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Mona Kuhn's Universal Figures

Mona Kuhn’s Universal Figures

Over a career spanning more than twenty years, Mona Kuhn’s underlying theme has always been humanity’s longing for spiritual connection and solidarity. She is renowned for developing close relationships with her subjects, resulting in images of remarkable intimacy. The new book Mona Kuhn: Works is her first retrospective.

Mona Kuhn is an international artist whose talent in connecting with people yields thoughtful and emotive photographic images of the human condition. The forms are metaphoric of the ways in which we relate to each other, ourselves and the world beyond our own bodies – both physically and metaphysically. Not easily defined by geography or boundaries, Mona Kuhn’s innate curiosity about others, plus her ability to meet people where they are, allows her to create figurative work that is emotional and universal.

Morgane, 2010 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 

Mona was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1969, to parents of German descent. The family culture revolved around science and time spent in nature. Lively conversations and debates on a variety of subjects reflected the unconventional, multicultural perspectives that encouraged the young Mona to embrace the world and seek the commonalities that unite us.

Mona Kuhn’s first camera – a Kodak Pocket Instamatic with 110 cartridge film – was a birthday gift at age twelve. She used it socially to photograph friends and gatherings, and photography began as a personal way to hold on to the people and moments she treasured. In Brazil, photography was understood through weekly and monthly ephemeral periodicals, both fashion and cultural, that were sold at well-stocked outdoor newsstands throughout the city. Although drawn to these collections of photographs, Mona was acutely aware of their fleeting nature and inherent disposability. The idea that photography was art was introduced to her by the art librarian at the Wexner Center on the campus of The Ohio State University, where she attended college in 1993. There, climate-controlled rooms filled with rare books and photographic prints unveiled photography as a creative, artistic medium.

Portrait 37, 2011 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 
Donna, 2009 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 
Portrait 11, 2009 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 

Fluent in German, Portuguese, French and English, Mona Kuhn excelled academically, working towards a major in international studies. On a summer internship in Vienna she discovered the Beethoven Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt, painted directly on the walls of the Secession Building for the 14th Vienna Secessionist Exhibition. Through robed, nude, male and female figures, alongside demons and monsters, the artist explored a range of emotions, from peace to horror, that transcended their wall-bound location. Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionistic portraits, Egon Schiele’s male figures, and the charcoal drawings of hands by Käthe Kollwitz afforded Mona a greater understanding of figuration’s metaphoric possibilities, and she returned to the US focused on a figurative discourse.

During a trip to Brazil, she sought out the photographer Mário Cravo Neto, who lived in Salvador, along the northeastern coast in the state of Bahia. She was compelled by the way he handled the figure photographically, choosing to depict individuals metaphorically as a way of investigating mysticism and the Afro-Brazilian heritage of that region. Cravo Neto’s compound had multiple buildings and a darkroom built into an oversized tropical tree, and it was there, on a cantilevered terrace, that he and Mona Kuhn talked at length about representing the figure with tenderness and universality. He imparted to her the psychology of photographing nudes and the caring relationships established with subjects. Soon after, she embarked on her own black-and-white photographs of the figure.

Jacintha, 2004 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 
Refractions, 2006 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 

The Bay Area Figurative Movement, particularly the gestures and solitude within Nathan Oliveira’s paintings and the emotions found in Manuel Neri’s sculptures, compelled Mona Kuhn to move to San Francisco in 1996, where the community of artists with whom she lived and socialized shaped her artistic identity. Inclusion in a group exhibition around the male nude established her work as different, natural and sensitive, the result of working not with models, but with friends and collaborators.

Mona Kuhn began to understand that, for her, setting was crucial and that sparse, industrial spaces did not lead to the kind of warm, connected images she was after. In search of a more authentic creative process, she visited communes in northern California, but found them imbued with disagreeable sexual anxiety. She was reminded of naturism, or non-sexual social nudity, which she had first learned about from family members in Germany who would visit the island of Rügen and enjoy gathering together in nature, often spontaneously unclothed. Culturally they believed that as natural beings on earth they had the right to be free, as themselves, in nature. A growth in naturist communities had occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, and with a friend Mona visited one of the oldest, most traditional communities in Europe, on the coast of France, in the summer of 1995.

Chanon, 2012 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 
AD 6046, 2014 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 

Comprised of small wooden bungalows built in the 1950s along the beach, the area is an ecological reserve, with sandy soil and a smattering of pine trees. To protect the privacy of its residents the community is closed to the public; car traffic is not permitted and residents travel by foot or bicycle. With no electricity, the environment is austere, and, in many ways, sacred. For years this meant that nighttime activities were conducted by candlelight and days corresponded more regularly to the rising and setting sun. Today residents are granted a substantial and meaningful break from the persistent, fast-paced outside world.

On this first trip Mona met Philipp, who had been visiting the community annually since childhood with his grandmother and was himself an artist. The two developed a rich friendship around shared creative interests and pursuits and a passion for figurative art, from Lucian Freud to Jenny Saville. With time, Mona Kuhn came to know many of the community’s families through conversations about art, philosophy and the creative process. As she built their trust, she made photographs with them. The time, effort, understanding and empathy that went into making the photographs possible is revealed in the images themselves.

AD 6387, 2014 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 
Mirage II, 2012 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 
Livia and Renan, 2009 © 2021 Mona Kuhn 

The work within the series Evidence represents eight years of photographs made among families and friends in the shared environment of southwest France and acts as the foundation for Mona Kuhn’s work. The accompanying publication opens with the following statement: “The most immediate form of evidence available to an individual is the observations of that person’s own senses. An observer wishing for evidence that the sky is blue need only look at the sky.” We come to understand that these individuals, alone and in groups, standing, walking and lounging, are evidence of our shared human existence. The time spent among them is palpable; their pictures are not quickly taken but instead made much in the same way that a figurative painting by Lucian Freud might have taken up to eight months or a year to bring to life.

The human form and its relationship to the natural world is visually explored throughout these photographs. Glass, wood, leaves, flowers and skin abound, with some figures so dappled in soft focus they turn into abstracted sunspots. They are profoundly natural, like the foliage that surrounds them and the simple structures that only barely separate their bodies from the outside. The painterly, Klimt-inspired palette is golden, and the skin is like poured sunshine. In daylight they appear standing, and when darkness falls they are recumbent. We do not see distinct individuals, as such, but rather components of a shared system operating symbiotically with nature. This united existence makes them certain, emboldened and free.

By Rebecca Morse

Rebecca Morse is the Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at LACMA, in Los Angeles.

This is an edited extract from Mona Kuhn: Works, published by Thames & Hudson
The book is available here.

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