Bill Brandt|Henry Moore is an investigation in two parts. There is the exhibition at the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre (recently closed), which travels in mid-November to the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven. And then there is the remarkable book that accompanies it: 250 illustrations of photographs, sculptures and drawings, many full page; ten scholarly essays; a mass of new material on the two artists, in particular their engagement with Britain’s experience of the Second World War (Yale, £50). It might be tempting to suggest that the book supplants the show, or at least substitutes for it, but of course the works themselves are indispensable, and as hard to come to terms with as ever.
Both men’s careers were framed by war. Although Brandt (born 1904) was too young to have served in the First World War, Moore (born 1898) was not. In November 1917, he and his regiment were hit with mustard gas during the Battle of Cambrai, and invalided out. Two decades later, hostilities began again. Moore and his wife moved out of London in 1940 when his studio in Belsize Park was among several destroyed by the Luftwaffe (Barbara Hepworth’s studio was hit too). Brandt, born in Hamburg to a British father and a German mother, settled in London in the early 1930s, although the changing subjects of his work meant he was often away. During the Second World War, he, like Moore, was employed by the Ministry of Information. Perhaps inevitably, the two men’s work sometimes overlapped.
Before the war Brandt had spent time photographing in and around the Sheffield ironworks, as well as in Jarrow and Chester-le-Street, sometimes accompanying miners home after work. In East Durham Coal-Miner Just Home from the Pit, a shirtless man sits smoking, a coronation mug at his elbow. (Royal mementos were often distributed free.) The image has the sort of composition that seems to invite a more anecdotal title – ‘First Things First’, say, or ‘Home Again’. The idea isn’t entirely facetious. Two other photographs taken on the same occasion seem to support it. In Coal Miner’s Bath, Chester-le-Street, the same smoking man, already looking much cleaner, kneels in socks and loose underclothes beside a steaming tub. In the final image in the series, his wife soaps his back. And in the same vein, Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal, from 1937, shows a tired-looking woman sitting by her husband, who, hands and face still filthy, concentrates on his plate. It’s not a snapshot, nor is it an ordinary portrait. As I stood looking at it in the gallery, another visitor, a man of a certain age, offered an unsolicited opinion: no miner would ever sit down to his dinner without having washed. Therefore the picture is a sham. Or perhaps what we think we know about the lives of miners, let alone what Brandt had to say about them, isn’t always true – or straightforward.
Brandt made other mining photographs, but it was Moore who really took on the pit. His Coalmine Sketchbook devotes page after page to enveloping darkness and small flashes of light: a hanging lantern, headlamps, a shining pickaxe. Yet there was much at stake. When Moore drew mines and miners, he did so as a war artist, in response to a government commission, subject to censorship and paid for his work. He was also the son of a Yorkshire miner, which meant returning to Castleford, his birthplace. There, at the Wheldale colliery, was the mine where his father had worked. This is where Moore chose to draw.
‘If one was asked to describe what hell might be like,’ he said thirty years later, recalling the experience, ‘this would do.’
A dense darkness you could touch, the whirring din of the coal-cutting machine throwing into the air black dust so thick that the light beams from the miners’ lamps could only shine into it a few inches – the impression of numberless short pit props placed only a foot or two apart, to support above them a mile’s weight of rock and earth ceiling – all this in the stifling heat. I have never had a tougher day in my life, of physical effort and exertion – but I wanted to show the Deputy that I could stand as much as the miners.
It is worth recalling that 1942 – the year Moore began photographing miners (and also the year he first met Brandt) – opened with a deadly explosion at the Sneyd colliery in Stoke-on-Trent. Fifty-seven men and boys lost their lives. Could there be a more charged context for Moore’s decision to go underground? His sketches confirm just how low he found the tunnels (he wasn’t tall); how dazed and benumbed the workers seemed; how hemmed in they were by darkness, tools, pit props and one another. It is no wonder the effect is so static, so frieze-like, given Moore’s success in muffling the slightest sign of life.
Brandt observed the English class system from the outside, but his procedures were far from ‘documentary’. He wasn’t averse to posing his human subjects and sometimes rearranged their surroundings. He was also in the habit of modifying his pictures and printing them later as needed, rather than at the time they were taken. Conveniently for historians, he often used the flip side of his photographs not only to keep track of where they were taken and published, but also to record certain details. Consider Family Supper, shot in Jarrow in 1937. On the verso Brandt noted the patched grate and pinned-up wallpaper – although not what the residents remembered from his visit: that he dressed the set, so to speak, transforming their customary tidiness into squalid disarray.
We don’t encounter any such stories about Moore, who didn’t arrange space so much as suggest it. These differences notwithstanding, there remain many correspondences between his imagery and Brandt’s. It wasn’t only the same scenes but also the same shapes and surfaces that attracted them. They shared a common language, with its own sources, subjects and forms. Stonehenge, for example, which both men depicted: Moore in drawings and lithographs; Brandt in photographs. And there were flints, and nudes, and above all London, whose sleeping citizens, sheltering from the Blitz, prompted both men to think again about darkness, confinement and human vulnerability. Their works continue to stand for an impassive fortitude.
In the light of our recent experience of contagion and quarantine, these wartime images are difficult for the viewer. The bodily closeness in the images, the physical details they fix on, approaches the obscene. Among these sleeping humans, elbows lift, necks loosen, and there, in Brandt’s Crowded Improvised Air Raid Shelter in a Liverpool Street Tube Tunnel and Moore’s Sleeping Shelterers: Two Women and a Child, unexpectedly, uncannily, is a sleeper’s upturned nose. Nose and nostrils: it is the dark teardrop shape of the latter that really stands out. In 1937, preparing for Guernica, Picasso drew nostrils just like this.
A small detail, granted, but a worrying one. It has taken me some time to understand the logic hidden in my anxious response. Nostrils mean breath. Thinking about people packed together, breathing together underground, brings the dark nights of the Blitz into the present. This world feels foreign, but also familiar. The very idea of shelter, sheltering, shelterers, has taken on new definition over the last year. I’ve come to realise that, however irrationally, what worries me about these images is the reminder that, unlike the closely packed sleepers, and unlike Brandt and Moore, we have come to mistrust the breath of others. Their fears took a different form.