Bill Brandt – Henry Moore
Edited by Martina Droth and Paul Messier
New Haven (Connecticut) : Yale Center for British Art/Yale University Press, 2020*
Hardcover. 256 pages, 285 illustrations. ISBN 978-0300251050. $65/£50
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
‘The whirligig of taste’, as Ernest Gombrich called it, seems to be fully in operation in Bill Brandt’s case, and perhaps to a lesser extent for Henry Moore. Both authors have benefited separately from frequent – but erratically scheduled – exhibitions in Britain and abroad, and lavishly illustrated catalogues and monographs.(1) Now, the curators of the exhibition whose catalogue is under review here had the bright idea of organising a joint presentation and discussion of their works. ‘Why devote another exhibition and book to these two artists?’, Courtney J. Martin, Director of the Yale Center for British Art, rhetorically asks in his Foreword . The long museological answer is given by Martina Droth in the chapter entitled ‘Perspectives of a Strange Country’ [15-35], but there is of course a shorter, obvious one, as most people perceive a strong analogy in many of the works which they have left us.
To anyone at all familiar with either of them – or with both – their war work will immediately spring to mind. Indeed, the publishers address a private message to specialists of Britain in the Second World War by using the typography of the now defunct but then famous Picture Post for the title on the cover and dust jacket. Thumbing through the profusely illustrated large-format volume, one feels that the war period takes pride of place.
All the major works are there, often in different states for the paintings and sculptures and in various sharp printings for the photographs. What is probably the most famous image by Bill Brandt, the picture of people sleeping on the platform of the Elephant & Castle tube station in 1940, benefits from no less than four full-page reproductions [102, 105, 107-108], with a smaller photograph of the negative  and also a blown-up detail  which shows the remarkable analogy with the people asleep sketched by Moore in the same position in the next following pages [110-113].
Several other themes were explored by the two artists in parallel. In his later period, Bill Brandt, with his barely recognisable nudes – partial views, sometimes focusing on only one curve – merging with the surrounding pebbles on a beach, presents an undeniable analogy with Henry Moore’s large, rounded sculptures in stone. Many pages of the catalogue are devoted to these two analogous sources of inspiration in a comprehensive section entitled ‘The Body Refracted’ [198-223].
Coal-mining, Britain’s main industry and employer of labour before and during the war, is also a well-known common theme, though they chose to treat it slightly differently, with Henry Moore actually showing the men underground [126-130] while Bill Brandt adds to a view of work proceeding with a pick axe  a reportage of the miner’s life after work, starting with his wife washing his back before the range in the kitchen [136-139]. If Henry Moore magnificently sketched the toil of the miner at the coal face, Bill Brandt produced one of the most harrowing images of what it meant for a miner to be unable to suffer at work simply because he was unemployed – producing of course another type of suffering. The image is now in all books on Bill Brandt, with various titles, usually a reference to an unemployed collier going back home after a day scraping the slag-heaps for coal to heat his home, but here, unusually, were are given the full-page untitled (but substantially captioned) photograph as it appeared in the anti-Conservative Picture Post on 19 April 1947, with the long – and, it must be admitted, highly-slanted – article on the facing page entitled ‘How did we get into this Mess?’ .
Visitors to the exhibition and readers of the volume will not fail to notice how Picture Post is ever-present in the presentation of both artists’s work in context – it is clear that the magazine and the two men were on the same wavelength, all overtly or covertly pleading for a Better World after the ‘People’s War’. This may provide the main answer to Courtney J. Martin’s question: the visitors and readers who were not familiar with both men’s ‘commitment’ before will no doubt discover this common dimension in their artistic work.
This is only one of the virtues of this magnificent produce of quality publishing, printed and bound in the United States, with its superb large-size reproductions on heavy glossy paper, its attractive end papers, its sewn, not glued sections – a guarantee of durability for a hefty volume of that category – and its very informative accompanying text. In the Bibliography, updated to 2018, there is an added bonus with the two separate sections devoted to Lilliput and Picture Post, with full references of the issues in which works by Brandt and Moore appeared between 1939 and 1953. Unreservedly recommended.
(1) To cite only a few:
Brandt : The Photography of Bill Brandt. Foreword by David Hockney. Introductory essay by Bill Jay, the career by Nigel Warburton. London: Thames & Hudson/New York : Henry N. Abrams, 1999.
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