Bill Henson

Paris Opera Project, 1990-1991
Type C colour photograph, image #43/161, Number 2 from an edition of 5 A
121.5 x 121.5 cm


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A gift from the artist through Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Private collection, Melbourne

This actual work was exhibited in:
'Bill Henson: Three Decades of Photography', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 8 January-3 April 2005; National Gallery of Victoria, 23 April-10 July 2005

'Bill Henson: Mnemosyne', Scalo, Berlin, Zurich, New York, 2005, illustrated p. 376
'Bill Henson', National Gallery of Victoria catalogue, 2005, illus front cover

In 1990 Bill Henson was invited by the Paris Opera to produce a body of work as part of their ongoing program of collaborations with visual artists. The project took Henson to Paris several times over the year, where he visited the three great Parisian Opera Houses to photograph the audiences attending performances.

A series of photographic sketches made in Paris were bought back to Henson’s Melbourne studio, where he restaged and directed this greatly collected and loved series of tableaux, to give them less of a documentary sense, but allowing the images to be ‘an event in their own right’.

Henson’s treatment of the subject – his figures gathered shoulder to shoulder in the dark, waiting for a special event – is so finely evocative, Gael Newton was moved to write ‘his figures are passive but, in losing themselves, seem to live more intensely.’

Undeniably the spirit of this subject elicits something quite resonant in Henson’s practice. His lighting responds closely to the chiaroscuro of the sixteenth century European masters, with a highlight on a nose or a collar appearing as though directly from a Rembrandt portrait. The French painters, with whom Henson so often blends his palate and inky rich tones, are easily accessible in this world of the Paris Opera.

This edition of this work was that which hung in the exhibition 'Bill Henson, 3 Decades of Photography', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne in 2005 and was described by the Art Gallery of New South Wales on the occasion of Henson’s major 2005 Retrospective as ‘the series which seemed to literalise the effect of listening to music, to find formal expression for emotions generated by music.’

  • Paris Opera Project

Image courtesy of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and the artist

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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.