Bill Henson

Untitled 1990-91 from Paris Opera Project series (Image 29/77), 1990-1991
Type C photograph
127.0 x 127.0 cm


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Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Acquired from the above by the present owner in June 2009

Isobel Crombie and Michael Heyward, Bill Henson, 46th Venice Biennale, Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency Ltd., Melbourne, 1995, illus. p.9

A/P1 from an edition of 10 + 2AP

This image (others from the edition) are in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and National Gallery of Melbourne, Victoria

In 1990, Bill Henson was commissioned by the Paris Opera House to produce a series of photographs inspired by the culture and atmosphere of the Opera. Henson’s response was to photograph the audience. Visiting the three great Parisian Opera Houses several times over the year, he made a series of photographic sketches. In his Melbourne studio, he restaged and directed these images to capture and accentuate the sublime attentiveness with which we watch a stage performance. Henson’s treatment of the subject is so finely evocative, Australian art historian and curator Gael Newton was moved to write ‘his figures are passive but, in losing themselves, seem to live more intensely.’ 

Alluding to the chiaroscuro lighting of sixteenth century European masters, these subjects sit in darkness, their features heightened by the dramatic glow of stage lighting. Bordering on the painterly and the cinematic, Henson combines surface and depth to reflect a liminal space between the mystical and the real. The French painters, with whom he so often blends his palate and velvety-rich tones, are easily accessible in this world of the Paris Opera.  

‘The evocative portrait series Paris Opera Project brings a strangely discontinuous space to the viewer. Part of a much larger series, the portraits play out the drama of opera as if in five acts. Moving from a moody landscape in half-light to a young girl who lifts her hand to grasp the darkness, the inky blackness of the theatre leads us through the other portraits of opera viewers deep in concentration. The final image, like the first, is a fuzzy landscape, where a barely discernible hill of trees is mirrored by trailing clouds, the space between reflecting the shimmering night sky. Like video artist Bill Viola, Henson chooses not to show the action of the stage but rather the audience in full devotional contemplation. Often likened to painting, Henson's artistic process is not unlike the painter's struggle: 'just as you can scrape back areas of painting and go over them, you do follow something along over maybe several weeks and change things until it slips past its best point and you lose it. And then there's a long, often a very long, period when the work is turning into something else - you can't wind it back to whatever it was.' (Sebastian Smee in conversation with Bill Henson (1994) in Bill Henson, Mnemosyne, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney/Scalo, Zurich 2005, p 440)

  • Untitled 1990-91 from Paris Opera Project series (Image 29/77)

Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

View artist profile

Bill Henson is one of Australia's leading photographers. He has been working since the mid 1970s, with his first exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne in 1975 at the age of just nineteen.

His technique in staging and lighting tableaux in the studio, experimental printing processes that yield rich, painterly surfaces and his imagery of skies, landscapes and figures have left an indelible mark on the history of the medium.

A survey of Henson's work was mounted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney in 2005, travelling in 2006 to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The exhibition in both states drew unprecedented attendance figures for a showing of contemporary art in Australia. In 1995 Henson represented Australia at the 46th Venice Biennale with his unique and highly celebrated cut screen photographic works. In 2006 came the artist's second major international solo exhibition 'Twilight', installed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

Most recently in 2013-2014, a focus exhibition dedicated to Henson's cloud landscapes was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Henson has been included in seminal group exhibitions including both the 1986 and 2000 Biennale of Sydney, and 'Fieldwork: Australian Art 1968 -2002', at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne in 2002.

Henson is represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne and Robert Miller Gallery, New York, US where he is shown alongside Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. His work is the subject of two extensive monographs 'Lux et Nox', 2002 and 'Mnemosyne', 2005; both published by Scalo, Switzerland.