LIGHT IN THE SHADOW
SO, the Egyptian priest observed to Herodotus, in your country the water comes out of the sky; in ours, it comes up out of the river in the annual floods. Perhaps this is the reason the Egyptians imagined the sky as a goddess, Nut, arching over the male earth, Geb, whereas all the other cultures of the Mediterranean spontaneously think of the earth as a mother (Ge or Gaia in Greek), and the sky as a male figure who inseminates her (Ouranos). And no doubt this environmental anomaly and the concomitant peculiarity of Egyptian mythology is related to another phenomenon that struck Herodotus, which was the reversal, in Egypt, of many of the gender roles with which he was familiar.
But the story also reminds us there are lands in which rain is almost non-existent, and consequently where clouds too are virtually unknown. In painting, clouds are naturally more commonly represented in the north of Europe than in the south; clouds generally play a less prominent role in Italian Renaissance art or in the classical landscape than in the landscapes of 17th-century Holland. The flat topography of The Netherlands leads to compositions with a low horizon and vast, cloud-filled skies; and where the classical landscape is concerned with the perennial and cyclical temporality of seasons and times of day, the Dutch landscape is naturally dominated by the inescapable and unpredictable vicissitudes of the weather.
This was the tradition inherited by Constable, but for him as for the later impressionists, the unstable mobility of clouds was of interest in itself, as an image of a new and fluid sense of human experience. At the same time, clouds could have other metaphorical connotations, particularly as the harbingers of storms, among the most powerful metaphors in art and literature. Giorgione’s La Tempesta (c. 1508) is the first great modern image of dark and threatening clouds, and there would be many more in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the romantics became fascinated by the power of nature unleashed in storms at sea or in the mountains.
These are among the traditions and memories whose traces can be discerned in the cloud photographs of Bill Henson — the ostensible subject of an absorbing exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW — but he is also profoundly aware of another set of symbolic meanings, in which clouds are associated with mystical experience, otherwordly visitation, transcendence and epiphany. And clouds are akin also to shadows and darkness, so pervasively employed in the extreme chiaroscuro of Henson’s compositions.
Indeed, the small number of pictures in a show titled Cloud Landscapes that are expressly concerned with the physical phenomenon should suggest we are being invited to think more symbolically about the subject of clouds, of what they represent and of what they may conceal from or reveal to us.
The images, selected from several decades of the artist’s oeuvre, cover most of his familiar themes, but deliberately present them outside their original series and suggest resonances across the imaginary world that Henson has built up progressively throughout his career, but is here imagined as simultaneous, or perhaps as a puzzle that has finally been assembled and can be looked at as a whole.
The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between Judy Annear, senior curator of photography at the AGNSW, and Henson