Bill Henson: On Beauty

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BILL HENSON writes:

Re-visiting the great filmmaker Syberberg’s strange and haunting Requiem For a Virgin King, I was struck, once more, by the psychological parallels between Ludwig 2nd, the ‘mad King’ of Bavaria, and Richard Wagner. Looking at Syberberg’s film I was particularly reminded of what makes the music so compelling. It is the unreasonableness of its beauty. An almost terrible beauty that defies explanation.

We can draw all manner of conclusions about the unsavoury, even obnoxious character of the composer and his eccentric patron but eventually we come up against the ultimate and unassailable fact of the composer’s genius.

As Elias Canetti observed, ‘virtuosity is the last refuge of art’. Tens of thousands around the world can play the piano very, very well, but, only a handful can play the piano and make us feel like we’re in a thunderstorm - and there’s no way around it.

Bill Henson
'Untitled 2015-20' CL SH849 N18, 2015–20
Archival inkjet pigment print
127 x 180 cm (paper size)
57,000.00 (framed price). Edition of 5 + 2 AP

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Why speak about these two figures from the distant past and a world that has disappeared? Why? Because one of the things that makes good art perennially, millennially compelling is just this ‘unreasonableness’, it is what we experience when we fall in love. The seeming inevitability, this sense of power, borrowed but never owned, all of this is at the center of any art that matters – and its agent is beauty.

As the great poet Peter Schjeldahl wrote, ‘beauty makes a case for the sacredness of something and wins that case, suddenly and irrationally.’

In Syberberg’s film, which uses live staged acting, location filming as well as studio actors against a crude back-projection, it is the obviousness of the ‘unreality’ which charges the performances with such poignancy and lends a vertiginous gravity to the smallest of gestures – all is artifice. Art is artifice.

Bill Henson
'Untitled 2010-20' RC SH47 N32C, 2010–20
Archival inkjet pigment print
127 x 180 cm (paper size)
57,000.00 (framed price). Edition of 5 + 2AP

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Due to the emotional authenticity of the gestures, hope and humanity, stylized somewhere between Romanticism and Symbolism much as we experience in the often outlandish staging of opera, again and again cause us to fall in love. Beauty, irrational, mysterious and irresistible, takes us away to another place.

Whenever we stand in front of a Crozat Watteau in the Louvre or watch in sweet spellbound horror as John Huston scoops Faye Dunaway’s daughter out of her dead mother’s car at the close of Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’, whether it is film, music, a picture or poetry and fiction, the best of it will overtake reason capturing our hearts and minds.

We should remind ourselves, from time to time, that despite what goes on in the world, the best in art always recommends the truth and its sometimes complex and ambiguous nature. As Plato said ‘beauty is the splendor of truth.’

– Bill Henson, 1 May 2020

Bill Henson
'Untitled 2016-20' CL SH816 N9, 2016–20
Archival inkjet pigment print
127 x 180 cm (paper size)
57,000.00 (framed price). Edition of 5 + 2 AP

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