New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 SUMMER ISSUE AUGUST 2012 July 31 to September 4, 2012

Early Modern Color
Heinrich Kuehn
Heinrich Kuehn and His American Circle: Stieglitz and Steichen
Tim Connor
Still-life with Violets by Heinrich Kuehn. Source: neuegalerie.org
Heinrich Kuehn, "Still-life with Violets" 1908

Around the turn of the last century the Austrian photographer Heinrich Kuehn befriended two seminal American photographers, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. The three men visited each other, taking pictures together in both the U.S. and Europe, while Stieglitz and Kuehn corresponded vociferously for over 30 years.

This trans-Atlantic artistic friendship is the basis of a new show, “Heidrich Kuehn and His American Circle: Stieglitz and Steichen,” at the Neue Galerie. No doubt the concept serves as an excuse to pull in American audiences who know Stieglitz and Steichen, but it’s also a fascinating exercise in curatorial sleuthing. As the show makes clear, ideas did flow freely among the men. We see Kuehn’s boldly romantic use of natural symbols like trees and clouds turning up in prints by Stieglitz and Steichen. At the same time the Modernist tendencies of the two New Yorkers start to appear in Kuehn’s painterly landscapes.

But what impresses most about this show is the sheer impact of its century-old prints.

In a back room the show’s curator Monika Faber has reconstructed a 1906 installation from Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 of Kuehn’s large pictorialist land and seascapes. The approach is as insistent as any contemporary artist aiming to grab attention. Strongly tinted in cyans, greens, brick reds and carroty oranges, the pictures seem to leap out of their frames. Hardly the faded stuff of ancient photo history, they are bright as a new penny.

Later, Kuehn’s Stieglitz-inspired turn toward Modernist clarity exhibits a freshness one rarely sees in large-format work before 1920. Abandoning pictorialism’s large prints, universal themes and painterly effects, Kuehn launched into Modernism by making intimate, psychologically–telling portraits of his family.

 Edeltrude and Lotte by Heinrich Kuehn. Source: neuegalerie.org
Heinrich Kuehn, " Edeltrude and Lotte" 1912-1913.

A recent piece by Karen Rosenberg in the New York Times called Kuehn “one of the medium’s great control freaks” and described how, when making the family portraits, “…he selected a site and sketched it in pencil, had his children and their nanny assume specific poses in clothing he had preselected for its photogenic qualities, and waited until every shadow was right where he wanted it to be.”

Yet Kuehn’s portraits in this show – even those in color, using the then-new Auto chrome process – seem remarkably unposed, warm and natural. How could such a punctilious taskmaster produce such relaxed work? The answer probably lies with the family’s young English nanny, Mary Warner, who had taken charge of Kuehn’s four children after his wife died. Photographed by Kuehn with his children, Warner seems a tender presence. When she reveals her face to the lens she is nothing short of radiant.

It comes as no surprise then that during this period the two were lovers. Later, as Kuehn’s companion, Warner posed for an erotically charged series of nudes, some of which are included in the show.

After that, Kuehn’s story goes down hill. The First World War devastated his traditional world. He lost his money and stopped reaching out to the great world beyond the borders of Austria . In the end – so the story goes – Kuehn became a crank and finally a recluse.

I wonder what happened to Mary Warner?

Heinrich Kuehn
Heinrich Kuehn and His American Circle: Stieglitz and Steichen
Curator: Monika Faber

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Thursday, April 26 to
Monday, August 27, 2012
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