A significant painting by seminal British pop artist Nigel Henderson, has just joined works by Alberto Giacometti, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Jackson Pollock in Parallel of Life and Art, an exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield running till June 2015. Arguably one of the most important figures in post-war British art, Henderson was once described by his contemporary Richard Hamilton as ‘a conduit of ideas and information’, however, unlike his peers Hamilton and Paolozzi, he did not become a household name.
Born in London in 1917, Henderson studied biology at Chelsea Polytechnic in London (1935-36). After serving as a pilot for coastal command in World War II, he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1945-49). There he befriended Paolozzi, with whom he visited Paris, meeting Constantin Brancusi, Fernand Léger, Alberto Giacometti, Georges Braque and Hans Arp.
After leaving the Slade, Henderson began to experiment with photography, and between 1949 and 1952 he took numerous documentary photographs of Bethnal Green in east London, where he was then living. During this period he began to experiment with unusual effects by altering negatives or by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper to create photograms.
Between 1952 and 1955, Henderson was part of the highly significant collection of writers, thinkers and creative practitioners known at The Independent Group. Leading artists such as Hamilton, Paolozzi and William Turnbull; architects Alison and Peter Smithson and critics Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham all contributed to the interdisciplinary events, talks and exhibitions, often held at the new Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Their shared aim was to introduce mass culture into debates about high culture. They drew from a range of sources including the pages of science-fiction magazines, Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Hollywood film, machine designs, the streets of London’s East End and the influence of this radical new approach to looking at and working with visual culture can still be felt in the work of contemporary artists today.
One of the Independent Group’s most radical projects was the pioneering Pop art exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1956. It was here that Henderson showed the large and disturbing altered photograph Head of a Man (1956), Tate collection. The focus of the exhibition was an investigation of the theoretical possibilities of integrating art and architecture. There were twelve groups of people involved, each group consisting of an architect, a painter and a sculptor. These groups were tasked with working collaboratively to create an ‘environment’. Most of the artists’ scenes of the future were futuristic and celebratory. But Patio and Pavilion, designed by Henderson, Paolozzi and the Smithsons, had an air of impending doom. Its collage of detritus looked like an ‘archaeological dig of an ancient, prewar world destroyed in a nuclear holocaust’, said the critic Reynar Banham. Dominating the scene was Henderson’s sinister Head of a Man (1956), a monumental and extraordinary photo-collage, now in the Tate collection. It appeared like a Frankenstein’s monster made of different photographic parts, some vegetable, some mineral. It was both human and something altogether not human.
The 16th century artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s paintings of heads composed of vegetables and fruits was definitely an inspiration for Henderson (see above). As well as drawing on Renaissance art, Henderson was looking to scientific ideas, in particular metamorphosis, the biological process by which an animal physically develops through cell growth and differentiation. The manner in which he made these photo-collages almost mimic this metamorphosing process. First Henderson would experiment in the darkroom by taking photos of debris from bomb sites, vegetables, and other found objects. He would then use these to make a collage, after which he would chose sections to increase in size using his photo-enlarger. Henderson liked to compare his photo-enlarger to a microscope used to examine an organism’s cell structure. Oil paint was also used to link up lines between different elements in the collage. Sometimes Henderson would drip paint on to a glass sheet and when dry, scratch and doodle over it with a compass. These patterns would then be photographed and the photos incorporated in the collages. This technique was in part indebted to the methods of his friend Len Lye, who created animated abstract films by scratching directly onto celluloid.
The Head of a Man currently at The Hepworth Wakefield is a later evolution of the earlier Head of a Man shown at This is Tomorrow. Both are hatched from the same ‘egg’ if you will, an earlier negative of a collage made by Henderson. However, the later Head has been worked up more in oils than in collage. When describing Head of a Man, Henderson wrote, ‘The face was heavily textured to underline the association with hide or bark and the bust/shoulders were adumbrated with bits of photo-material like stone or leaf to further this association with nature.’
Too often Henderson’s early Heads are associated with decay and atrophy, and believed to be a potent expression of post-war angst and disillusionment. This may in part be true; however he also intended these works to be testament to the great regenerative and restorative power of nature.
For the next 30 years, Henderson would return again and again to the theme of the human head, continuously evolving and mutating the human form using the building blocks of his earlier collages and photographs. It would remain an artistic obsession until the end of his life. One of his last works, (see below: Head Collage, c.1980) shows the artist literally reworking his own face and becoming a collage. The logical next step in the evolution, fusing nature, man and material.
Image credits (top to bottom):
Nigel Henderson, Head of Man, 1956-1961. Oil and photographic processes on card. Arts Council Collection. Acquired 1977. © Estate of Nigel Henderson & the Mayor Gallery, London
The artists from the This is Tomorrow exhibition catalogue. (L-R) Paolozzi, Peter Smithson, Alison Smithson and Henderson
Patio and Pavillion, designed by Henderson, the Smithsons and Hamilton. Exhibited at This Is Tomorrow, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1956
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c 1590-1. Skokloster Castle, Sweden
Parallel of Life and Art, installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1952
Nigel Henderson, Self-Portrait, c. 1980-82