Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface

World War II still captivates American minds and colors the American story nearly eight decades after it ended, so you can only imagine what it means in Britain, which beat back the Blitz and held the line.

You can now see glimpses of that national experience at the Yale Center for British Art, where the new exhibition Bill Brandt | Henry Moore, curated by Martina Droth and Paul Messier, finds amazing parallels between the renowned title artists starting, give or take, with their efforts to document their country at war.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

It seems unlikely, for example, that two artists working independently and in different media would find their way to producing significant bodies of work around the subject of British coal production. Yet that’s exactly what happened. Taken in the run-up to war and published after the conflict gave them new relevance, photographer Brandt’s images of the industry express, most immediately, a war against the land and, for that matter, the men tasked with mining it—a localized apocalypse pursued to avert a national one. The Mordorian mountains of slag Brandt shows us are literal dead earth, and the miners he shows us are breathing it in, their noses and mouths blackened with toxic dust.

Working in mixed media on paper (not sculpture, his career-defining medium), Moore’s own coal mining images seem to have gone a step further. Commissioned by the Ministry of Information to publicize the service of “young men conscripted to dig coal, which fueled the armament factories,” according to a placard, Moore met the laborers where they worked, down in the mines. But if Britain’s propaganda ministers hoped for rousing imagery of dutiful patriots, they must have been sorely disappointed. Moore instead produced sooty, claustrophobic scenes featuring wretched shadows of men who look, if anything, like prisoners of war—which, in a sense, they are. In one work, pylons in the foreground of a dark, suffocating crawl space look a heck of a lot like prison bars.

Both Brandt and Moore—and this is not so surprising—also found themselves compelled to document the improvised bomb shelters to which Britons retreated during the Blitz, Germany’s nine-month bombing campaign that killed more than 40,000 British civilians and terrorized millions. Here, Moore indulges more color, including an intestinal kind of pink. The likeness of a bowel can’t be missed in his Tube Shelter Perspective, where lines of weary refugees fill a whirling pink vortex (a subway tunnel) for as far as the eye can see. In other takes, the people are more the focus than the tube, yet they’re rendered like Pompeii victims or Egyptian mummies, more flash-frozen ash or wrapped cloth than living flesh. A process-oriented piece, Studies of Reclining Figures, features wispy and gestural figures swirling like ghosts or memories over more corporeal forms, perhaps intended to be haunting.

Compared to Moore’s drawn and painted depictions, Brandt’s photos of Britons going underground to escape the Blitz are more realistic, of course. Yet they’re also, on the whole, more optimistic. His subjects’ descent into the earth feels less like a matter of doom or despair and more like a function of grit and pragmatism—that keep-calm-carry-on spirit. In a subway station shelter, a young girl has given her doll its own bedding. In a crypt, a man has fashioned an open sarcophagus—one hopes it was empty—into a bed. In a wine merchant’s cellar, Orthodox Jews are studying their bibles. These are very tough spots, yes, but not the bowels of hell (though the coal mines might qualify). Life, for now, is going on.

About a third of the way through, Bill Brandt | Henry Moore goes on, leaving World War II (albeit not forever; the exhibition closes with a series of fascinating propaganda documentaries) to focus on the artists as agents of their own destiny in the postwar decades. No longer forced to react to a world on the brink, they were, by and large, free to pursue their individual creative interests and impulses. Yet their work continued to spiral around and in some ways mirror each other’s, like fraternal twin halves of a double helix.

The evolving parallels are uncanny and, along with their images of Britain at war, are worth examining in person, hopefully with nowhere else to be for a while.

Photo Key:

1. Henry Moore photographed by Bill Brandt, 1948. Gelatin silver print, Hyman Collection, London. © Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.
2. Sleeping Shelterers: Two Women and a Child by Henry Moore, 1940. Ink and watercolor on paper, Sains- bury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. Photo by Marcus Leith. © The Henry Moore Foundation.
3. Liverpool Street Extension by Bill Brandt, 1940. Printed ca. 1948, gelatin silver print, private collection. © Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.4. Morning after the Blitz by Henry Moore, 1940. Pencil, chalk, wax crayon, watercolor, wash, pen and ink on paper. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund. © The Henry Moore Foundation

Bill Brandt | Henry Moore
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through 2/26/23
(203) 432-2800

Written by Dan Mims. Images provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

More Stories