The body

Henson’s representation of the human body – a significant and enduring theme in his work – has evolved over time.

Recent photographs taken at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia imply the influence of Classical painting and sculpture on his practice, yet Henson explores the dissolution of the body to the extent that the direction of glances and gestures become almost abstract.

Over the last 15 years or so the interaction between figures in his work has become more subtle. Bodies begin to dissolve into sleep and dream, or into the movement of other bodies – drifting in feeling. Tonalities remain very dark and our imaginings come to the fore as they do when we walk down a lonely street or through an empty park on a dark and moonless night.

The representation of space in his work has also developed over time. In the so-called 'Mahler’ series and the Paris Opera Project there is a sense of space enclosed, while in his pictures of the late 1990s and 2000s the spaces are more ambiguous, honouring Henson’s deep and ongoing interest in the workings of the imagination and how this may be represented.

Issues for consideration

  • The almost abstract direction of glances and gestures in Henson’s recent works are reminiscent of his various crowd series from the late 1970s or early 80s. Research these series. Locate and study an early work such as Untitled Sequence 1979 in the Gallery’s collection, and compare it with Untitled 2007/08 in the exhibition. Identify similarities and differences in the ways Henson depicts the body. How do the glances and relationships between the subjects in the earlier work create a sense of dynamic action? Create your own series of photographs in which you explore relationships between your subjects.
  • 'In some respects not even being able to see the whole structure is partly what the work is about – the way in which things go missing in the shadows. Shadows can animate the speculative capacity in the viewer in a way that highlights can’t… It’s often, to my way of thinking, what you don’t see in the photograph that has the greatest potential to transmit information.’* Discuss the meaning of this statement by Bill Henson. Choose a photograph from the exhibition to analyse from this perspective.
  • Consider the role of strong tonal contrast and blackness in suggesting pictorial space. Study Henson’s Untitled 2009/10 and describe how your eye responds to the inky blackness surrounding the figure. Explain what you can see as opposed to what you know is there.

*Interview with Sebastian Smee in Judy Annear Mnemosyne: Bill Henson, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney & Scalo, Zurich, 2005, p439