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MFA Houston Presents First Major Retrospective Devoted to Photographer Heinrich Kühn
Heinrich Kühn, Violets, c. 1908. Autochrome, Albertina, Vienna.

HOUSTON, TX.- 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 processes, such as gum bichromate, that gave him the freedom to manipulate tones, add or eliminate portions of his negatives details, and 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: The Perfect Photograph will be on view through 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 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.

"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 is 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 are 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.

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