Exhibitions: Florence Henri, An Unsung Bauhaus Artist and Photo Influencer

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 23, 2019

Florence Henri isn’t one of history’s famous photographers.

But in 1929, her Paris portrait studio became as well-known as that of Man Ray. “She taught classes, and her students included future luminaries such as Gisèle Freund and Lisette Model,” noted Time magazine in 2015, when a collection of Henri’s work was on view at Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Despite the attention that exhibition brought Henri, her work has continued to be overlooked. Indeed, it was only in the 1970s, a few years before Henri’s death in 1982, that collectors began reassessing her photography.

Though she trained as a painter, Henri turned to photography after studying at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. Her teacher, László Moholy-Nagy, praised her, noting, “With Florence Henri’s photos, photographic practice enters a new phase – the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today.”

And yet today Henri’s work “is almost unknown, her contributions to Modernism neglected, and her life written out of most history books,” noted the AnOther blog recently, on the occasion of another exhibition underscoring Henri’s artistic legacy. This one, “Florence Henri: Reflecting Bauhaus,” is on view at the Atlas Gallery in London through May 18.

Florence Henri, Portrait Composition, 1930

Florence Henri, Portrait Composition, 1937

“What I want above all," Henri said before her death, “is to compose the photograph as I do with painting. Volumes, lines, shadows and light have to obey my will and say what I want them to say. This happens under the strict control of composition, since I do not pretend to explain the world nor to explain my thoughts."

Henri’s complex Modernist photography grew from a jumble of influences and an early life that took her from America to the centers of European culture. Born in 1893 in New York, Henri left the U.S. at age two, following the death of her mother. As the International Center of Photography notes, she spent her childhood traveling between maternal relatives in Silesia (a part of Germany), a convent school in Paris, and family homes in London and the Isle of Wight.

While studying music in Italy, she became acquainted with figures in the Italian Futurist movement. Abandoning music, she moved to Berlin and took up painting. By 1925 she was in Paris, studying painting with André Lhote and Fernand Léger, “working in the visual idiom of late cubism,” notes the ICP.

Then in 1927 she enrolled at the Bauhaus and began studying photography with Moholy-Nagy, who encouraged her experimentation with the camera.

Florence Henri, Composition (Nature Rouorte), 1931

Florence Henri, Structure, 1937

“Henri’s manipulation of mirrors, prisms, and reflective objects to frame, isolate, double, and otherwise interact with her subjects — one of the most distinctive and adventurous features of her photographic work — often confounds viewers’ ability to distinguish between reality and reflection,” notes the ICP.

She also experimented with photomontage, multiple exposures, photograms, and negative printing in an effort to create images that, notes the ICP,  “undermine the camera’s capacity for realism.”

Florence Henri, Portrait Composition (Nu), 1930

Florence Henri, Portrait Composition (Femme aux Cartes), 1930

Henri’s work included still lifes, landscapes, and portraits of herself and fellow women artists. “Her subjects are often surrounded and fragmented by frames, doubled by mirrors and shadows, and reflected in highly polished steel surfaces,” notes AnOther, adding, “Henri would represent them as women familiar with the tumultuous demands of the modern industrialized city, even if they are constrained by its structures.”

She also contributed nudes to a number of magazines and art books. “Images such as these would often be supplemented with props – seashells, flowers, and playing cards – to evoke an image of surreal, dicey, knowing eroticism,” notes AnOther

Florence Henri, Self Portrait, 1938

After 1941, with the Nazi occupation of Paris, photography became all but impossible and Henri’s work with the medium effectively ceased, notes AnOther. Once again, she took up painting.

“Henri’s treatment by art historians epitomizes the experience of many women artists, particularly those associated with the masculine Modernist movements of the early 20th century,” notes the blog.
At top: Florence Henri, Self Portrait, 1938


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