by John Elder May 25, 2008
Bill Henson's photo of a nude 13-year-old girl, which has drawn a reaction from police and the Prime Minister.
But it was only the art world that cared. Occasionally it voiced some discomfort, but mostly there was admiration for an artist whose moody use of light and dark subject matter was in the spirit of bad-boy painter Caravaggio and hard-drinking poet Baudelaire.
Excerpt from this 26 min documentary on controversial Melbourne photographer Bill HENSON, set against the Venice Arts' Biennial where he was the Australian Artist representative with a major exhibition.
But this time the police have stepped in, a prime minister has called his pictures "revolting", and "that Bill Henson" has come close to being a notorious household name.
In 1983, he photographed a group of young nude junkies lying about in European museums. The toughest criticism he received was being called "obvious".
About 15 years he ago he produced a series of teenage nudes sprawled across car bonnets. Not titillating; more akin to a nightmarish car wreck. Some of this series of nudes are on show at the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, where they have barely raised an eyebrow, let alone a scandal.
Director of the gallery Ron Ramsey said yesterday: "When that series first went on show, internationally, there was more concern with the way they were presented … with rough edges and some of them actually torn. We have a couple in the collection and there has never been, as far as I know, any concern or complaints from the public.
"They had to go through the (Newcastle) council and the acquisition committee, and there were no objections raised. That's what's shocking everybody — that works similar to what we've put on display are now the subject of a police investigation and all this controversy. We're gobsmacked."
Forty years ago, artist Martin Sharp was famously tried for obscenity because of a piece he wrote for Oz magazine. Last week he received an invitation to Henson's exhibition, which features a topless 13-year-old.
"It was a powerful image. I would call it very beautiful in its vulnerability rather than 'revolting' as the Prime Minister has done," Sharp said. The photograph suggested the girl "gave her trust to Henson … and this trust has been violated by the police and Kevin Rudd's comments."