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

On a Meadow in Birgitz (Hans and Mary Sitting) /Wiese in Birgitz (Hans und Mary sitzend) by Heinrich Kühn, c. 1908

On a Meadow in Birgitz (Hans and Mary Sitting) /Wiese in Birgitz (Hans und Mary sitzend) by Heinrich Kühn, c. 1908

Heinrich Kühn
Museum of Fine Art, Houston
March 6 through May 30, 2011

Houston is Exclusive U.S. Venue; Exhibition Opens March 6, 2011, Following Presentations in Vienna and Paris

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 process, such as gum bichromate, that gave him the freedom to manipulate tones, add or eliminate portions of his negatives details, and to 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 will be on view in Houston March 6—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’s collection. The MFAH is the only venue in the United States for this retrospective, arriving in Houston after stops at the Albertina, Vienna, and the Musée d’Orsay, 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 seventeen years.

In 1895, the artist joined the Vienna Camera Club (founded 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 turned toward 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.

Organization and Funding

This exhibition is organized by the Albertina, Vienna. Generous funding is provided by Mr. James Edward Maloney and Mr. Carey Chambers Maloney; The Margaret Cooke Skidmore Endowed Exhibition Fund; Mr. and Mrs. Richard S. Jackson; Mr. and Mrs. James G. Munisteri; Mr. and Mrs. Alexander K. McLanahan; Joan and Stanford Alexander; and Ms. Carey C. Shuart.

Upcoming Exhibitions at the MFAH

  • Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color in Space and Time February 6–July 4, 2011
  • Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection
    February 13–May 8, 2011
  • Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art February 20—May 23, 2011
  • Neoclassicism: A Taste for the Antique, 1730–1790 March 20–May 30, 2011
  • Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork May 15—September 11, 2011
  • Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National
    Galleries of Scotland
    May 22–August 14, 2011
  • Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes
    July 3 — September 25, 2011

MFAH Collections

Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers nearly 63,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present. Featured are the finest artistic examples of the major civilizations of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Italian Renaissance paintings, French Impressionist works, photographs, American and European decorative arts, African and Pre-Columbian gold, American art, and European and American paintings and sculpture from post-1945 are particularly strong holdings. Recent additions to the collections include Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1633), the Heiting Collection of Photography, a major suite of Gerhard Richter paintings, an array of important works by Jasper Johns, a rare, second-century Hellenistic bronze Head of Poseidon/Antigonos Doson, major canvases by 19th-century painters Gustave Courbet and J.M.W. Turner, Albert Bierstadt’s Indians Spear Fishing (1862), distinguished work by the leading 20th- and 21st-century artists from Latin America, and The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art.

On a Meadow in Birgitz (Hans and Mary Sitting) /Wiese in Birgitz (Hans und Mary sitzend) by Heinrich Kühn, c. 1908

On a Meadow in Birgitz (Hans and Mary Sitting) /Wiese in Birgitz (Hans und Mary sitzend) by Heinrich Kühn, c. 1908

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