Bill Henson: Art, Pornography and Controversy.

Whenever Bill Henson has an exhibition in Australia there will be elements of all three.

And he is back: Bill Henson nudes back on major gallery walls in two new exhibitions
Henson has some fairly definite views of himself as an artist.

In an article in the SMH  Melissa Fyfe. who interviewed Henson wrote:


“To give you an idea of how Henson’s brain works within the Bill Bubble, take his explanation of one image: a nude boy, maybe 13, with a dreamy look on his face and a young girl leaning over him from behind.

The boy, Henson says, could be imagining the girl; like a gender-reversed depiction of death and the maiden (a common artistic trope of a semi-nude woman and the angel of death). He cites Austrian symbolist painter Alfred Kubin, who produced a particularly good death and the maiden, then quotes French sculptor Auguste Rodin on the beauty of destroying the beautiful. He follows up with a reference to wabi-sabi, the concept of imperfection in Japanese aesthetics. And finishes his answer citing the best musical version of the “sweet potential of life in the grip of death”, composer Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.

All I saw was a young boy enraptured.”

Henson is quite clear: it just comes down to taste. Do you like it or don’t you? Is it porn or is it art?”

Henson is a photographer of international standing who has exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. His first exhibition at the NGV was when he was 19.

He is “comfortable” that people will find his images, such as these, disturbing.


Henson’s view of the world of his young models is hauntingly dark one. And anyone who understands photography will recognise the work of a consummate craftsman.

Does this dark vision of adolescence qualify as art? Henson is clearly happy to let the viewer decide.

So what is the viewer to make of this dark underworld that seems so devoid of joy and of hope?

There is no denying that the pictures are beautifully composed and the models have a Caravaggio-like beauty.

There are some people who are pretty clear in their own minds that Bill Henson is a pornographer. Ex-PM Kevin Rudd, who condemned Henson’s images as “absolutely revolting and having no artistic merit”, is one of them.


It would be difficult to argue that these images are pornographic. A decade ago, the police in New South Wales decided, wisely and presumably on good advice, that taking legal action against Henson was futile.

People like Rudd and the other wowsers have missed the point. The question with Henson is judging his artistic or photographic merit. Where does he stand in the artistic pantheon?

In terms of his portraits of children, he can only be compared to Jock Sturges and Sally Mann, who are both stylistically fairly similar, however their work does not have the darkness and complexity of Henson’s.

Sally Mann and Candy Cigarette

Jock Sturges and Beach Scene

Henson is also a landscape photographer of prodigious talent, something that is overlooked in the heated discussion that swirls around his nudes.

When you look at his landscapes and the world that his models inhabit, it becomes clear that that Henson seeks to explore a different artistic terrain from that of more traditional and realistic photographers like Mann or Sturges. Certainly different from that of Ansell Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson.

Someone once said of one of Ansel Adams’ photographs, “There are no people in it.”

“Yes there are, “said Adams, “there are two, the photographer and the viewer.”

In Henson’s work there is a jostling crowd: the photographer, the models, the media, the viewer, Kevin Rudd, assorted wowsers, Tom Cobbley and all with an opinion.


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