can typically be seen by anyone into an original work on paper—three dimensions compressed into two, the passage of time fragmented into a single instant. Black and white has long been the favored palette of fine art photography, in large part because it extends the interpretive qualities of the medium. Ansel Adams, the master of the American landscape and the photographer perhaps most often cited as depicting nature in its raw, transcendent but authentic beauty, never let a monochrome print leave his enlarger without adjusting any tonal relations that nature had imposed in disservice to his vision. 


Florence Henri: Jeanne Lanvin, 1929
Silver gelatine print, 36,7 x 28,7 cm.
Private collection, courtesy Archive Florence Henri, Gênes
 © Florence Henri / Galleria Martini & Ronchetti

Beginning in the 1960s, Jerry Uelsmann, very much a product of his times, gained wide recognition for "Surreal" monochrome images: a tree floats over water and mountains; cupped hands cradle rippling water; a nude woman flies over a lake like a disrobed superheroine. Uelsmann’s technique, representing the apotheosis of the age of analog photography, was to print from multiple film negatives; it is a demanding and unforgiving process the technical results of which can now be vastly improved upon by anyone reasonably competent with Photoshop.

So what, in light of all that, is a poor Surrealist to do?  Between the world wars, when Surrealism and other avant-garde movements flourished in painting, Florence Henri set aside her paint box and took up the camera. The results of her efforts are now on display at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. As is always the case at the Jeu de Paume, the exhibition is impeccably curated, the narrow, boxy and largely windowless galleries somehow made to breath in and exhale the inspiration behind the works displayed.  The Florence Henri show is arranged primarily by subject, which is the current choice because both her technique and results varied considerably by what she photographed.


Florence Henri: Femme aux cartes
Silver gelatin print

 © Florence Henri

Born in 1893 in the United States into a wealthy French father and German mother, Henri spent much of her youth in Europe. At the age of nineteen, she moved to Berlin, where she sat out the First World War as a piano player in silent cinemas when her inheritance, then administered in London (inside enemy territory), became inaccessible. In 1924, she moved to Paris. At the Bauhaus, she came under the tutelage of László Moholy-Nagy. She took the photography course he taught with Josef Albers and then moved in with him and his wife, Lucia, who helped convince Henri to switch to photography.

In interpreting the Modernist aesthetic through photography, Florence Henri produced a body of work composed of objects shown in hard, geometric relation to each other. Her approach was not about making trees and people fly.  Instead, mirrors would be placed into scenes, reflecting back slices of people, buildings and household objects. Flowers would grow sideways and her own portrait would appear inside one frame on a stone exterior floor, another, empty frame partially superimposed over it.  Perhaps her most important image is a self-portrait showing her reflected in a mirror, arms crossed and contemplative; two silver balls lie before the mirror and are themselves reflected in it—symbolic of testicles or breasts, as commentators may prefer.


Florence Henri
Silver gelatin print
© Florence Henri

Although typically called Surrealistic, these images press into photography the visual grammar of assorted Modernist movements, including Cubism, Constructivism, Neues Sehen (New Vision) and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).  Along the way, Henri participated in important exhibitions and met key figures in Modernist art, notably as Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian and Jean Arp. Her work became known and respected in fine-art circles of the interwar period but not far beyond and not for long.  During the Second World War, she went back to painting, this time for good, her work as a photographer largely behind her—and her work as a painter now of little critical or popular interest. (The career of Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the greatest photographer of that era or any other, would later follow a similar arc.)

The current exhibition shows Henri’s "Surreal" creations with respect and scholarship, but as you move through the galleries and see what else Henri did with her camera, you see again why, with photography, it is nearly always best to let the naturally abstract qualities of the medium do their own good work.  An earlier retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, devoted to the images of the Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész, revealed the same problem.

Kertész is known for his distorted nudes—created by the use of funhouse mirrors—but that exhibition showed again how much better he was when he put the gimmick aside and let the human body and everything else he photographed (such as, beautifully, a wilting tulip in a clear vase), tell their own true stories.

And so it is with Florence Henri. The exhibition includes portraits.  She made them very well, in the classic sense that the portraits, even seemingly simple head shots, reveal the character of the sitters as seen through the eyes, and therefore through the character, of the photographer. In one, Léger is shown, head slightly bent, in a pose of reflection tinged with despair that makes him look like a clean-shaven Günter Grass.

Henri was an accomplished photographer of the female nude. Most of her nudes are naturalistic and, in a restrained but commanding way, scented by Eros. You cannot be sure from each self-assured face lording over mighty breasts if the model wants you, the viewer, to desire her or if the photographer wants to take her turn with the sitter first.*


Florence Henri: Nu Composition, 1936
Silver gelatin print
Courtesy Musée du Jeu de Paume
© Photo Éric Simon

In the end, it is those more direct, less affected images—the ones that abjured or at least modulated a loyalty to the avant-garde—that are the most satisfying. As for the rest: any clumsily written handbook on how to use Photoshop will show you how to move things around in odd ways, and if you do that often enough and interestingly enough, you may come up with something as good or even better. New technology plucks mystery from old media even as it gives them new possibilities.

There is no question that the revitalization of the reputation of Florence Henri was long overdue, even though the most avant-garde examples of her work are now period pieces. Florence Henri was very good at what she did, but what she did best was not necessarily what she was best known for having done.

Florence Henri: Miroir des Avant-Gardes, 1927-1940, at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, through May 17, 2015.

* It was only in research undertaken after seeing the exhibition that I was able to confirm that Florence Henri was bisexual. The literalism of photography goes both ways—compromising the privacy of both the subject and the photographer. Although Florence Henri said that, "… my aim is not to explain the world or to explain my thoughts," an artist wishing to hide his or her sexuality would be best advised to choose another medium. 

Headline image: Portrait Florence Henri

Jeu de Paume
1 Place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
Tel: 33 (0) 1 47 03 12 50
www.jeudepaume.org

Alan Behr, an art and publishing lawyer, is a member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art and the American Society of Media Photographers. He last wrote on the Jeff Koons Retrospective in New York for Culturekiosque.

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