Austrian photographer Heidrich Kuehn was a friend of well-known American shooters Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen around the turn of the last century. The three men visited each other and took pictures together in both the U.S. and Europe; Stieglitz and Kuehns also 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 can literally see Kuehn’s bold romantic use of natural symbols like trees and clouds turn 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 an installation of Kuehn’s large-sized Pictorialist land- and seascapes that appeared in 1906 in Stieglitz’s Gallery 291. The approach is as insistent as any contemporary artist aiming to grab eyeballs. 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 brassy and bright as a new penny.
Later, Kuehn’s Stieglitz-inspired turn toward Modernist clarity also exhibits a freshness one rarely sees in large-format pictures before 1920. Abandoning the large prints, universal themes and impressionist effects of Pictorialism, Kuehn launched into Modernism by making intimate, psychologically–telling portraits of his family.
A recent piece by Karen Rosenberg in the New York Times calls Kuehn “one of the medium’s great control freaks” and describes how, in 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 Autochrome 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 that, during this period, master and nanny 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 swiftly down hill. The First World War devastated his traditional world. He lost his money and stopped reaching out to the great world beyond his Tyrolean hills. In the end – so the story goes – Kuehn became a crank and finally a recluse.
I wonder what happened to Mary Warner?