Lying in bed one evening, a small boy is entranced by a piece of music on the radio. Listening late into the night, he waits to hear the name of the work. He scribbles it down on a piece of paper—a jumble of misspellings—and takes it to a music shop in the city. The recording is Götterdämmerung. In the late 1960s, the same boy, now 12 years old, buys a book on Greek sculpture with money that he has earned working in a milk bar in an outer-eastern suburb of Melbourne. The child grows up to make dramatic images of classical beauty. The boy was Bill Henson.
Bill Henson’s photographs are a puzzle: baroque and brooding, yet also invoking a classical vernacular of beauty. And there’s something else—echoes of C.P. Cavafy. Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863. He worked for 30 years as a temporary clerk in the Kafkaesque-sounding Third Circle of Irrigation in the Ministry of Public Works, supplementing his clerk’s wage by moonlighting on the stock exchange. In David Hockney’s etching, which appears on the cover of the Keeley and Sherrard translation of the Alexandrian’s collected poems, Cavafy looks like a bureaucrat of the sour, obdurate, rule-bound kind. But when the clerk came home after a day in the office, he inhabited another world, an imaginary realm a long way from irrigation and public works. Cavafy’s lines are haunted by beauty, memory, erotic longing and loss, and the Hellenic past. It is poetry of homoerotic desire seen through the lens of the distant past. Twinning the ancient and the modern, his poetry, like all great art, swam in its own current.
Alone in his fusty flat crammed with bric-à-brac above a brothel in a shabby part of town, Cavafy wrote himself into his poetic world:
when the body’s memory revives
and an old longing again passes through the blood,
when lips and skin remember
and hands feel as though they touch again.
The melancholic gravity of a dark-eyed adolescent evokes a private, inner world. A sliver of light on her hand conjures the sensate experience of dwelling in one’s body. We inscribe the photograph with our ‘body’s memory’, recalling the unstable terrain between childhood and adulthood.
Henson’s images are haunted by beauty, shadowed by memory. Our own intimate histories are unlocked by the works, their sensory realms enlivening the deep twilight of our private, imaginary landscapes:
I’ve brought to Art desires and sensations:
faces or lines, certain indistinct memories
Henson’s photographs have been described as analogous to poetry; ‘visual poetics’ is Sebastian Smee’s term for the invented worlds depicted in these images. They use a language of their own, a private, interior language. Making a poem or a photograph involves rendering the inarticulate within the formal constraints of lines on a page or an image on paper. Rather than being superimposed, the creator’s perception inheres in the texture of the lines or pictorial image. Constructing an imaginary reality through a personal vocabulary composed of constellations of feelings, memories, dreams and intuitions, the poet and the artist attempt to bring into existence something singular.
That Henson manages to convey a sense of tender intimacy using the mechanical tools of photography is some kind of wonder. Most photographs render a reductive version of reality; Henson transfigures, shaping something that is of, but not in, the quotidian world. His is a poetic reimagining of the physical world: ‘There is another world, but it is in this one’ (Paul Éluard). Like poetry, where we hear the sound-sense and read between the lines on the page, when we look at a Henson picture, our imaginings are not contained by the frame. What slips into the shadows is as much a part of the work as what we can see.
Siri Hustvedt observes in her essay ‘My Louise Bourgeois’ (which appears in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, 2016): ‘There is no perception without memory’ (pp. 25–6). Henson’s untitled pictures leave viewers free to see the work through our own private lens of feeling and memory, our individual reservoir of resonances. Sight is not only a museum of things seen, but also of things experienced and felt, of half-remembered dreams and imaginings. A poem or a picture is what you make of it, how you feel when you put yourself into the poetic space of the verbal or pictorial image. Hustvedt again: ‘The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer’ (p. 25). It is this private, uncensored encounter that we can find in art and poetry if we are patient enough to take the time to discover it. The challenge lies in dwelling in the image, letting the picture or the poem lead you to feeling, to stillness and silence and wonder.
Dwelling in an image is the antithesis of the modern image culture of short-term time. The constant flow of mass-mediated images speeds up time, changing our way of looking and dulling our sensibilities. We scan rather than attend, experiencing the world through technology rather than our sensate body. For example, the average ‘dwell time’ spent in front of the most famous picture in the world is 15 seconds—enough time to take a selfie. Henson’s pictorial world is a counter to this contemporary surfing of images, offering viewers an alternative immersive experience in which we can be fully present in the charged space of the image. Looking at one of these photos leads the attentive viewer to something not unlike what critic Dave Hickey referred to when he wrote that ‘great art aspires to a kind of musical silence—in John Cage’s sense of bounded quiet’ (Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste, 2013, p. 102). Music has been a major influence on the making of Henson’s pictures, which require the same kind of attentiveness as listening to a slow movement of a symphony. It’s slow art, it can’t be hurried.
There’s no need to read the latest issue of Artforum magazine to work out the meaning of Henson’s pictures. You don’t need a custodian of ‘art appreciation’ to explain the works; there’s no theory obscuring the view, no implied critiques, no issues, signs or symbology in these photographs. Seemingly impervious to the cycling fashions, dictates and isms of the art world, Henson’s pictures reflect his imaginative universe. Although they evoke time—its passage and its depredations—they are not tethered to time, or to place. These images of nocturnal landscapes, classical ruins, museum interiors and adolescents—Henson’s obsessions have remained remarkably consistent over four decades of practice—don’t require you to understand anything. There’s no correct reading of his pictures. As Henson is often quoted as saying, meaning comes from feeling, not the other way around. The only narrative is the one you, the viewer, compose. You just need to attend fully, slipping through a portal into their poetic world, opening yourself to beauty.
A line of Cavafy’s poetry observes: ‘Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty’. Beauty is seductive and destabilising; virtue and moral uplift do not necessarily sit comfortably with beauty. It exists outside reason, bypassing the brain (and the church and the state), striking us with an emotional wallop. And beauty enlivens, even as it heightens our sense of mortality. Looking at a Henson portrait of an adolescent, we are reminded of the depredations that time will inevitably inflict on the youthful body. The ‘shade of my young body / has been haunting me’. The evanescence of beauty is part of its strange and troubling power.
From time to time the windy rhetoric of art academicians, critics and curators proclaims that the representation of beauty in art is dead. Their proclamations are irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t inhabit their particular island; for most of us, beauty is always compelling because our response is affective rather than intellectual. Beauty is, by definition, pleasing. While we are not created equal in the beauty stakes—beauty is profoundly undemocratic—we can all enjoy looking at beauty, and deciding for ourselves what is beautiful.
Beauty is an elastic quality; our judgement about whether something is beautiful is intricately bound up with our visual and bodily memory. Beauty is in the private eye of the beholder rather than in the prescriptions of the expert arbiter who purports to impose upon us the constituent properties and proprieties of beauty. Perhaps, though, beauty’s value has been discounted in our era of commodity fetishism in which beauty—or rather, its distant cousins, the impersonal hauteur of glamour and the candy-floss appeal of the pretty and the picturesque—is usually in service to commerce. In the wealthy West we are familiar with beauty’s confident cousins. As critic Peter Schjeldahl has observed, the beautiful meant more before indoor plumbing.
If you’re feeling jaded by contemporary iterations of beauty, go along to the former Mint building in Melbourne’s CBD. Climb the stairs to the first floor, turn off your phone and step out of the cacophonous world of polarised clamour and bumptious chatter, into the dimly lit, rectangular room on your left.
A distant echo of half-remembered music plays softly in the background, so perfectly attuned to the calm ambiance of the room that it feels like it’s playing inside your head. Take your time—or better still, forget time—with each of the spot-lit images suspended on the pitch-dark walls: bookended by a cloudscape, a seascape and a classical ruin are headshots of a girl, each one incorporating an artefact from the Benaki Museum in Athens. Somehow, Henson has transformed his model—whom he originally spotted in a local pizzeria—into an incarnation of the ancient world. An intimate proximity is conveyed by the fact that all the portraits are close-ups, inviting viewers to take their own journey of discovery. And there are no oversized images—a welcome relief from the monumental images of some prominent, contemporary photographers in thrall to spectacle.
The exhibition is Oneiroi, a permanent, site-specific installation commissioned by the Hellenic Museum. Henson’s photographs are being shown in conjunction with the exhibition Gods, Myths & Mortals: Greek Treasures across the Millennia, a collection on loan from the Benaki Museum. Oneiroi refers to the deities that personified dreams in Greek mythology. Henson has shaped forms of exquisite beauty against a saturated, blue Mediterranean sky. Suspended in scrolled, gold frames, these forms embody Cavafy’s Greek dreaming.
Her eyes half-closed, a girl brings to her lips a gold cup, its handle decorated with ivy leaves:
Intoxication pours out the satyrs’ wine
from an amphora wreathed in ivy;
near them, Sweetwine, the delicate,
In another picture, the model wears an earring, a gold rosette with a pendant Eros figure. The girl is in shadow; light falls on Eros at the centre of the image. Eros is depicted as a chubby baby, a depiction particular to the Hellenistic period. Perhaps the photograph is a subtle invitation to the viewer to contrast the Hellenistic attitude to Eros with our contemporary unease with depictions of the adolescent body, our perception shadowed by the Christian view of the body as compromised by sin.
One image has the girl crowned with a gold, myrtle wreath. A small triangle of light illuminates wisps of dark hair, the curvature of an ear, her temple. Myrtle links the wearer to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, to whom the plant was sacred:
I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.
The body’s lines. Red lips. Sensual limbs.
Hair as though stolen from Greek statues
‘Hair as though stolen from Greek statues’: the line calls up some of the images from Henson’s oeuvre which depict the sensuality of living flesh while also invoking the beauty of classical statuary. Here, then, in the poems and the photographs, beauty reaches across centuries and cultures. The inarticulate claims of beauty reverberate across time, linking us to history and to culture, an antidote to the cacophonies and distractions of the commodified modern world.
Perhaps I’m making too much of the resonances between Cavafy’s lines and Henson’s images. There’s no mention of Cavafy in the catalogue essay, although its author, Peter Craven, calls on Homer, Sappho, Euripides and Ezra Pound in his figuring of the Greek dreaming. While he is a reader of Cavafy’s poetry, Henson may not have been consciously mirroring Cavafy’s lines when he was making his Oneiroi pictures. Perhaps, with his powerful attachment to the Hellenic world, Henson simply intuited Cavafy’s sensibility and imaginative vision.
But that’s the thing about art and poetry: we are free to make of it what we will. As Henson—whom Craven tags as ‘this magician from Melbourne’—is fond of saying, art can only be subjectively apprehended. Our interpretations will all be different as we bring to the work our own associations, experiences and memories. As Craven writes of the fading light at the edge of Henson’s photographs, ‘The effect is to make the image resonant and suggestive of temps perdu: the effect is there like a subtle memory that the eye stores by its association with something from the past.’ (Oneiroi, John Tatoulis and Peter Craven (texts), Bill Henson (photographs), 2016, p. 9).
Here, then, in Henson’s images and in Cavafy’s lines, art transfigures beauty. Beauty is the beginning but not the end. To borrow from Hickey again: ‘Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway.’ (The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, 2012, p. 119). We can all make our own magic from beauty.•
Angela Smith’s essays and poetry have appeared in many publications, including the Australian, Meanjin, Overland, New Philosopher, Kill Your Darlings and The Best Australian Poems.
Note: All translations of Cavafy’s poems are from George Savidis (ed.), C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Chatto & Windus, 1990.