Changing Nationhood, Changeless Place: Bill Brandt/Henry Moore at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery
Volume 5, Cycle 3
Situated off the River Calder in north Yorkshire, the Hepworth Wakefield is a bright, airy gallery with ceiling to floor windows that draw in views of the waterfront and gardens outside; these demand to be taken in alongside the artwork within. Its namesake is the artist Barbara Hepworth, whose sculptures adorn the surrounding gardens, and whose work was inspired by the relationship between people and place—both the terrain of the industrial north in Wakefield, where she was born, and the natural parks and landscapes of the region more generally. It is hard to imagine a more apposite location for this compelling exhibition of Hepworth’s contemporaries, Bill Brandt and Henry Moore, and the story their work tells of the tumultuous changes in midcentury British art and culture.
Paul Nash called it “genius loci”: the atmosphere, psyche, or élan vital of a particular place, one whose spirit embodies a generative relationship between individual and landscape, culture and ecology, history and deep time. Genius loci inheres in the work of Brandt and Moore, both of whom had a deep fascination, obsession even, with different forms of nature in the British—specifically English—countryside and seaside. (Although German-born, Brandt and his artwork have come to represent a particular kind of midcentury Britishness rooted in the natural landscape, not unlike the work of a fellow émigré, Hungarian filmmaker Emeric Pressburger.) It is a preoccupation that informs not only the subject but the methods and practices of their art. Through some two hundred works from the 1930s to the 1970s, Bill Brandt/Henry Moore explores the spiritual, emotional, and artistic journey undertaken by the artists across the middle decades of the twentieth century: from the Blitz, where they produced some of the most iconic artworks of the Second World War, through to their visions of the postwar body and landscape. The latter became the intensely haptic, scaled works which brought the artists international recognition: Brandt’s blown-up, distorted photographs of female nudes by the East Sussex coast, and Moore’s monumental sculptures of reclining figures which exude a sense of timelessness and permanence.
Several themes emerge throughout this exhibition, including shelter, family, and labor. It begins with familiar material from the Second World War which emphasizes the endurance of hardship. Artworks displayed include Brandt’s evocative images of blackout London, houses sliced open by bombing, and his and Moore’s pictures of underground shelterers: lone individuals at times, and at others, parents and children locked together in a ghostly embrace (fig. 1). Although they are much studied, these images are a revelation to see within the material contexts in which they were conceived and consumed.
Many of Brandt’s photographs appeared in magazines like Lilliput, Life, and Picture Post, next to commentary demonstrating how significant and political blackout imagery came to be—“Life Goes on in the Dark,” reads the subtitle of one Picture Post article. Moore’s works are often enlarged or cropped when reproduced, so it is not easy to grasp their sense of scale; here, they are revealed to be remarkably small. In one instance, Moore crams together eighteen ink and watercolor miniature sketches onto a single page. The framing suggests many things at once: the value of paper, which was rationed during the war; the speed with which Moore worked; the importance of understanding his images not only individually but as a series or cluster; and a sense, within the enormity of historical events, of the smallness and claustrophobia of everyday life.
The exhibition then moves into another territory: the artists’ representations of the coal industry and of mining communities in the north. Moore was commissioned to create images of men who were conscripted to dig coal to fuel armament factories in wartime. Although he felt uncomfortable observing and drawing within tube shelters, preferring to sketch from outside, he descended into and drew within the mines, which he called a “terrible man-made inferno” (quoted in Bill Brandt/Henry Moore, 119). The pictures are pitch-black and ferocious, and the miners look dehumanized. But it is Brandt’s photographs, taken earlier during the deep Depression years, where darkness and claustrophobia take on more pointed socio-economic critique. His photos capture the ways in which industrial labor conditions and hardship are replicated in domestic life. They document the coal dust still covering the miners’ bodies as they eat at their dinner tables, and the cramped homes which offer little respite to their mining work (fig. 2). Later in 1947, these images would appear in Picture Post to accompany social campaigns for the welfare state.
The final sections of the exhibition then pivot towards nature and light with the artists’ later postwar works, which are clustered around images of Stonehenge, nudes, and the blending together of nature with the human body. Both Brandt and Moore visited Stonehenge on multiple occasions and were drawn to the site as a symbol of the nation. The affective appeal of nationhood understood as a geographical place, rather than a socio-political and imperial history, was congruent with a key period in what Paul Gilroy has termed “postcolonial melancholia”: a wound in the national psyche left by the failure to reckon with the loss of empire, which is replaced or erased, as it were, by a renewed attention to national identity as deep Englishness instead.
During this time, while the British Empire was breaking up, Jacquetta Hawkes’s bestselling book, A Land (1951)—for which Moore provided two illustrations—told the story of Britain through the formation of its geological strata. This focus on the ancient geology of the land offered a way of understanding nationhood as timeless and enduring, acting as a palliative against the geopolitical events of the 1940s and 1950s. Moore’s reclining figures were sometimes cast in bronze, but other times, like Hepworth’s sculptures, they were made with stone quarried in Britain, emphasizing its materially and geologically “British” nature (fig. 3). Moore’s fusing together of body and rock became, for Brandt, an aesthetic of juxtaposition and optical illusion. In his photographs of the female body by the coastline, flesh is made to look like rocks, and sticks and stones look remarkably like bones (fig. 4). The coming together of body and land, bone and stone suggest a kind of restorative humanism in spite of the bleak postwar period. In fact, one might say Brandt’s human-coastline offers a kind of myopic, insular counterpoint to Gilroy’s influential analysis of colonialism and maritime culture in The Black Atlantic. The coast in Brandt represents not a site of imperial cultural formation, but the limit or boundary of a concept of nationhood after empire. If, as Ian Baucom writes, “Englishness has been identified with Britishness, which in its turn has been identified as coterminous with and proceeding from the sovereign territory of the empire,” then the coastline is the liminal space between Englishness and Britishness.
Bill Brandt/Henry Moore, then, isn’t just a portrait of two artists’ parallel and sometimes converging careers; it is also a narrative about midcentury Britain sloughing off the legacies of the past in search of new directions. This is the theme of the exhibition, which moves viewers from smaller, more claustrophobic rooms from the wartime period into the airy, wide halls of the artists’ postwar anthropomorphic aesthetic. There are other themes along the way, not least the fascinating interest each artist held for the other’s preferred medium; Moore used photographs to help plan his sculpture work, and Brandt in turn created sculptural collages of found objects from the coast. The interrelations between photography and sculpture are broached at various points. But the exhibition is heavily invested in the national narrative, and one wonders if more could be made of the works’ ambiguities and idiosyncrasies. For example, Thomas Davis has observed that there isn’t much inherent propagandistic idealism in Moore’s shelter drawings: that the sketches often evoke anxiety or fear instead. But the exhibition reiterates rather than reassesses the idea of Moore as depicting stoic civilians of brave suffering.
Those seeking a full account of the artists and their art would do well to get a copy of the exhibition catalog itself. This is a superb book that can be read and consumed on its own and be no less revealing about the artists and the historical period in question. The essays within are uniformly good. From the introductory essays by curator Martina Droth, to the ten, more focused pieces of writing by a range of contributors on topics such as “Photojournalism in the 1940s and 1950s,” “Bill Brandt in Jarrow, 1937,” and “Sculpture and Spatial Environment,” the catalog offers just the right mix of context and analysis. Nicholas Robbins’s “Exhibiting Art in Wartime” is particularly rich; he argues that Moore anticipated that his shelter drawings would be exhibited in the National Gallery alongside other works from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Therefore, Moore may have consciously chimed “the figurative language of the museum’s paintings, which had hung in these galleries before the war . . . in his shelter drawings” (Bill Brandt/Henry Moore, 99). It is a convincing argument for understanding Moore’s drapery aesthetic as one borrowed from the drapery of Renaissance paintings in the Gallery, and for seeing how this went on to influence his postwar work—for instance, in his portraits of the family unit whose members appear to be fused or melded together from the same cloth or material.
The catalog has reproduced the artworks with quality, care, and an admirable commitment to material context. The book operates as a kind of expanded, textual exhibition space, one that includes not only the works displayed at the Hepworth, but early and late prints, first editions and reprints, negatives that were never printed, and photos of other exhibitions and catalogs in which the artwork appeared. Drawings are shown here with their torn-off perforations, stains, and pencil markups; photographs are reproduced as they would have looked on photo contact paper, and with the shadows they would have cast on the surface below. The editors proclaim a “new approach to the reproduction of photos on the printed page” and it is not an overstatement (9). By showing the many varied iterations of the images and materials of Brandt’s and Moore’s works, and within the embodied contexts in which they were conceived and seen, the catalog insists on the work of art as inherently unfinished and plural.
Bill Brandt/Henry Moore is an absorbing exploration of the artists, their historical contingencies, and their deeper aesthetic homologies. By interleaving their works throughout a longer time span, the exhibition captures just how much these artists belong to a romantic strain of British art undergirding the midcentury, dating from at least the interwar period. Chiming with Neo-Romanticists such as John Piper, Graham Sutherland, and Nash, Brandt and Moore are what Alexandra Harris calls “romantic moderns”: modern artists whose works were, in part, deeply emotional responses to the British landscape and history when contemporary events seemed poised to alter both irrevocably.
The question raised by contemporaneity might finally be asked of the exhibition itself. Opening shortly after Brexit day, the exhibition is also, surprisingly, the first event in which Brandt and Moore have been featured together since the Second World War. For two artists so preoccupied with the diachronic properties of space and place, and so absorbed with the idea of a national home or nostos: how might the exhibition help us to scrutinize and reappraise the discursive interrelations between national identity, landscape, and history within our own turbulent present?
 Paul Nash, Unit One: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture, ed. Herbert Read (London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1934), 79–81.
 Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
 Moore and Hepworth were longtime friends and rivals; they trained together at the Leeds School of Art (now Leeds College of Art) and later, at the Royal College of Art.
 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
 Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 12, emphasis in original.
 Thomas Davis, The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 152–59.
 Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010).