In 1908 in Rome, fifteen-year-old Florence Henri (June 28, 1893-July 24, 1982) met an Italian poet named Gino Gori. Henri, born in New York, lost her mother at the age of two and lived in Paris, Munich, Vienna, and the Isle of Wight until her father died in 1908. Orphanhood sent Henri to the home of her aunt Anni, who was married to Gino Gori. Gori introduced Henri to the Italian Futurist painters, with whom he was close friends, and in doing so, unknowingly set into motion an artist’s long and incredible career.
Florence Henri lived a whirlwind tour of Europe’s avant-garde scene after her father’s death. It was music, not art, that first took her away from Rome and to Berlin in 1913; she studied under composer Ferruccio Busoni and played piano for silent movies in the Italian capitol during the first World War. She began painting landscapes and figure studies after a visit to the Academy of Arts in Berlin and found a mentor in Carl Einstein, a Jewish-German art critic. After the war, she studied under a number of leading abstract painters, including Wassily Kandinsky and Johann Walter-Kurau. By 1924, Henri found her way to the Académie Moderne in Paris. There, she learned from Fernand Léger, a Cubist painter, and Amédée Ozenfant, a Purist. In the summer of 1925, her paintings were exhibited in Exposition International. L'Art d'Aujourd'hui, sharing the walls with work by Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso. The paintings that Henri made early in her career (Fig. b) brought together the movement of line and the stability of shape characteristic of the different abstract practices she had studied, toyed with ideas of repetition and reflection, and are clear indicators of the turns that her art would soon take.
In 1927, Florence Henri moved again from Paris to Dessau, where she studied at the Bauhaus. There, at that influential school, Henri lived in the home of Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy and his wife, Lucia Moholy. It was here and on their encouragement that Henri picked up the camera and began to make pictures and study photography. Within a year, she left the Bauhaus and returned to Paris, where she established herself as a photographer and, by 1928, abandoned painting entirely.
From the very beginning, Henri’s photographic work was unusual. In her first year as a working photographer, she published two images in “i10. internationale revue.” One is a stark self-portrait, featuring the artist reclined and facing away from the camera, into a mirror that reflects her face back into the lens; the other is a still life that depicts a ball poised between two mirrors (Fig. c). In both, the geometry and energy of the abstract movements from which she learned are clearly apparent, but are recontextualized completely by the medium of photography.
Moholy-Nagy wrote the first critical response to Henri’s work in the same issue of i10, noting the way the photographs address issues of photography and its relationship to painting and saying of the work: “… reflections and spatial relations, overlapping and penetrations are examined from a new perspectival angle.” It is this idea of perspective and space that defines Florence’s career as a photographer for the next decade. She worked extensively with mirrors and, in doing so, pushed the limits of a two-dimensional photograph, often creating images that challenged the viewer to distinguish between planes of reflection and reality (Fig. d and e).
Soon, and relatively quickly, Florence Henri rose to fame in the world of avant-garde photography. She started to explore ideas of perspective and reality in new ways. Her street photography often reimagined the idea of “the decisive moment,” putting the burden of time and place on the photographer rather than the subject and calling the viewer’s attention to exactly where the camera must have been (Fig. f and g). She was exhibiting around the world in influential shows such as Fotografie der Gegenwart (Contemporary Photography, 1929), Film Und Foto (Film and Photo, 1929) and Das Lichtbild (The Photograph, 1931) and had become an influential figure in avant-garde photography. Henri was teaching classes out of her Paris studio by 1930, classes which included photographers such as Gisèle Freund and Lisette Model.
Henri made a series of photographs titled Vitrines, images of layered reflections of storefront windows, continued with her still life work, and shot portraits of the artists with whom she associated—Kandinsky, Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, Jean Arp and more (Fig. h and i). She began to experiment with heavy, formless shadows cutting into and across her images, and with photomontages that reimagined the architecture of Rome through cutting and arranging (Fig. j).She was prolific during the height of her career in the 1930s and her work was wide-ranging, and this diversity of focus contributed to her reputation as one of the greatest surrealist photographers of her time.
One-woman shows, several journal publications and a photo book of her own placed Henri at the forefront of avant-garde photography in Europe. The start of World War II, though, made photography supplies scarce, and under Nazi occupation, less and less art was being produced in Paris. The Nazi regime branded almost all modern art as “degenerate art,” claiming that it was anti-German and Communist. Artists branded as degenerate were sanctioned by the administration and prevented from selling, exhibiting, and in some cases creating any art. Florence Henri fell under this category, and at some point during the War, she put down the camera. When she returned to art after World War II had ended, it was to abstract painting. Even through the 1950s, her photography work was celebrated as some of the finest from the avant-garde period. Of her work, ,” Henri’s mentor and friend László Moholy-Nagy said “With Florence Henri’s photos, photographic practice enters a new phase—the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today.”
Florence Henri died in 1982 in Compiègne, France. Giovanni Battista Martini worked closely with Henri before her death to archive her estate and preserve her legacy in photographs. Her contributions fell out of the canon for a time and were forgotten, for the most part, by the general public. In 2015, her work was shown at a retrospective called Mirror of the Avant Gardes at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, curated by Cristina Zelich. The retrospective was also published in a book of the same title.
Written by Carter Boyd
http://www.fpmagazine.eu/ita/news/Il_mondo_di_Florence_Henri-190/ (Fig. A, B, F, H, I, J)
http://magazines.iaddb.org/issue/i10/1928-12-20/edition/17%2F18/page/32?query (Fig. C)
http://time.com/3675305/florence-henri-jeu-de-paume/ (Fig. D, E, G)
http://aperture.org/shop/florence-henri-mirror-avant-garde-book (Moholy-Nagy quote)