Florence HENRI<br/>
<em>Nude composition</em> (c. 1930) <!-- (recto) --><br />
<em>(Nu composition)</em><br />
gelatin silver photograph<br />
22.9 x 17.0 cm (image and sheet)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of Krystyna Campbell-Pretty AM and Family through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, 2021<br />
2021.545<br />
Public domain

Florence Henri Nude composition (Nu composition)


Florence Henri was born in New York in 1893. Following the death of her mother when Henri was two years old, she lived throughout Europe and the United Kingdom with various family members into her teens. She was afforded an inheritance at the age of fourteen after her father died, which allowed her some financial independence. An accomplished pianist, she trained initially under Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni in Rome, and during this time became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the Futurist movement. While in Berlin during the First World War, Henri composed music for silent films; she eventually transitioned from music to painting, with the art historian Carl Einstein becoming a friend and mentor. After being denied permission to enter France, she participated in a marriage of convenience to a Swiss man in 1924 for the purposes of gaining citizenship and moved to Paris. There, Henri continued her practice in painting in the Cubist and Constructivist style, studying under, and influenced by, the artists Fernand Léger and André Lhote.

It was a trip to the Bauhaus art school in Dessau, Germany, in 1927, however, that fundamentally changed the trajectory of her life and artistic career. While visiting her ‘friend and sometime partner’, Margarete Schall, who was taking classes there, Henri herself enrolled as a trainee for a semester, taking the classes of artists Joseph Albers, Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy.1Elizabeth Otto & Patrick Rössler, ‘Florence Henri’, in Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective, Herbert Press, London, 2019, p. 104. Lucia Moholy, who took vivid portraits of Henri during this stay, is also said to have encouraged her to use and experiment with photography.

These experiences lead Henri to recognise the extraordinary potential of photography, which became her primary medium from this time. Returning to Paris, Henri established a photography studio in 1929 and became quickly renowned for her innovative and avant-garde practice – her photographs were selected for inclusion in the pioneering exhibitions Film und Foto, 1929, Stuttgart; and Das Lichtbild, 1931, Munich. Henri produced experimental still lifes, often using mirrors as a means of fragmenting the pictorial space, and an extensive body of portraiture, largely of women. The female subjects are depicted as independent and dynamic – their heads and faces often tightly cropped to fill the picture plane; their gaze diverted and self-possessed.

Another vital aspect of her practice was her nude female compositions, such as Nude composition (Nu composition), 1930. Created in the year after establishing her studio in Paris, it employs her characteristically unique, elevated vantage point and raking lighting to disrupt a sense of visual order and perspective. Henri constructs a scene in which the upper half of a woman’s naked body (her chest, breasts, arms, head and hair) creates an asymmetrical focal point at the top of the photograph. Lying next to the woman, and, seemingly, the subject of her gaze, is a large shell, while plants at the base of the image echo the woman’s flowing hair. While appearing to be set on a bed of sand, on closer inspection the textured base is revealed as a coarse sheet.

The dreamlike image, confident and controlled, which merges the female body with the symbolic shell and forms from nature, creates a scene of sensuousness and self-empowerment that is erotic and modern. Henri’s nude compositions, along with those of peers working in France such as Dora Maar and Nora Dumas, claimed the female body as a subject of their own – a trend that emerged among a number of female photographers, in the interwar period.

Maggie Finch, Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria



Elizabeth Otto & Patrick Rössler, ‘Florence Henri’, in Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective, Herbert Press, London, 2019, p. 104.