23 June 2012

After Cezanne's Apples

If  Viriginia Woolf was right when she said that on or about 1910 human nature changed, then photography changed in 1907 when the Lumiere Brothers of France introduced color with the autochrome.   There had been other attempts at color photography before but the autochrome bested them on all measures: it was faster, easier, and cheaper to use, plus the results could be beautiful.  One thing the new medium lacked was the clarity of black and white. 

What color does in the pictures of Heinrich Kuhn is akin to what the Impressionists did  in painting: injecting light and energy into a work to create moments of a seemingly eternal present.    Kuhn's black and white photographs resemble the woodblock prints of his friend Hugo Henneberg and they are easier to date.  Even though much clearer color processes have superseded the autochrome, in Kuhn's vision it looks contemporary. 

Heinrich Kuhn (1866-1944) was born in Dresden and, although he studied to be a physician, he was really interested in micro-photography.  As his efforts focused on art photography, Kuhn became a micro-manager, making sketches on top of graphs, placing his human subjects like a set designer, and manipulating the photographic plates - all to achieve a result that was a recognizable personal experience.  "We did not see the way that quick shots would often lead one to believe,"  according to Kuhn.  Questions like "Is photography Art?" are still debated but, in Kuhn's day, camera clubs were a way for photographers to combat public indifference to their work.  (Kuhn founded Trifolium in 1898 with his friends Hugo Henneberg and Hans Watsek in 1897.)

The correspondences between many of Kuhn's images and paintings could be a mini-travelogue of turn of the century art.  The influence of Cezanne's apples is strong, in Kuhn's work and in the viewer's eye, even in a black and white photograph from 1908.  It takes a moment to realize that the three apples are, in fact, three oranges.


 Most intriguing of all is Landscape. Picnic with its obvious resemblance to Le Ballon, Felix Vallotton's  Nabi painting.  In both images the artist's vantage point appears to be from a perch overhead in a balloon.  Also, the humans appear to be chased by the shadows just as they plat at chases of their own, straw boaters punctuating the bright green of a summer day.   Kuhn had attempted something similar in black and white, and he must have been dissatisfied with the result.  Curiously, both images are now in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  Aesthetically speaking, it could be argued that neither artists ever reached such heights again.  Kuhn's later work was repetitive and he came to seem a cranky recluse by those who knew.  Vallotton's oeuvre, neglected, has recently been reconsidered.

Kuhn's work is not well known in the U.S., so it is natural enough for the Neue Galerie to emphasize Kuhn's links to Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen in their current exhibit.  Understandable, but hardly necessary.  Any more than we need to know the particulars of Kuhn's family, which he so carfeully and beautifully photographed.

An exhibition Heinrich Kuhn and His American Circle is on view at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan from April 26 to August 27, 2012.
You may also be interested in Heinrich Kuhn & Leon Dabo, posted here Janaury 25, 2011. 

1. Heinrich Kuhn - Still Life with Apples, c.1908-1910, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
2. Heinrich Kuhn - Still Life with Violets,  1908, National Library Archives, Vienna.
3. Heinrich Kuhn - Miss Mary and Edeltrude at the Hill Crest, c. 1910, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
4. Heinrich Kuhn - Still Life with fruit, 1908, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
5.  Heinrich Kuhn - Landscape. Picnic -  c.1912-1915, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
6. Heinrich Kuhn - untitiled palimpsest, Anzenbergerr gallery, Vienna.
7. Heinrich Kuhn - title attribured - Under the parasol, c. 1907-1913, Anzenberger gallery, Vienna.
8. Felix Vallotton -  Le Ballon (The Ball), 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 


Rouchswalwe said...

Kuhn's Violets are ... astounding!

Hels said...

I love the thought that we can see the strong influence of Cezanne's apples in Kuhn's work. Especially since the black and white photograph from 1908 was taken
a] after Cezanne died (in 1906),
b] using a different medium and
c] using a different palette.

That comparison also says something important about Cezanne, I think.

Timothy Cahill said...

Jane, autochromes are a pleasure that never fades (even if the dyes used in them are extremely fugitive). Heinrich Kuhn's are splendid. I didn't notice right away that the "untitled palimpsest" of the autumn leaves is two images superimposed; when I did, it added to my delight. Thank you, as always.

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, Kuhn's attention to details pays off in even the (superficially) simplest of images. Maybe it came from his early training in looking through a microscope. He would have been a good helper with your carbonation experiments.

Jane said...

Hels,Kuhn took it very seriously that photography had to prove itself the equal of painting. (He showed his photographs at the Vienna Secession before 1900.) He was not afraid to match his works to the best artists of his day. I'm sure there are allusions to other contemporaries of his that I've failed to pick up on. Kuhn wanted his apples to astonish viewers as much as Cezanne's had - even when the apples were oranges. (The Musee d'Orsay website mistakenly identified the fruit as limes!

Jane said...
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Lesley Peterson said...

Really lovely. I haven't seen these before. Thanks for posting!

Jane said...

Thanks, Lesley,for commenting. Along with exhibition now in New York City there was an exhibition at the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris two years ago - and a book by Monika Faber "Heinrich Kuhn: The Perfect Photograph" that you could request through your public library. Kuhn's work is available once again, possibly because connections between art and photography are no longer considered taboo. There are other articles posted here that deal with that subject about Fernand Khnopff, Charles Zoller, and the two woman team of Mespoulet & Mignon.