Introduction

The exhibition Bill Henson: cloud landscapes brings together 14 works from the Art Gallery of NSW collection that traverse Henson’s oeuvre in order to give insight into the shifts and continuities throughout his expansive career.

Showing recent works taken at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, alongside a small selection from the Paris Opera Project 1990/91 and the ‘Mahler’ series 1976-, the exhibition highlights Henson’s sustained interest in depicting landscapes as well as figures, while drawing out the importance of music.

Henson has become known for his brooding alchemical blacks, which he combines with reliefs of colour and bright light. The consistency in the work is his musing on the infinite capacity of imagination and indeed the likelihood that depicting what-we-cannot-see (namely, the dark) induces imaginative states or reveries.

Emphatically self-sufficient, Henson takes and prints everything himself, a habit he has maintained from the early days right through to his recent transition to digital printing. Although all his work is still shot on film, Henson has mastered a digital printing technique that produces images indistinguishable from the earlier dark-room hand prints.

Issues for consideration

  • Henson’s photographs are considered masterful examples of the interplay of light and dark and have been interpreted within the tradition of Romanticism. Research this movement from its beginnings in 18th- and 19th-century painting and identify its defining characteristics. Select a photograph from the exhibition that you feel contains these elements and undertake a verbal analysis of this work to demonstrate your ideas.
  • Music is important in Henson’s practice. Listen to the music of Gustav Mahler, the late-Romantic composer, in particular the song cycle 'Kindertotenlieder’ (songs on the death of children), which inspired Henson’s work in the ‘Mahler’ series, such as Untitled 1976-. How does music express emotion in ways that Henson’s images do? Choose some music that you enjoy listening to and explain why you like it. Use words that relate to mood, atmosphere and emotion. Find or create an image that expresses these ideas.
  • Research Henson’s body of work and investigate the importance of sequence in his practice. Make a case study of the Paris Opera Project series and analyse ways in which a dialogue between images can enhance the meaning of the overall artwork and render difficult images more legible. Is there an element of narrative? What emotion is evoked? How is music invoked in this work? Describe the kind of music you imagine.
  • Choose two works from the exhibition from different periods to illustrate the shifts and continuities in Henson’s practice. Consider format, subject, mood, tone and the use of light and shadow. Can you tell if one has been digitally printed and one has been printed by hand in the dark room?