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Bill Brandt / Henry Moore: In Detail

BILL BRANDT (1904–1983) and HENRY MOORE (1898–1986) first met during the Second World War, when both artists created images of civilians sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz. Their acclaimed ‘shelter pictures’ are the starting point for this exhibition, which traces the intersecting careers of these two influential 20th-century artists.

Though working primarily in different mediums, both were drawn to similar subjects: war, industry, family life and the home, as well as the relationship between landscape and the human body. From the time of their first encounter in 1942 – when Brandt photographed Moore in his studio to accompany a photo-essay of their shelter pictures – their work was often published in the same magazines and journals.

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    Watch an introduction to Bill Brandt / Henry Moore from curators Martina Droth (Yale Center for British Art) and Clare Nadal (The Hepworth Wakefield).

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    Like much modern warfare, the Second World War was fought with images and information as well as weapons. The Ministry of Information served as the British government’s official gatekeeper of pictures and news, granting rationed paper, film and petrol to commissioned artists, including Brandt and Moore, and materials and permissions to printers to reproduce their work.

    Brandt and Moore both responded to the government’s imposed blackout. Brandt created images that evoked the ghostly streets with the remains of landmark buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral rising up among piles of rubble. By contrast, Moore often focused on the civilian experience with figures shown against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings or caught under falling debris. Both sets of images offer a reminder that wartime destruction was not only experienced on the battlefield but in daily urban life.

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    Brandt’s images became an integral part of the visual culture of the war in Britain. His lens transformed the dismal ordeal of the wartime blackout into scenes of atmospheric mastery: moonlight eerily illuminates the remains of bombed-out buildings, while the beams of searchlights throw dramatic patterns across the night sky. Many of the blackout photographs required extremely long exposure times, which Brandt recorded as varying from ‘three minutes to thirty, with around twenty as the average’.

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    During the Blitz, Brandt and Moore were among several photographers, film-makers and artists commissioned by the Ministry of Information to make work depicting civilians sheltering at night in the London Underground and other subterranean spaces. As Brandt’s photograph of a man sleeping in an empty coffin in an East End crypt attests, the experience of the shelters was uncanny, as people were forced to transfer domestic life to these incongruous spaces.

    The reproduction of Brandt and Moore’s ‘shelter pictures’ in Lilliput magazine in 1942 marks the first in-person encounter between the two artists. Brandt was a regular contributor to the magazine, which was known for its innovative photographic features. Although differences emerge between each artist’s approach – Brandt’s pictures capture the immediate reality, while Moore’s appear timeless and universal – ultimately the purpose of the article is to demonstrate a shared message. Civilians are presented as stoic, united in their collective suffering.

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    ‘It is interesting to notice how often Brandt and Moore, working quite independently of each other, chose very similar subjects for their work’, read one of the captions for Brandt and Moore’s shelter pictures in Lilliput. Both artists were fascinated by the intermingling bodies in the Liverpool Street Underground Extension – which Moore later described as ‘hundreds of Henry Moore reclining figures’ – and both sought out among them individuals caught in moments of solitary isolation. While Brandt’s photographs were shot in the shelters, Moore was ‘ashamed to intrude on private suffering’ and made his sketches from memory and news pictures.

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    With his reputation as an official war artist sealed by the success of his shelter drawings, in 1942 Moore was commissioned to create images of the young men conscripted to dig coal to fuel armament factories. Moore returned to Wheldale Colliery in Castleford, where his father had been pit manager. The artist recalled the ‘thick choking dust’ and the ‘almost unbearable heat and the dense darkness’ of the cramped tunnels, an experience mirrored in his dark, dense drawings, which layer black wash, black crayon,  black ink and charcoal.

    Brandt’s photographs of coal mining communities in northern England taken in the years leading up to the war were first published during the 1940s, when coal had become essential to national security. In some images, Brandt captures the labour involved in the production of coal. In others, he focuses on the impact of the industry on the domestic lives of its workers,  the coal dust following people inside their homes, some of which lacked windows.

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    In the summer of 1937 Brandt travelled to the north of England for the first time, visiting Tyneside, Sheffield and Halifax, where he photographed the industrial mills and collieries. When German-born Brandt adopted Britain as his home, he made it his explicit artistic focus, becoming known for his ‘ethnographic’ view of the British people. His trip to the North was prompted by the Jarrow March the previous year, a protest against the decline of industry in the Tyneside town. In a rare use of the horizontal format, he captures a bleak landscape of miners’ cottages and industrial chimneys, enormous slag heaps dominating the foreground.

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    At Chester-le-Street in County Durham, Brandt gained entrance to the house of a miner, and in Jarrow to the home of the Hurst family. The families are shown undertaking everyday activities, including in many cases, washing – a constant necessity with the black coal dust that covered their skin and clothes. In contrast to the vista-like views of the slag heaps, Brandt’s claustrophobic interiors convey the cramped conditions in which mining families lived.

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    When Moore was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to record the men conscripted to mine coal during the war – sometimes referred to as ‘Britain’s Underground Army’ – Moore returned to his West Yorkshire hometown of Castleford. As with his shelter images, Moore employs the technique of layering white wax crayon with watercolour, before building up the detail and texture with pen and ink. In contrast to those earlier images, Moore sketched openly in the mines, documenting the miners at work. Many of the sketches were later worked up into larger scale drawings.

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    Like Brandt, the subject of the family occupied Moore. However, in contrast to Brandt’s Depression-era scenes of hardship in the home, Moore’s drawings and sculptures of family groups were made towards the end of the war and into the beginning of the post-war period. The works offered a vision of a then-typical nuclear unit – usually a mother, father and two children – at an optimistic time of reconstruction when Britain was moving towards a progressive welfare state.

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    Brandt and Moore often returned to their wartime images, reimagining them in different media and formats. During the war, these images had been circulated to audiences of millions via magazines and newspapers, usually orchestrated and controlled by the government. In the post-war period, their visual legacy shifted from propaganda to works of art.

    As Brandt’s reputation transitioned from photojournalist to art world photographer, he began printing his work for exhibitions and the art market. This move was marked by changes in the scale and printing styles he adopted: for example, his widely distributed Elephant and Castle photograph from 1940 was reprinted in the high-contrast style for which he became known. At the same time, Moore reimagined his shelter drawings in larger formats and diverse media. In 1945, the first of his shelter sketchbooks was published in book form. That both Brandt and Moore repeatedly revisited their wartime images is evidence of the value that these works held – both artistically and economically – within the trajectory of their evolving careers.

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    In 1942 Lilliput observed that depicting civilians huddled in blankets in the London Underground was the first time Henry Moore had attempted drapery: ‘The clothes of the shelterers gave him a new problem’. It was from these studies that Moore developed his enduring motif of the draped reclining woman. His 1941 Study for ‘Row of Sleepers’ is given new life in this 1986 tapestry commissioned by the artist, in which the colours and tones of the figures’ clothing are precisely recreated in distinctive woven effects; even the perforations of the original sketchbook page have been carefully replicated.

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    The relationship between sculpture and photography was a subject that occupied both Brandt and Moore throughout their careers. Alongside Aristide Maillol and Barbara Hepworth, Moore was one of a number of sculptors whose work Brandt photographed. Moore too used photography not only to record his own sculpture, but also work by other artists in his collection, including a sequence he shot in 1967 depicting his cast of Auguste Rodin’s Walking Man. For both artists, the three dimensional experience of sculpture could be achieved in photography through series of images made from multiple perspectives.

    Photography offered possibilities for experimentation that went beyond documentation. During Brandt’s 1956 trip to St Ives to photograph Hepworth, he staged her sculptures in beach landscapes. The surrealist quality of these photographs is also seen in Moore’s photographs of found objects and his use of photo-collage, in which photographs of both sculptures and found objects are incorporated within painted and drawn compositions. Both artists had moved on the fringes of surrealist circles in the 1920s and 1930s, and the reappearance of such characteristics in these later works demonstrates the lasting impact of these encounters.

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    Moore accumulated an extensive collection of stones, shells, pebbles and bones, which he termed his ‘library of natural forms’. Found objects could both be cast and scaled up to form monumental sculptures and turned into tiny found sculptures in their own right through photography.

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    In 1956, Brandt visited St Ives to take Barbara Hepworth’s portrait and photograph her sculptures. The portraits, perhaps predictably, show Hepworth in her studio, but the sculptures, in what must have been an elaborate undertaking, were transported to the beach and photographed on the shoreline. Reclining Figure, Involute and Orpheus appear like monuments that have mysteriously risen from the seabed.

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    During the first half of the 20th century, prehistory emerged as a popular subject in art and visual culture. In particular, the image of Stonehenge was championed by modernists both for its abstract formal properties and as a symbol of the historical, visual and literary cultures of Britain. Brandt and Moore visited Stonehenge on multiple occasions. In 1946, Brandt’s photographs of the site were reproduced in Lilliput magazine in relation to a pivotal scene in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, while the poet Stephen Spender provided the introduction for the publication of Moore’s 1973 lithographic ‘Stonehenge Album’. Moore’s close-up views of the stones have the quality of a snapshot, while the high contrast in Brandt’s images make them appear almost lithographic.

    A more overtly socio-political context was proposed for Brandt’s 1947 photograph of Stonehenge under snow when it was used on the cover of Picture Post in April that year. Illustrating a special issue on the deadly winter fuel crisis, it appeared under the headline ‘Where Stands Britain?’ Stonehenge simultaneously represented both the mythologised past and a stark reminder of the harshness of winter in a country where war had only recently ended.

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    Brandt’s famous image of Stonehenge under snow for Picture Post was produced by manipulating the photograph to eliminate shadows in the snow, thereby creating an ‘unearthly, transparent effect’. Moore first visited Stonehenge in 1921 and recalled the ‘mysterious depths and distances’ produced by the effect of viewing the stones under moonlight. He later stated that this first moonlight visit remained for years his idea of Stonehenge. His Stonehenge Suite of lithographs produced 50 years later have a particular significance within Wakefield. In 1979 the Friends of Wakefield Art Gallery organised a fundraising scheme to purchase one print from the suite. Touched by this interest in his work on the part of his own district, Moore gifted Wakefield Art Gallery with a complete set of the lithographs.

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    The human body was a central subject for Brandt and Moore. In their different mediums, the body appears as a malleable organism, which is variously split, fragmented and abstracted into almost unrecognisable parts. For both artists it is a site that becomes interchangeable with a natural environment of geological forms.

    The female nude was the specific focus of Brandt’s work in the 1950s, culminating in the publication of his seminal photobook Perspective of Nudes in 1961. Subjects were staged in both domestic interiors and on the beaches of Sussex and France, transformed and distorted through the use of a wide-angle lens. An article in Life magazine juxtaposed a selection of the beach nudes with photographs he had taken of Aristide Maillol’s carvings, making explicit the sculptural qualities of Brandt’s images.

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    In 1945 Brandt began to photograph nudes and decided he wanted to use a different camera that would provide ‘an altered perspective and a less conventional image’. He bought a large old Kodak with a wide-angled lens in a second-hand shop and began experimenting with it. The complete panoramic shots it permitted were ideal for creating the low-angle distorted images which became characteristic of his nudes. In his introduction to Perspective of Nudes, novelist Chapman Mortimer remarked that the images were such that ‘one thinks, again and again, “Sculpture, sculpture”’.

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    The reclining female figure was an enduring subject for Moore, and two of the six large elmwood figures he carved between 1935 and 1978 are on display. Just as Brandt associated human limbs with the boulders and pebbles found on the beach, so too Moore found a parallel between trees and human bodies, commenting on how ‘their limbs branch out like arms and legs from the trunk of a figure’.

Exhibition: Bill Brandt / Henry Moore

Bill Brandt / Henry Moore brought together sculptures, photographs, drawings, little-known photo-collages and rare colour transparencies alongside the media through which they were disseminated. Brandt is revealed as an artist who looked to sculpture to hone his photographic eye, while Moore used photography to explore new possibilities for sculptural form.

The exhibition was organised by the Yale Center for British Art in partnership with The Hepworth Wakefield. Exhibition curated by Martina Droth, Deputy Director of Research, Exhibitions and Publications and Curator of Sculpture, Yale Center for British Art, and at The Hepworth Wakefield by Eleanor Clayton.

If you have enjoyed this content please donate your ticket price, or whatever you can afford to The Hepworth Wakefield (registered charity no. 1138117).

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Film: An introduction to the exhibition

Take a short look around the 2020 exhibition, Bill Brandt / Henry Moore, with curators Martina Droth (Yale Center for British Art) and Clare Nadal (The Hepworth Wakefield).

Bill Brandt (1904-1983)

Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg to an English father and German mother. He later disowned his German background claiming instead to have been born in south London. He  became one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century.  In the late 1920s Brandt worked in a portrait studio in Vienna and was introduced to surrealist artist, Man Ray who became a major influence on his work. Brandt assisted Man Ray in Paris for several months and learned new technical processes and the poetic possibilities of photography.

After a period travelling around Europe, Brandt settled in London in 1934. Brandt adopted Britain as his home and it became the subject of his greatest photographs. Brandt’s best-known work documents the social contrasts between the different social classes in Britain. Night photography became one of Brandt’s specialities and he also photographed a number of great artists and writers (including Henry Moore). After the London Blitz began in 1940, Brandt was commissioned to record bomb shelters by the Ministry of Information. His work was regularly published in magazines including LilliputPicture Post and Harper’s Bazaar.

Henry Moore (1898–1986)

Castleford-born Henry Moore was the son of a miner who became one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He is renowned for his semi-abstract monumental bronzes and being part of a group of avant-garde artists who developed a unique modernist aesthetic. After training to be a teacher and serving in the British Army, he studied at Leeds School of Art and then the Royal College of Art, London. During the second world war he was recruited as an official war artist, producing his now famous drawings of people sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz. By the 1950s Moore had begun to receive a number of international commissions and was the first British artist to become an international star in his own lifetime.

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