WAKEFIELD, England — Oh dear, Henry Moore can be very, very boring. He copied himself overmuch in his later years. Remember those overbearing figure groups, with their smooth-finished pin heads (with pin eyes) and their monstrous knees! Was it a sort of classicism or a sort of modernism that he was going after? Or did it fall, whump, straight down the middle? It was certainly monumental enough to get stuck somewhere.
How to bring him alive again? How to winkle out the best of him? A curator at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, has hit on something a little refreshingly different, Bill Brandt/Henry Moore, and staged it at the Hepworth Wakefield, a handsome, upscaled modernist cube in Yorkshire, not far from Moore’s home town of Castleford.
What about a prolonged exercise in contiguity then? Contiguity is artsprach for putting things (or people) next to each other in order to see whether some kind of a spark is lit. Today it is Henry Moore, sculptor, and Bill Brandt, photographer. They were never friends, but they were often contiguous in their locations and their preoccupations. Photography, for example.
Brandt spent much of his working life as a very successful jobbing photographer for the likes of Picture Post. Later in life, when the journalism dried up, he became an artist striving to be an Artist. He made collages from bits of seashore stuff, for example. These works don’t really convince. A feather nudges at a sponge, disbelievingly. Why now? Why here? The heat of the inevitability of contiguity is missing.
The snaps that Brandt took on the wing as a much younger man, in the 1930s and 1940s, on the other hand, remain as stagily impressive in their way as ever. Less so the photographic ‘art’ of the 1950s, which seems labored, a tad sexily surrealish, and, most of all, rich-man’s-wall-craving.
How exactly are we expected to respond to this big ear on a beach, photographed at such close quarters, for example? It will never be a Dali, though it seems to be carefully cocked in his direction. It will never quite be anything other than a giant photograph of a slightly out-of-focus ear. No, sorry, it’s probably attached to a body. He’s not aiming to lure out of the shadows those with a seldom declared appetite for the grisly and the ghoulish. Its title is “East Sussex Coast” (1957).
The first solid evidence of contiguity that we spot here is a giant blow-up of a photograph that Brandt took of Moore in his studio in 1942. Later portrait photos have shown Moore looking dry and professorial. Not so in 1942, where he has the smoldery, big-screen, hunky, strong-jawed look of a Robert Mitchum. Something is evidently stirring somewhere. That’s the gift of the professional photographer for you.
The works are divided into two groups. One gathering, full of Brandt, wall-hung for the most part, is in a darkly lit, closed in, pent-feeling gallery; the other, just across the corridor, which explores Moore’s use of photography in his own art and much else, is in well-lit and more roomy spaces.
The dark room is the more dramatically interesting because there is more about the travails of humanity in this space. Moore’s works, though often figurative, can feel numbingly impersonal in their cold, hieratic serenity.
This dark gallery is all about war and poverty and deprivation. Brandt, though of German origin, was on assignment in the north of England in 1937, and then in London during World War II, recording the poverty and the devastation for magazines that wanted to inform those who were comfortably prosperous enough to buy Picture Post how terrible it all was.
This is photojournalism at its cunningly manipulative best. London on a dark night being strafed by searchlights. The innards of a great Wren church in Piccadilly spilling out in all its rubbliness onto the pavement. There’s quite a bit of romantic allure about these images, the staging, the light effects. The suffering was terrible, of course, and it was also enormously visually appealing. Who can beat a man asleep in a coffin in the crypt of a church in the East End of London? It’s all heavily censored, of course. Brandt is no Don McCullin staring at the horrors of Biafra. There’s poverty here all right, but no evidence of death or blood.
Before the war, Brandt took himself off to Durham in the northeast of England to snoop on the abject poverty of smutty-faced miners in their sad little homes. One miner sits at the table with his fork and knife, coal-blackened as the devil himself, too hungry to let his wife scour off the muck. Moore went down a mine too, the one his father had worked in as pit manager just outside his hometown. He found the heat and the discomfort intolerable.
Both men recorded families trying to make do in the London Underground system during the air raids, bedding down in tunnels. For all the fame of Moore’s drawings of these scenes, Brandt’s photographs have the power to move us more.
Moore renders human beings anonymous. He regularizes them into almost classical groups. It feels like a movement towards the aestheticizing of human misery. Brandt’s sufferers are all over the place, human flotsam and jetsam in messy, dirty, intolerable situations. And then, in 1986, someone decided to make a tapestry of Moore’s sleeping figures, bundled up against all that chill. It’s a silly, too-delicate exercise in prettification.
Brandt the dogged ethnographer pulls at the heart. Moore finds too much in all this that looks to his trained eye like Art — and Literature. Dante, for example. Moore is at his best in a sequence of pages snatched from sketchbooks owned by the family: tiny, flickery, almost frantic scenes of miners at work, with the flash of white highlights, and detailing often quite difficult to discern.
These are small and modest things, pages torn out, drawings towards something else perhaps, which seem to register Moore’s own feelings of entrapment, and the sense that this underground labor is a kind of heroism. And it had been on his own doorstep all along.
Bill Brandt/Henry Moore continues at the Hepworth Wakefield (Gallery Walk, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England) through May 31. The exhibition is organized by the Yale Center for British Art.
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