It's rude to stare: Bill Henson revisited

Bill Henson, Untitled, 1980—82 from the Untitled 1980/82 series, gelatin silver photograph, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Anonymous gift, 1993 © Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. Part of the exhibition, Looking at Looking: The Photographic Gaze at NGV International.

Bill Henson could be a latter-day Actaeon, the hapless deer-hunter metamorphosed into a stag and then killed by his own hounds for spying on the nude goddess Diana at her bath. Although surreptitious, watching or staring at others is an ancient topos in cultural history it is still fraught with danger and taboo especially where nudity is involved. Even today it is considered rude to stare.

Since the Renaissance both church and state have punished visual art, using it as a scapegoat for their failure to control community sexuality. By 1600 the Council of Trent had been set up to redress the Roman Catholic Church’s reputation for licentiousness and corruption. Consequently churches were forbidden to install paintings containing images of nudity.[1] More than three centuries later President Reagan’s concern over the erosion of US “family values” led to the Meese Commission on Pornography 1985-86. The inquiry resulted in the withdrawal of state funding to artists, a significant number of them homosexual or feminist, whose art contained images of nudity and was allegedly pornographic.[2] Punishment was thus centered not only on sexuality but also and especially on minority sexualities and specifically on visual art and the explicitness of the visual image. The disproportionate punishment distracted public attention from serious dangers to the nation such as its involvement in foreign wars.

The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s declaration in 2008 that Henson’s nude photograph of a thirteen-year-old girl was “revolting” is a local twenty-first century example of a government leader’s misleading condemnation of visual art. Rudd’s intervention occasioned a raid on Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery by the New South Wales Police, diverting attention intentionally or not from a greater social problem troubling his government: its failure to prevent access to child pornography on the internet. Since the Howard government spent millions of dollars developing pornography “filters”, which in the end did not work, the Rudd government, and now the Gillard government, have failed to provide an alternative solution. The fact that Rudd seized the opportunity to pillory Henson cannot be divorced from this highly charged political context.

Paedophilia is now the bogeyman of the age. With the rapid increase in new electronic delivery systems pornographic images of children circulate virtually undetected to covert paedophile rings around the world. The elusiveness of this traffic in illicit material underlines the fact that the greatest possessors of power are no longer governments but multinational corporations whose wealth is hidden. As Gilles Deleuze put it “The operation of markets is now the instrument of social control and forms the impudent breed of our masters.”[3] A massive global appetite for pornography has fuelled the development of all new visual technologies—video, cable television and now the internet.[4] In 1990 the Rupert Murdoch—controlled BskyB supplied satellite dishes across teh UK and although initially the take-up was small and the enterprise ran at a loss, it boomed in 1993 when hard-core porn from other EU countries was allowed broadcasting access into Britain.[5] Anxious to profit by the latest technological invention that might secure the largest market, big media corporations fiercely vie with one another to buy or gain exclusive access.[6]

While their companies are competing in this pornography-driven market Murdoch and other media moguls maintain a front as defenders of public standards through news reports and commentary including publication of the names of recently convicted paedophiles. The 2008 Henson scandal occupied front-page news for more than two weeks perpetuating the image of community outrage.

Reporting on Henson’s April 2011 show at Tolarno Galleries the daily papers tried to incite a similar public response. The Age featured a large front-page heading, “Bill Henson back on show in Melbourne, nakedly unrepentant.” [7]The headline is judgmental and inflammatory considering the Classifications Board judged Henson’s 2008 show not to be pornographic. Without even seeing Henson’s 2011 show the reporter for the Herald Sun provocatively invited online comments under the heading “New Bill Henson nudes may offend again.” [8]Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu was careful not to be drawn into the controversy and the publication of a favourable review by John McDonald in The Sydney Morning Herald signalled the media frenzy had ended. Nevertheless the protracted nature of the scandal had enabled newspapers to maintain high sales thereby satisfying advertisers’ requirements.

Throughout his career, while being subject himself to surveillance by critics, including feminists, moral rights activists and the government, Henson made surveillance and related photographic modes of looking dominant themes in his art. Although he identifies his practice with the history of painting, he also demonstrates a contemporary understanding of the line he, as photographer, treads between empathy and exploitation of his human subjects. Surveillance through the artist’s camera compared with that of unmanned surveillance cameras is based on a more intimate relationship between the watcher and the watched. The tension underpinning Henson’s moral negotiation of this relationship gives his art a powerful allure that often outweighs its promise of beauty and eroticism. Drawing on images of adolescent sensuality from art history Henson emulated their forms, colours, themes and affects, mixing them in his own work with the anxious pleasures of photographing living bodies through a camera lens.

Resonances of French Impressionism and late Melbourne Modernism permeate his 1970s ballet and schoolgirl studies evoking a flâneur’s view of gloomy urban everyday life. A more journalistic and surreptitious form of surveillance structures Henson’s late 1970s and early 1980s black-and-white scenes of crowds as they jostle in wintry non-descript public places waiting, solemn and compliant. In these works Foucault’s concept of the self-regulating disciplinary society comes to mind; a society that is watched both from a singular panoptical vantage point and through the agency of individuals watching one another.[9] A few of Henson’s crowd members appear fleetingly to be attractive, menacing or innocent. Occasionally one stares at another with casual curiosity and another appears almost to meet the gaze of the artist/spectator. On such occasions we as spectators recoil at the possibility that our own voyeurism might be exposed. In his 1990s bacchanalian car-crash scenes Henson developed this sense of the photographer’s and spectator’s voyeurism self-reflexively by presenting the photographs shredded, literally and allegorically as though they were evidence to be destroyed before the police arrive.

While most people depicted in Henson’s crowd and crash series appear to be unaware of the photographer’s presence it is clear a mutually agreed-upon contract underpins other studies of naked adolescents. His allusion to art-historical precedence further emphasises the professional status of the contract. Most of his nude adolescents find analogies in paintings, photography or art genres from the past, including themes that suggest male masturbation, drunken heterosexual encounter, female abuse and masochism. [10] In his April 2011 exhibition at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Henson demonstrated this legitimating precedence emphatically, perhaps defensively, by including images of spectators in front of paintings by Rembrandt in the Hermitage Museum. Compared with the flesh and blood vitality of the contentious image of a girl in Untitled 2008, used as the invitation to the show, most works in the 2011 show featured grainy, blue-tinged, marmoreal nudes that resemble sculptures, even corpses.

Bill Henson, Untitled 1980–82 from the Untitled 1980/82 series, gelatin silver photograph, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Anonymous gift, 1993 © Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

The pose of the girl in Untitled, 2008 belongs with the art above in that it resembles the pose of the girl in Edvard Munch’s painting Puberty 1895. In other respects Untitled, 2008 is exceptional for straining the boundary between art and life that Henson is usually at pains to preserve. The girl does not express shame as the Munch girl does, even though both girls look downwards avoiding the spectator’s gaze. Nor does she express any other emotion, inhabit a fictional setting or perform in a fictional narrative. The black featureless background, the landscape format and the discreet backlighting of a halo of tiny soft hairs around the girl’s body enhance the “reality effect” of photography. This strengthens the sense that she is warm, alive and posing in real time and space. In fact the strategic way Henson has deployed these artistic conventions suggests the genre is not allegory, fantasy or homage to painting but photographic portraiture.

The category difference does not reflect change in the professional status of the artist’s contract but forces questioning of its ethical terms. The absence of theatrical embellishment conveys a sense that the artist has a high regard for the model’s integrity and personal dignity, as in a portrait study, and the girl’s nakedness therefore might seem inappropriate. Nude portraits of adults are not unprecedented in the history of art and, as David Marr claimed, the girl and her parents willingly consented to her posing nude for Henson. Critics nevertheless questioned the maturity of the girl and the moral status of the parents’ consent.[11] Untitled, 2008 is exceptional in the way the girl’s developing nipples dominate the centre of the composition and are clearly delineated in subtle light and shade. As Marr said budding breasts are “rarely seen and almost never celebrated. In our culture, budding breasts are extraordinarily private. These things aren’t sacrosanct, but Henson has broken a powerful little taboo.”[12] Untitled, 2008 was also exceptional for being released into the global, amoral space of the internet where the distinction between art and pornography might seem to dissolve. True to his belief in the inherent truth of art Henson has rejected this argument insisting art dignifies the internet with humanist values.[13]

New Australia Council constraints on artists following the Henson controversy and other attempts to regulate ethical standards in art have given rise to introverted forms of surveillance. According to NAVA’s Tamara Winikoff, artist self-censorship and institutional reluctance to display images of the child are leading to the disappearance of the image of the child from the public domain. [14] Irrespective of the Henson case, artists around the world have chosen increasingly to reject corporatised art and galleries altogether in favour of collective resistance and not-for-profit forms of creative community involvement. A pluralist concept of art demands all these artists, including Henson, enjoy the title “artist” and that the “artistic defence” is retained in law. One might feel uncomfortable about how Henson uses adolescents in his art because it tests moral boundaries. But, in my view, he undertakes his task with skill, ethical care and intelligence while challenging viewers to consider issues of cultural importance.

History shows that when surveillance fails to assist governments in controlling the wayward sexuality of societies, visual art is vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile corporatised, mediated surveillance has permeated our everyday lives making the location and punishment of the most powerful perpetrators of crime increasingly difficult. In defending Heyson’s art it is important to acknowledge that it is able to make a positive contribution to cultural debate precisely because it is persuasively, sometimes explicitly visual as well as undecided and open to interpretation.


  1. ^ Helen McDonald ‘Erotic Ambiguities’ The Female Nude in Art, Routledge, London and New York 2001 p. 64.
  2. ^ ibid p. 33.
  3. ^ Gilles Deleuze ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ October, Vol. 59 Winter 1992 pp. 6.
  4. ^ John Arlidge ‘The dirty secret that drives new technology: it’s porn’ The Observer, Sun 3 Mar 2002 p. 20.
  5. ^ According to an unverified entry in Wikipedia, Murdoch’s Time Warner in the US also profits from pornography through its cable channels and hotel in-room movies.
  6. ^ Murdoch’s recent purchase of Myspace for instance was an allegedly failed effort to break into the booming social media race to compensate for declining newspaper sales.
  7. ^ The Herald Sun:
  8. ^ The Age:
  9. ^ Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans from French by Alan Sheridan, Pantheon Books, New York c.1977.
  10. ^ See Mnemosyne: Bill Henson, Scalo, Zurich-Berlin-New York/ Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, p. 13-27, 36-51, 249-281 and 467-70.
  11. ^ David Marr ‘Age of Consent,’ The Henson Case, Text Publishing, Melbourne 2008, p. 99-106.
  12. ^ ibid p. 5.
  13. ^ ibid p. 107.
  14. ^ Tamara Winikoff, Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) interviewed by Helen McDonald 23 March 2011. Winikoff explained that in 2008 the Minister for the Arts at the time, Peter Garrett (Labor), instructed the Australia Council for the Arts (ACA) to institute ‘protocols for working with children in art.’ In implementing this instruction, the ACA overreacted, failing to take NAVA’s advice. After a year, in 2009, ACA reassessed the protocols and concluded they were too restrictive. The ACA subsequently followed NAVA’s advice, negotiating with the Classifications Board to ensure any artist subject to the protocols could submit through the Australia Council to the Classifications Board free of charge. In other words, although artists subject to the protocols are exempt from paying a fee, they still must have their work classified. Hence the protocols continue to present burdensome time constraints on arti

Bill Henson declined through Tolarno Galleries to supply Artlink with images from either his most recent exhibition there, or from his 2008 exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

Helen McDonald is an art historian and Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She is author of Erotic Ambiguities: The Female Nude in Art (London& New York: Routledge) 2001 and Patricia Piccinini: Nearly Beloved (Sydney: Piper Press) 2011 (forthcoming).