A Natural Affinity
|By Roderick Conway Morris|
LONDON 1 May 2020
Bill Brandt Archive Ltd
Portrait of Henry Moore by Bill Brandt, 1946
The works of the photographer Bill Brandt and the sculptor Henry Moore were first exhibited together in 1941 in the Britain at War exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York. Both had recently made images of civilians taking refuge in the tunnels of the London Underground at the height of Blitz. These shelter pictures were to become some of the most memorable works in the oeuvres of both Brandt and Moore.
Moore's shelter drawings were also displayed in an exhibition at the National Gallery organized by the War Artists' Advisory Committee. However, the London and New York shows were seen by relatively few people.
What brought the images to an infinitely wider public was the appearance of Brandt's and Moore's shelter pictures, printed side-by-side in a ten-page spread, in the popular pocket-sized magazine, 'Lilliput', in December 1942. And although both men had visited the same Blitz shelters, the 'Lilliput' story was the occasion of their first meeting in person.
These juxtapositions of images were one of 'Lilliput''s trademark innovations. They were often used to comic, satirical and titillating effect, and included daring pin-up style nudes. One such was a formation of RAF planes flying high in the among the clouds and, on the facing page, a nude girl sunbathing on a rooftop and turning over, shielding her eyes with one hand and looking skywards, with the drôle caption, 'Reconnaissance'.
'Lilliput' had been launched in August 1937 by the refugee Hungarian photojournalist Stefan Lorant and the former journalist Alison Blair. Sydney Jacobson, who joined the team soon afterwards, wrote in the 100th issue 'that the public is more intelligent, has a keener sense of humour and likes better pictures and drawings than most journalists, publishers and politicians believe.'
Brandt's photographs, thanks to his regular contributions to magazines like 'Lilliput' and 'Picture Post' (which Lorant also edited from 1938), were already much better known than Moore's sculptures when the photographer was dispatched by the magazine to take a portrait picture of Moore, which later led the article under the title: 'One of the Great Artists of Our Day - Henry Moore in his Studio'. But Moore seems to have been slightly taken aback that Brandt was also charged with choosing 'some shelter drawings of mine which are reproduced in this month's Lilliput alongside some of his shelter photographs!'
This fortuitous war-time encounter and the juxtaposition of their works marked the coming together of a photographer and artist who had a great deal else in common, often being attracted to the same subject matter and taking a close interest in each other's disciplines, with Brandt's photographs becoming increasingly sculptural and Moore employing photography more and more as an integral part of his creative process as a sculptor.
The parallel lives and artistic development of these two men - one born in Hamburg of English-German parentage, the other a Yorkshireman of working-class stock - is the subject of a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book entitled 'Bill Brandt Henry Moore' by Martina Droth and Paul Messier, and a travelling exhibition curated by Martina Droth.
In 1936 Brandt went to Tyneside, Durham and Wales to record coal miners underground and the desperately poor living conditions of workers, employed and unemployed, and their families. These studies of the Depression came to constitute some of Brandt's most familiar images and he was well established as a documentary photographer by the outbreak of war.
For Moore, this kind of work was completely new. Brandt's portrait of the artist in his studio in 1942 depicted him surrounded by sculptures. But, significantly, the photographer showed Moore not sculpting but drawing. For by this time, war-time conditions had made creating and selling sculpture no longer possible and Moore had turned to using his talents as a draughtsman. When Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, was forming the War Artists' Advisory Committee, he originally put down Moore as a camouflaging officer, but happily the sculptor's pencil-and-wash drawings of the effects of the Blitz and his first striking shelter images decided Clark and the Committee that he should carry on with this documentary mission.
The success of Moore's shelter drawings led to his being commissioned to record the work of coal miners, vital to the war effort, and he thus followed in the footsteps of Brandt in going underground. While doing his drawings of scenes during the Blitz, Moore had felt, as 'Lilliput' put it, that 'he would be ashamed to intrude on private suffering', so he had made notes discreetly then worked them up into the drawings afterwards.
As the son of a local miner, Moore did not feel the same constraint among the workers at the Wheldale Colliery in Castelford in Yorkshire, where he was born and brought up. Indeed, a local photographer snapped the artist sketching by the light of the lamp in his miner's helmet. The shot was published in the magazine 'Illustrated' in 1942.
In the postwar period Brandt and Moore explored their shared fascination with Neolithic monuments, especially that most sculpturally majestic of them all, Stonehenge, to which they both returned again and again. Brandt produced brooding images of the megalithic stones in 1946 and his symbolically resonant 'Stonehenge under Snow,' a 'Picture Post' cover in April 1947, at the end of that brutally cold winter, is one of the most powerful of them all.
Although his extraordinary lithographs of the standing stones were not published till the early 1970s, Moore had first visited the site in 1921 and it remained a recurring inspiration for his sculptures throughout his career.
Despite the raw, documentary look of many of Brandt's photographs, he manipulated them with the creativity of an artist, often adjusting their appearance according to the contexts for which they were destined, whether for the popular press or books and exhibitions. Apart from contrasts being reworked in the darkroom, images were cropped, pencil lines drawn on them, surfaces incised with a knife, and gouache and dyes applied to them, all of these processes becoming invisible in the final print.
He also composed his pictures with enormous care. His 'Backstage at the Windmill: Ten Minutes to the Show', published in 'Lilliput' in October 1942, to take but one example, has an artful air of dressing-room spontaneity, but with one of the actresses seen from behind, naked to the waist, her hands gracefully raised above her head, perfectly posed like a classical sculptural nude.
During the 1950s Brandt spent much of his time perfecting his photography of the nude, evolving a highly distinctive style by shooting models in extreme close-up among rocks and on pebbly beaches. Palpably influenced by Moore, these were collected in the book 'Perspectives of Nudes' in 1961 and indeed constitute a tribute to the sculptor's vision.
Both Brandt and Moore developed the habit of collecting small objects such as pebbles, shells, starfish, driftwood and other seashore objects, which they photographed and arranged in different combinations. These were a constant inspiration for Moore's sculptures and Brandt even made sculptural ensembles of his own, to be photographed or preserved, in perspex boxes, fixed on boards painted in marine colours.
In 1935, Moore wrote: 'Most people, I think, respond more easily and quickly to a flat image than a solid object₀I have often noticed that people, after seeing a good photograph of a piece of sculpture which until then they have more or less ignored, find their interest in the original greatly increased.'
He had acquired a Leica in 1932 and subsequently bought over a dozen other cameras. He used photographs to document the progress of works, to promote them and eventually to make collages, amassing over 200,000 prints and negatives. And his work became familiar around the world through photographs long before many of his sculptures appeared in museums and public spaces.
When Henry Moore was about nine or ten years old, he was taken to see Adel Rock, a famous craggy outcrop in Leeds, near his home in Castelford. 'Looking back I can now see that this was a crucial and potently formative experience, from which so much of my fundamental attitude to sculpture emanates,' he recalled later. 'The sense of scale, the feeling for stone, the need to think of sculpture as something essentially monumental: something to be placed out of doors, and, so far as possible, in a way that best reveals its inherent monumentality.'
Photography gave Moore a vital tool for for testing this monumentality by taking close-ups of small models out of doors against landscape backdrops One of the most spectacular examples of this is his 1938 outdoor photo of a 33-centimetre-long plaster maquette, 'Reclining Figure', which half a century later became the nearly nine-metre-long and two-and-a-half metre high sculpture, 'Long Reclining Figure', carved in Roman travertine marble and now sited outside the UNESCO building in Paris.
Bill Brandt Henry Moore, edited by Martina Droth, Yale University Press (£50)
First published: The Lady
© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022