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PARIS — In 1683, the chief architect to the King of France was Jules Hardouin Mansart, the architect who created the “Hall of Mirrors” in Versailles. It was in his studio that the Rococo style began to emerge, most keenly through specific mirroring motifs of his designers Pierre Lassurance I and Pierre Lepautre. Since then, the use of mirrors in art has been a rich one, used by Pop, Kinetic, Minimal, and Conceptual artists. In this long tradition, the Jeu de Paume currently offers an additional point of reference with Mirror of the Avant-Garde, 1927-1940, here curated by Cristina Zelich with the collaboration of the Florence Henri Archive in Genoa. It is a taut, careful, and competent retrospective of the work of American avant-garde photographer (and abstract painter) Florence Henri (1893–1982), for whom the mirror was fundamental to her artistic investigations.
The dominant feeling I had was one of formalized melancholy. Florence Henri’s photographs often use mirrored reflections to set up remote feelings for things in space in a conceptually operative manner. Using a very limited number of elements, she created extremely complex images in the 1930s that are characterized by the use of multiple viewpoints, using mirrors as a way to explore the shifting representation of objects. Her visual investigations are excellent expressions of post-Cubist and Constructivist ideas, as reflections and spatial relationships, superposition and intersections are explored formally in black and white.
Mirror of the avant-garde surprisingly does not appear all that dated, rather calling to mind Robert Smithson’s mirror works in the landscape, like “Nine Mirror Displacements, Mirror Shore” (1969), which he made by placing mirrors on a beach and in the jungle of the Yucatán and then photographing the mirrors’ reflections. Henri, like her contemporary László Moholy-Nagy and his “Light Space Modulator” (1930), was interested in opening up the static three-dimensional form to a fourth dimension of time and motion.
With Mirror of the avant-garde we are again reminded of art’s long reflective past while already catching a glimpse of the electronic social media selfie world, currently ours, replete with its looping narcissistic circular causality. Henri’s 1920s photographs explore our obsessions over body and self-image, also found in the work of some Surrealist women of the 1930s and ‘40s. Indeed Henri’s work reminded me of the self-representations of Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo; artists that explored space and their female body as a web of social reflections and constructions.
Despite the central position that Henri’s oeuvre occupied in avant-garde photography at the end of the 1920s, the reputation she had as a portraitist in Paris, and the fact that her photos had been published in many of the period’s illustrated magazines such as Arts et Métiers and Lilliput, Henri’s work has remained largely unexamined and unfamiliar. Fortunately, the conscientious scholarly endeavors of Giovanni Battista Martini and Alberto Ronchetti have succeeded in returning the artist to the place that she merits within the history of art and photography.
Born in New York in 1893 of a French father and German mother, Henri lived a peripatetic life, moving between Paris, Munich, Vienna, Rome and the Isle of Wight. But it was during a visit to Berlin when Henri started to focus on painting. There, she met figures like Hans Arp and John Heartfield, and took painting classes with Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In 1914, she enrolled at the Academy of Art in Berlin, and in the summer of 1927 she enrolled at the Bauhaus and studied with Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers in Dessau. Although photography was not yet included in the official Bauhaus curriculum, it was practiced by teachers and students alike. Upon returning to Paris, Henri abandoned painting in favor of photography: work that would come to be recognized as integral to the “Neues Sehen” (New Vision) movement of which László Moholy-Nagy was an exponent. In Paris, Henri made some of her best-known photographic works using mirrors in portraits of friends, still lifes, and self-portraits, including her self-portrait looking in the mirror with two shinny metal balls called “Autoportrait” (1928).
In 1929 she opened a commercial portrait studio that rivaled that of Man Ray. She also opened a school of photography where Lisette Model and Gisèle Freund studied, amongst others. Then during World War II, photographic materials became sparse and Henri largely returned to painting.
Henri’s photographs radically charm the eye in their disorienting spatial compositions. In her elegant work from the late ‘20s through the mid ‘30s, forms transfigure through a slight visual dissonance. Yet there is also something playful and sensual about her work, even as her compositions seem to exist on their own grounds, uncommon and unfamiliar to our own. The reflections that cut into these images make us question whether or not anything actually exits as we thought it did (including ourselves).Yet I think that there is something also grounding in the general artistically composed nature of her work, something solidly balanced that makes pictorial pleasure possible, something she pulled out from the inherent excess in reproductive capture media: carefully constructed composition. Given the narcissistic, careless, and ubiquitous selfie snapping mania, that is something worth reflecting upon during our current mirror phase.
Florence Henri: Mirror of the Avant-Garde, 1927-1940 continues at Jeu de Paume (1, place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris) through May 17.