Bill Henson

Untitled 28/77 from the series 'Paris Opera Project', 1990-1991
type C photograph
125.2 x 125.2 cm – sight; 157 x 157 cm - frame
5 from an edition of 5 (original edition)


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Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
Acquired from the above by the present owner on 18 November 2003

Another from this edition is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

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 28/77 from the series 'Paris Opera Project'

Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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'Henson’s work is a celebration of the amoral. He makes no judgements, takes no positions, addresses no issues and yet reveals all manner of human instincts, intuitions and imaginings. His work and its inviting intrigue compel us to contemplate the imponderable and to wonder at the impenetrable. As such they are revelations of the imagination made seductively tangible but never fully complete or comprehensible.' (Edmund Capon on Bill Henson, 2004)

Bill Henson is one of Australia’s leading photographers. He has exhibited for over forty years in Australia and internationally, with his first major show coming at the age of just nineteen at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Whether working with figures, landscapes or architecture, Henson’s theatricality, masterful handling of light and willingness to experiment with printing processes yield rich, painterly surfaces that have left an indelible mark on the history of photography.

Writings on Henson abound with literary comparisons from Marcel Proust to W.G. Sebald, the common denominator being the belief that the body is an artistic medium. Whether candidly capturing the lives of ordinary people in Melbourne’s CBD as a photographic embodiment of Baudelaire’s flâneur or in his staged and highly theatrical tableaux vivant images exploring youth and sexuality, Henson is unrelenting in his quest to document the totality of human experience from the depths of boredom to the peaks of ecstasy.

In 1995, Henson represented Australia at the 46th Venice Biennale with his unique and highly celebrated ‘cut-screen’ photographic works. In 2005, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, staged a survey of Henson’s work that travelled to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2006 to unprecedented crowds. In 2006, too, he staged his second major international solo exhibition, Twilight, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In recent years, the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a show dedicated to his Cloud Landscapes, and in 2017 he showed at the National Gallery Victoria as part of their Festival of Photography. His work is the subject of two extensive monographs: Lux et Nox, 2002, and Mnemosyne, 2005, both published by Scalo, Switzerland.