From blitz victims to dust-coated miners and the rocks of Stonehenge, the affinities between German photographer and British sculptor are shown in works of sepulchral beauty
By: Hepworth Wakefield
Bill Brandt and Henry Moore met for the first time in 1942, when the German-born photographer was commissioned by Lilliput magazine to shoot the quintessentially British sculptor in his studio. The resulting portrait appeared in a spread devoted to the two artists’ shelter pictures – both had made extended series of sleeping Londoners huddled in platforms and tunnels on the underground during the blitz. Their meeting, and the shared subject matter that prompted it, is the conceptual starting point for this fascinating exhibition, which traces their parallel paths and overlapping interests.
It begins in London during the war years, when both were commissioned by the Ministry of Information to create work that showed the stoicism of the British public. Brandt’s photographs of the silhouettes of landmarks rising out of the rubble-strewn darkness have a sepulchral beauty that seems slightly romanticised given the grim circumstances. By contrast, his crowded portraits of civilians sleeping in the subways – their prone bodies often shot in closeup and printed in high contrast – are a vivid play of harsh, unforgiving light and dark, looming shadows. One of the most strikingly intimate photographs is of an exhausted family sprawled across a narrow, dirty train tunnel at Liverpool Street station, a child’s outstretched legs resting on her mother’s lap. It is a study of stoicism, for sure, but also of confinement and dogged survival.
Moore’s coiled figures, lying side by side in long rows, look more like wraiths than people, his sculptural eye accentuating form and line to create an almost allegorical effect that seems too studiously artful against the harsh reality captured by Brandt. The closer Moore gets to his subjects, though, the more human they become, their mouths agape and their arms outstretched or enfolding other bodies for comfort and protection.
If there is a claustrophobic undertow to Moore’s shelter drawings, it is nothing compared with the cramped intensity of the work he made at Wharfedale Colliery in Castleford, drawing young men who had been conscripted to dig coal at a mine where his father had once been pit manager. Made using black ink, charcoal and crayon, Moore’s densely layered drawings evoke the visceral experience of the miner’s hard labour. Shadowy, squat and bent figures toil in what he described as the “almost unbearable heat and thick choking dust” of this subterranean world. In Brandt’s 1937 portrait East Durham Coal-Miner, Just Home from the Pit, that thick dust coats an exhausted man’s arms and face and seems part of the very texture of the print.
Intriguingly, much of the work on display at the Hepworth, whether drawings or photographic prints, are shown unframed, the better to convey the importance to both artists of the material object that is the print. Moore meticulously photographed his own work, both as a visual record and a form of artistic exploration, sometimes creating abstract photo-collages that he then drew on in pencil or charcoal, accentuating shadows, curves and lines. Although often made as preparatory studies for his sculptures, they function as artworks in their own right.
When Brandt was commissioned to photograph Moore’s work, he too resorted to some creative post-production, in one instance using a pencil and palette knife to subtly accentuate the gently curving lines of an abstract wooden sculpture.
In the early postwar years, the British landscape became a source of inspiration for both artists. On several separate visits to Stonehenge, they each sought to capture its primitive monumentalism in very different ways. Moore’s drawings moved in close, as if to absorb the very grain of the stones; Brandt photographed them from a distance across snow-covered fields and a brooding sky. (The image appeared soon afterwards on the cover of Picture Post in April 1947, above the dramatic headline “Where Stands Britain?”, prompted by the economic uncertainty of the time.)
The Henry Moore we know – and to a degree take for granted – from so many big, bronze public sculptures, emerges tentatively towards the end of this exhibition in the form of two large, reclining abstract nudes carved in elmwood. They seem somehow more lithe and expressive than the bronzes, which for me always seem oddly enervating, as if draining the air from their surroundings. On the walls around the two reclining female figures, a series of prints of Brandt’s distorted human figures from his 1961 photo-book, Perspective of Nudes, make clear the formal connections between two artists whose paths frequently crossed.
My one reservation concerns the scale and texture of the prints on display in this room, many of which were produced to the demands of the 80s’ art-photography market. In contrast, a handful of smaller unframed prints, made earlier and characterised by a certain graininess, have real presence. In an exhibition that puts so much stock in the materiality of its objects therein, this is the single jarring note. Otherwise this deftly curated show provides ample evidence of the restless inventiveness of two postwar artists whose lives and creative preoccupations overlapped in often surprising ways.