Museum of Fine Arts Houston Opens Heinrich Kuhn The Perfect Photograph

MFA Houston Presents First Major Retrospective Devoted to Pictorialist Photographer Heinrich Kühn

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents over 100 photographs in this first major retrospective in the United States devoted to Austrian photographer and scientist Heinrich Kühn (1866–1944), an important figure in the international Pictorialist movement of the early 1900s and closely linked to Americans Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Like his fellow Pictorialists, Kühn aspired to have photography recognized as an artistic medium and in his early work strived to create in his photographs the atmospheric effects of Impressionist paintings. He perfected printing processes, such as gum bichromate, that gave him the freedom to manipulate tones, add or eliminate portions of his negatives details, and print on papers with varied textures, giving him exceptional control over the final image.

At times, the photographs had the character of etchings or charcoal drawings. Kühn became renowned for the simple elegance of his compositions and for subjects ranging from intimate portraits and nudes to still lifes and rural scenes.

Heinrich Kühn: The Perfect Photograph will be on view in Houston from March 6 to May 30, 2011. The exhibition is the culmination of research by the Albertina’s chief curator of photography, Monika Faber, who has studied the photographer throughout her career and has gained increasing access to the Kühn family archives, allowing Kühn’s oeuvre to be positioned within a broad context for the first time. The extraordinary catalogue presenting Kühn’s images has been co-edited with Astrid Mahler, who also oversaw the innovative presentation of autochromes within the show. The Houston presentation is overseen by Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, and includes 15 Kühn photographs from the MFAH collection. The MFAH is the only venue in the United States for this retrospective, arriving in Houston after stops at the Albertina in Vienna and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

“Houston is pleased to be the sole venue in the nation for the most comprehensive Kühn retrospective in the world,” said MFAH director Peter Marzio. “Anne Tucker and the MFAH are recognized for showcasing many landmark exhibits of this sort—from surveys on Czech avant-garde photography and the history of Japanese photography to major retrospectives for significant masters.”

“Spanning four decades of Kühn’s career, this retrospective showcases the renowned photographer’s expert use of light, composition and color motifs,” commented Tucker. “Kühn and his contemporaries elevated photography from a strictly commercial venture to an accepted artistic medium.”

The exhibition will be organized into groupings that reflect Kühn’s primary subjects: landscapes; portraits; “open-air” studies; children; still lifes; and his experiments with sunlight exposures. Kühn intended for his landscapes to convey Austria’s mountains and land as a place for communal peace and individual freedom. A number of studio shots will be on view, reflecting Kühn’s work as a commercial portrait photographer as well as one who photographed subjects of his choosing such as fellow photographers Frank Eugene and Edward Steichen. A section of the show is devoted to portraits of Mary Warner, the Kühn children’s nanny, who became a central motif in his work. Individual and group portraits of Kühn’s children—Walther, Edeltrude, Hans and Lotte—were central to his work over decades and read as renditions of an idyllic family life. In 1910, after his brother-in-law lost the family fortune through bad investments,Kühn started a private photography school. Then in 1921, the artist withdrew from Innsbruck to Birgitz with Warner and his children and turned to picturesque locals and rolling landscapes for his plein-air studies. Kühn shot his carefully composed still lifes in a special blend of Modernist and Old Master traditions, and also used those compositions to test his increasingly complex experiments with lenses, diaphragms, filters, and printing techniques.

About the Artist
Born in Dresden, Germany, Kühn studied botany and medicine in Leipzig and Freiburg and was introduced to photography by way of science: microphotography in medical research in histology and bacteriology at the Robert-Koch-Institut, Berlin. He moved to Innsbruck in 1888 to continue his medical studies and became increasingly interested in photography. His father’s death in 1893 allowed Kühn to lead a life unburdened by financial cares for the next 17 years.

In 1895, the artist joined the Vienna Camera Club (founded in 1887) where he was most aligned in aesthetic matters with Hugo Hennenberg and Hans Watzek. The three men called themselves the Vienna Trifolium and traveled and photographed together as well as submitted works to the same exhibitions. Until World War I, Kühn took part in four or five national or international exhibitions a year. and published in many major art magazines as well as technical journals. Kühn also regularly visited the museums in Vienna and Munich. In 1904, he met the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, with whom he corresponded for nearly 30 years. Stieglitz published Kühn’s photographs in Camera Work (1906 and 1911) and the two were friends and influenced each other’s work.

Kühn is most renowned, however, for his continued investigation into the effect of optical and chemical influence on the reproduction of brightness values. From 1907, Kühn was the undisputed master of the autochrome, a technique with rich and delicate colors perfected by the Lumière brothers. After 1910, Kühn began to withdraw from public life and gradually produced less work, in part due to the sea change in artistic taste that favored the Parisian avant-garde and found Kühn outdated. He turnedtoward writing and editing for specialist journals and pioneering additional scientific and technical experiments. He developed, among other products, a movable-back camera, a soft-focus lens (sold as “Imagon” in 1931), and a double-exposure film. He died in 1944 at 78.

Image: Heinrich Kühn, Mary Warner and Edeltrude (Mary Warner und Edeltrude), c. 1908, autochrome. © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv, Vienna

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