Henson has exhibited nationally and internationally in galleries such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. His current practice involves holding one exhibition in Australia every two years, and up to three overseas exhibitions each year.
The use of chiaroscuro is common throughout his works, through underexposure and adjustment in printing. His photographs' use of bokeh is intended to give them a painterly atmosphere. The work is often presented as diptychs, triptychs and in other groupings, and the exhibitions are specifically curated by Henson to reflect a sense of musicality.
Duality is a recurring theme of Henson's work, often in combination with adolescent subjects. He frequently employs a flattened perspective through the use of telephoto lenses. His works are often in the form of staged tableaux in which faces of the subjects are often blurred or partly shadowed and do not directly face the viewer.
Life and influences
Raised in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Henson studied Visual Arts and Design 1974–1975 at Prahran College of Advanced Education where Athol Shmith was head of the Photography program and John Cato and Paul Cox were lecturers. He did not complete the diploma, but the nineteen-year-old Henson's work was promoted by Shmith to Jenny Boddington, inaugural Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria with the result that Henson's first solo show was exhibited there in 1975.
From his period as a student until its closure in 1980, he worked at The Bookshop of Margareta Webber 343 Little Collins Street Melbourne, which specialised in luxurious books on ballet, dance and the visual arts. Leaving the bookshop, he traveled and photographed in Eastern Europe. He taught briefly at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. The long-term relationship of Henson with Luminist Melbourne painter Louise Hearman has been noted as mutually influential on their art.
On 22 May 2008, the opening night of Bill Henson's 2007–2008 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, was cancelled after eight individual complaints were made to Police voicing concerns about an email invitation from the Gallery to a "Private View" that depicted photographs of a nude 13-year old girl. Hetty Johnston, a child protection advocate (from the organization Bravehearts), also lodged a complaint with the New South Wales police. On the same day a Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Miranda Devine, had also written a scathing article in response to viewing the email invitation, which precipitated heated talk-back and media discussion throughout the day. In the process of removing the images from the Gallery, Police found more photographs of naked children on exhibition among various large format photographs of nonfigurative subjects, which they later sought to examine for the purposes of determining their legal status under the NSW Crimes Act and child protection legislation. Following discussions with the Gallery and a decision by Henson, the Gallery cancelled the opening and postponed the show.
It was announced on 23 May that a number of the images in the exhibition had been seized by police local Area Commander Alan Sicard, with the intention of charging Bill Henson, the Gallery, or both with "publishing an indecent article" under the Crimes Act. The seized images were also removed from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery website, where the remainder of the series can now be viewed online.
The situation provoked a national debate on censorship. In a televised interview, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that he found the images "absolutely revolting" and that they had "no artistic merit". These views swiftly drew censure from members of the 'creative stream' who attended the recent 2020 Summit convened by Rudd, led by actor Cate Blanchett.
On 5 June 2008 the former director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher, said it was "not surprising" that the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would announce its official recommendation that no charges be laid regarding the Sydney Roslyn Oxley9 gallery's collection of photographs by artist Bill Henson. Ms Churcher said it would have been ridiculous to drag the case through the courts:
I'm very pleased that the public prosecutor has decided that it's likely to end the debacle because they always do, as soon as you take art into court it never works ... The court is not the place to decide matters of art.
On 6 June 2008 it was reported in The Age that police would not prosecute Bill Henson over his photographs of naked teenagers, after they were declared "mild and justified" and given a PG rating by the Australian Classification Board, suggesting viewing by children under the age of 16 is suitable with parental guidance.
Australian scholar Niall Lucy criticized Devine's response to Henson's art in his 2010 book Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Down Under. David Marr's book about the 2008 incident The Henson case was listed for the 2009 Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the 2009 Prime Minister's Literary Awards.
Selection of models
On 4 October 2008, Henson became the centre of controversy again after it was revealed in extracts of The Henson case that in 2007 he visited St Kilda Park Primary School to pick out potential models for his art work. Henson was allowed entry into the school and escorted by principal Sue Knight around the schoolgrounds and picked two children he thought would be suitable – one child, a boy, was later photographed after his parents were approached by the school on behalf of the artist.
An investigation into the matter was launched by the Department of Education on 6 October 2008. The investigation found that the principal had complied with departmental policy, and had no case to answer.
A few of his exhibitions:
- 1975 Bill Henson, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
- 1981 Bill Henson Photographs, Photographers' Gallery, London
- 1989 Bill Henson Fotografien, Museum Moderner Kunst, Palais Liechtenstein, Wien
- 1990 Bill Henson Photographs, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
- 1993 Bill Henson, Tel Aviv Museum of Art
- 1998 Bill Henson, ACP Galerie Peter Schuengel, Salzburg
- 2004 Presence 3: Bill Henson, The Speed Art Museum, Kentucky
- 2006 Bill Henson, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
Major monographs on the artist's work:
- Bill Henson ; edited by Martin Jaeggi and Walter Keller (2002). Lux et Nox Zurich, Switzerland : Scalo; 2nd ed. London:Thames & Hudson (2009)
- Henson, Bill, (2005) Mnemosyne. Zurich : Scalo in association with Art Gallery of New South Wales.
- Bill Henson's Mnemosyne by Travis Jeppesen[dead link] Archive copy at the Wayback Machine
- "Bill Henson photographs taken at twilight". Photography. Victoria and Albert Museum. Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-25.[dead link] Archive copy at the Wayback Machine
- Leo Scofield Interviews Bill Henson
- Review of Bill Henson's Mnemosyne by Christian Perring
- NGV. Retrieved 8 February 2014
- "As the new Biss recording of Mozart's K364 Sinfonia Concertante, the Andante movement only, repeats itself endlessly on my stereo, the sound of Richard Tognetti and the ACO orchestra at their absolute greatest washes over me like a tsunami, while my head is also spinning with the staggering beauty of a single gesture made by a woman riding the escalator at the Westfield Doncaster shopping centre, and with just how Tognetti's violin sounds like she looked. Well, there you have it. I call it millennial slippage. You might call it madness..." Henson in interview with Amanda Smith, Artworks Broadcast:Sunday 15 August 2010 11:05AM, Australian Broadcasting Commission transcript, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/artworks/artworks-feature-bill-henson/3020240 Downloaded 26 May 2012
- Capon, E., Malouf, D. & Annear, J., in Mnemosyne, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Scalo, (2205) 8-9, 12, 35.
- see discussion of the Luminous concert (2005) performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra to a screening of Henson imagery in Stevens, Meghan (2009).Music and Image in Concert. Australia: Music and Image in Concert
- Smee, S., Touch of Innocence, Weekend Australian [newspaper]. January 22–23, 2005.
- Crawford, A (2003). "Bill Henson: Lux et Nox". Art Monthly Australia 164 (October).
- DARIA, Ioan (2009) The Photographic Treatment of Emotion in Front of a Stage. Bill Henson: The Opera Project. EKPHRASIS: IMAGES, CINEMA, THEATRE, MEDIA, 1/2009 Integrating Methodologies in Visual Culture Research, The Faculty of Theater and Television, Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj. Online http://ekphrasis.accentpublisher.ro/files/magazines_content/47/0.pdf accessed 27 May 2012
- "Henson's images brood and turn in on themselves rather than present themselves explicitly to the audience." Burke, Janine and Henson, Bill. Art for the End of the World. Meanjin, Vol. 40, No. 3, Oct 1981: 375-388.
- "I'm not here today to talk about the downfall of Kevin Rudd or the prospects for some Elizabethan renaissance of the arts if Julia Gillard is elected...". Henson in interview with Amanda Smith, Artworks Broadcast:Sunday 15 August 2010 11:05AM, Australian Broadcasting Commission transcript, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/artworks/artworks-feature-bill-henson/3020240 Downloaded 26 May 2012
- Boddington, J., Henson, B., (July 1975) exhibition catalogue. Melbourne:National Gallery of Victoria
- Smee, Sebastian. Bill Henson. Art and Australia Vol.42, No.3, Autumn 2005, p. 396 – 405
- Henson, Bill, (1980) The bookshop of Margareta Webber : 1 map ; 46 x 60 cm. (Not drawn to scale). State Library of Victoria collection. Melbourne: Webbers Booksellers http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/7648003
- 'The first city I wanted to see was Dresden.' Henson quoted by Smee, Sebastian. Bill Henson. Art and Australia Vol.42, No.3, Autumn 2005, p. 396 – 405
- Coslovich, Gabriella (2008) Seeing in the dark: Louise Hearman remains enthralled by the richness of oil paint. The Age [newspaper] October 18, 2008. Online article http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/arts/seeing-in-the-dark/2008/10/16/1223750228676.html accessed 26 May 2012
- "...the foreboding tension of her surfaces, a quality more in common with artists such as Dale Frank and Bill Henson." Collection notes Art Gallery of New South Wales © Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006, online http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/502.1995/ accessed 26 May 2012
- Gregg, Simon (2011) New Romantics: Darkness and Light in Australian Art. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty, Limited
- Tovey, Josephine; Kennedy, Les; Welch, Dylan (24 May 2008). "Art obscenity charges". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 13 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- "Gallery: Nude children exhibit shut". News.com.au. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- Devine, Miranda (22 May 2008). "Moral backlash over sexing up of our children". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
- Australian child protection legislation- National Child Protection Clearinghouse. aifs.gov.au
- Roslyn Oxley Gallery, 'Media Statement', 23/5/08
- Kennedy, Les (23 May 2008). "Henson show charges". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- "Bill Henson, 2008". Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- Rudd revolted – Arts – Entertainment. smh.com.au (2008-05-23). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- Rudd stands by criticism of Henson images – National. theage.com.au (2008-05-28). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- Rudd 'revolted' at art of naked children. News.ninemsn.com.au (2008-05-23). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- PM says Henson photos have no artistic merit | The Australian. Theaustralian.news.com.au (2012-02-17). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- Blanchett joins chorus against Henson attack. The Canberra Times (2008-05-28)
- 'Not surprising' no charges laid over NGA Henson collection Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- No case against Henson: prosecutors Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- No charges for Henson. theage.com.au (2008-06-06)
- 'No charges for Henson Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- Niall Lucy, Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Downunder (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2011).
- Marr, David (2008). The Henson case. Melbourne, Victoria: Text Publishing. ISBN 978-1-921520-03-7.
- "The Henson Case". Text Publishing.
- "Henson 'scouted school for child models'". The Age. 4 October 2008. Archived from the original on 5 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-05.
- "Parents Back School in Henson Row". The Sydney Morning Herald. 4 October 2008. Archived from the original on 8 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
- "Gillard attacks artist's search for models". The Sydney Morning Herald. 4 October 2008. Archived from the original on 8 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
- Tomazin, Farrah; Smith, Bridie (8 November 2008). "Principal in clear over Henson". The Age (Melbourne).
- "Bill Henson career biography". The Daily Telegraph. 22 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-28.