Florence Henri was a surrealist artist born in New York City 1893, to a French father and a German mother. She left the United States permanently at age two, following the death of her mother in 1895. Henri and her father began traveling for his work as a director of a petroleum company. She spent her childhood moving between maternal relatives in Silesia then part of Germany, a convent school in Paris, and family homes in London and the Isle of Wight. She primarily focused her practice on photography and painting, in addition to pianist composition.
Henri began to study music in Paris at the age of nine In 1906, Henri and her father settled on the Isle of Wight in England where her father then died in 1908. After the death of her father, Henri went to live in Rome with Gino Gori, a poet who introduced Henri to the avant-garde art movement.
She studied in Rome, where she would encounter the Futurists, finding inspiration in their movement. From 1910 to 1922, she studied piano in Berlin, under the instruction of Egon Petri and Ferrucio Busoni. She would find herself landlocked to Berlin during the first World War, supporting herself by composing piano tracks for silent films. She returned to Paris in 1922, to attend the Académie André Lhote, and would attend until the end of 1923. From 1924 to 1925, she would study under painters Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant at the Académie Moderne.
Henri’s most important artistic training would come from the Bauhaus in Dessau, in 1927, where she studied on masters Josef Albersand László Moholy-Nagy, who would introduce her to the medium of photography. By 1928 she had abandoned painting and set up her own studio as a professional freelance photographer.
She returned to Paris in 1929 where she started seriously experimenting and working with photography up until 1963. Her work includes experimental photography, advertising, and portraits, many of which featured other artists of the time.
After visiting the Academy of the Arts in Berlin, Henri decided to pursue painting instead of music. Throughout this period, Henri focused on figure studies and landscapes. During this time, she met Jewish German critic and art historian Carl Einstein who became a mentor and close friend until his death in 1940. Following World War I, Henri studied under artists such as Johann Walter-Kurau and Vasily Kandinsky.
In 1925, Florence Henri enrolled in the Académie Moderne to study under Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. In the summer of 1925, Polish painter Victor Yanaga Poznanski organised “Exposition International. L’Art d’Aujourd’hui.” It was the first international exhibition of avant-garde art in Paris since World War I. Besides Henri, other artists at the exhibit included Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso. After exhibiting works in the “Exposition de l’Académie Moderne” at the Galerie Aubier in March 1927, Henri enrolled at the Bauhaus in Dessau.
One of her self-portraits was published by Moholy-Nagy in i10 Internationale Revue. Moholy-Nagy’s critique recognises that her photographs fulfill the tenet of ‘making strange’ where ‘reflections and spatial relationships, overlapping and penetrations are examined from a new perspectival angle’. Many of her photographs incorporate mirrors; Henri used mirrors for her own self-dramatisations, in commercial work and to make portraits of friends such as Jean Arp, Petra Van Doesburg, Sonia Delaunay, Wassili Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, and Margarete Schall.
In 1930, she exhibited in the International Exhibition ‘Das Lichtbild’ The Photograph in Munich. The year after she showed images at a ‘Foreign Advertising Photography’ exhibition in New York. Her work was compared to that of the photographers Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy and Adolphe Baron de Mayer, as well as with the winner of the first prize at the exhibition and Bauhaus director, Herbert Bayer.
In doing so she joins the ranks of the icons of the avant-garde of this period. The importance of her work was recognised in one-woman exhibitions and publication in various journals, including N-Z Wochenschau. She produced a series of images of the dancer Rosella Hightower.
In her portrait studio in Paris by 1930 she was teaching classes of her own which included future luminaries such as Gisèle Freund and Lisette Model.
As the second World War approached with the occupation of the Nazi Party, there was a noticeable decline in her photographic work which would have been considered degenerate art. Photographic materials would have become increasingly hard to obtain and Florence Henri returned to abstract painting until her death in the 1980s.