1893–1982 / US-american and french photographer
When Florence Henri discovered her passion for photography, she was in her mid-30s and temporarily a guest student at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Inspired by the photographic works of László Moholy-Nagy, whose preliminary course she attended, and encouraged by his wife, the photographer Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri devoted herself entirely to this new medium and gave up painting completely. When Florence Henri discovered her passion for photography, she was in her mid-30s and had just become a guest student at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Inspired by the photographic works of László Moholy-Nagy, whose preliminary course she attended, and encouraged by his wife, the photographer Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri devoted herself entirely to this new medium and gave up painting completely. She studied at the Berlin Art Academy from 1914 and moved in modernist circles, taking lessons from the painter Johannes Walter-Kurau, getting to know the artists Hans Arp and John Heartfield and associating with Herwarth Walden, the active promoter of the German avant-garde. El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich inspired her to go into Constructivism – it’s geometric-technical design principle would later be transfered to her photographic work.
After twelve years in Berlin, she returned to Paris in 1924, where she studied abstract painting at the Académie Moderne. During her fifteen years as a painter, she worked with famous representatives of modernism, but it was not least her encounter with the photographers of the Bauhaus that drew her under the spell of photography.
During her summer course at the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1927, she lived in the master house of the Moholy-Nagys and from them she learned the basic technical and visual principles of the medium photography. Back in Paris, she succeeded in establishing herself as a professional, independent photographer with her own studio – despite being self-taught. She produces advertising photographs and portraits and develops a highly experimental photographic oeuvre.
Her works are shown in exhibitions worldwide, for example in 1929 in Stuttgart at the International Exhibition “Film und Foto” of Deutscher Werkbund. In 1931, her work won an award at the “Foreign Advertising Photography” in New York. Numerous renowned art magazines published her work and it wasn’t long until Henri was regarded as the most important representative of the French avant-garde. Her studio became a meeting place for Parisian modernists, with painters such as Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian and Fernand Léger and photographers such as Man Ray, André Kertész and Germaine Krull coming and going. Productive years followed, marking the high point of her photographic work.
In her photographic work, Florence Henri turns to nudes, collages, architecture, portraits and playful self-portraits. Characteristic of her oeuvre are her very distinct still lifes and her staging of objects into constructivist compositions. In these bold arrangements of balls, vinyl records, perfume bottles or rolls of yarn, Florence Henri experiments with spaces, perspectives and achieves a special depth effect. Her joy in experimentation is not so much expressed by testing out photo optics or effects achieved in the photo lab. Rather, she captures reality with a captivating matter-of-factness, whilst also breaking it up, fanning it out and making its reverse side visible, so to speak, by using mirrors and prisms. The mirrored space penetrates the real space and denies the viewer orientation. Henri thus transfers important impulses from painting – from Cubism to Constructivism – to photography, which until then had been primarily documentary-oriented, and establishes herself as a representative of the school of “New Vision”.
As for so many Parisian artists, the Second World War and the Nazi occupation had a profound impact on Florence Henri’s work. The photographic materials she needed were hard to find and her modern visual language was forbidden anyway. The commissions stopped and Florence Henri returned to painting. Silence fell on the modern artist for a long time.
Until, in the 1970s, the committed gallery owners Ann and Jürgen Wilde became aware of the work of the then eighty-year-old and, with the exhibition initiated in Cologne in 1974, gave the decisive impulse for Florence Henri’s rediscovery. Exhibitions in Germany, Italy, North America and France followed. At a ripe old age, the artist experienced the beginning of the renaissance of her photographic work until she died in France in 1982 at the age of eighty-nine. That same year, she was honoured with exhibitions in Paris and New York, and in 1990 she was finally shown at the Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Today, it is impossible to imagine the ranks of avant-garde photographers of the “new vision” without her.