18 October 2010 – 23 January 2011
Heinrich Kühn’s great ambition was to take artistic photographs that could rival painting.
A major figure in international Pictorialism around 1900 and close to two of the movement’s great leaders, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, he developed a modernist style although he stayed within the rather narrow confines of his family life.
He had already worked intensively with microscopic photography, when he was still a medical student in Innsbruck. He joined the Vienna Camera Club, where, about 1895, he met Hugo Henneberg and Hans Watzek, both already enthusiastic supporters of the drive to win recognition of photography as an art. This international movement brought them in contact with two avantgarde associations, the Linked Ring in London and the Photo Club de Paris. They eagerly experimented with the new photographic printing techniques, especially painting the negative with gum bichromate which gave the print a pictorial look. The process had recently been used to good effect by Robert Demachy. The members of the “Trifolium” (Watzek, Kühn and Henneberg) exhibited their photographs at the Viennese Secession, showing some very large prints (100 x 70 centimetres) in a bid to rival painting.
From 1904 onwards, Heinrich Kühn’s friendship with Alfred Stieglitz deepened and his art changed radically, moving from “romantic” impressionism, with his dramatic landscapes, classical still lifes and group portraits, to a lighter, almost abstract style which reflected the evolution of the Viennese Secession, where he regularly exhibited his work, and where all that counted was the study of light and the rendering of values. Kühn thus obtained a photographic style which defied conventions and was sometimes reduced to reflections in a glass of water or a transparent shadow on a wall.
From 1907, Kühn was the unchallenged master of the autochrome, a technique combining rich and delicate colours, which had recently been developed by the Lumière brothers. His extremely simple, bold layouts made his outdoor scenes, in particular, photographs well ahead of their time.
Monica Faber has invested fifteen years in the preparation of this exhibition, the first great retrospective of Heinrich Kühn’s work.
Curated by: Monika Faber, chief curator of the photography department, Albertina, Vienna;
Françoise Heilbrun, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay;
Anne Tucker, chief curator of the photography department, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.