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At Yale, connecting two great Britons

The art of Bill Brandt and that of Henry Moore is more similar than it appears

Bill Brandt, "Henry Moore," 1948Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.; Digital Image: Yale Center for British Art

NEW HAVEN — There are certain obvious connections between the two men who give “Bill Brandt | Henry Moore” its name. The show runs at the Yale Center for British Art through Feb. 26. The exhibition goes beyond those connections, though, to show an affinity that’s deeper and less apparent — which is also to say more interesting.

Brandt and Moore were, in effect, artistic peers. One was the foremost British photographer of the 20th century, the other the foremost sculptor. They were also contemporaries. Brandt’s dates are 1904-1983, Moore’s 1898-1986. So their careers largely coincided with the international consolidation of Modernism.

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Yet along with a Modernist commitment to formalist concerns, the art of both men has something intrinsically British about it. Brandt, the son of a German mother and British father, first made his name in the ‘30s with documentary pictures of the English class system. And his photographs from that same decade of coalminers in the north of England remain as seared into the national consciousness as, say, Walker Evans’s of Southern tenant farmers do in the American imagination. Several are in the show.

As for Moore, his work has a kind of cautiousness to it, a sense of aesthetic reserve and rootedness, that owes as much to tradition as to any idea of the avant-garde. There’s something very English about that. Put another way, what Vaughan Williams was to music, Moore was to modern art.

Henry Moore, "Sleeping Shelterers: Two Women and a Child," 1940.Photograph by Marcus Leith © The Henry Moore Foundation/Marcus J Leith

There were other, quite specific connections between Brandt and Moore. During the Blitz, both famously documented the use of the London subway system as bomb shelters — Brandt with his camera, Moore with a sketchpad. The two first met in 1942, when Brandt took Moore’s portrait. He would do so another four times over the next 30 years. Clearly, assigning editors saw an affinity between the two.

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Something that works to conceal their affinity is how fundamentally their media differ: the paper-borne, two-dimensional fragility of a photograph versus the mass and solidity of sculpture, Moore’s sculpture especially. Most sculptures rest on pediments. His seem to spring from the earth. Even when they actually are on pediments, the latter just seem to be getting in the way. Also, Moore’s frequent recourse to voids within his sculptures underscores the massiness and solidity of the rest of the figure.

Henry Moore, arrangements of flints and found objects, early 1960s© The Henry Moore Foundation/Photograph by Henry Moore Archive

Yet Moore was very much alert to the power of the photographic image. In 1936, he said that he thought “most people . . . respond more easily and quickly to a flat image than to a solid object.” That could be taken as a swipe at photography — “easily” and “quickly” are not compliments in any Modernist lexicon, even a British one — except that there are some 200,000 photographs of Moore and his work. Many of the latter were taken by Moore himself or by employees under his direction. The single largest collection of them is in the Henry Moore Archive, at the artist’s onetime home, in Hertfordshire.

Photography mattered to Moore, not just for documentation (or, yes, publicity), but also for creative purposes. Photographing maquettes and then blowing up or reducing prints of them was an economical way to get a sense of varieties of scale.

(An aside concerning scale. The show includes a vitrine with a dozen small Moore maquettes of a reclining figure. The classic Moore sculpture is usually recumbent and roughly the size of an adult human figure, or slightly larger. The maquettes are something of a revelation, letting us see how effective Moore’s work can be on a small scale. Maybe even more effective? While smallness in no way imparts delicacy, it does make his sculpture seem less formulaic and overt. Moore’s greatest strength as an artist is also his greatest weakness. One look at his work and you think, “Oh, right, there’s a Henry Moore.” With the maquettes, you can’t do that.)

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Bill Brandt, "Liverpool Street Extension," 1940 Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd./Digital Image: Yale Center for British Art

For his part, Brandt increasingly sought a sculptural quality in his postwar work. His photographs of the ‘30s and the war years owed much to Expressionism, especially in their intense contrasts of light and dark. Some of his most striking images in “Bill Brandt | Henry Moore” are of London during the blackout. Later his work would show the influence of Surrealism (as a young man, he’d worked in Paris as Man Ray’s assistant). This was especially the case with his nudes. Volume interested Brandt more than space; and, like Moore, he preferred curve to angle. He would photograph the human figure from perspectives and in settings that would make it appear more geological than anatomical. In his own, two-dimensional way, Brandt was abstracting the human figure no less than Moore was.

Both men were drawn to the British megalithic sites of Avebury and Stonehenge. Moore first visited Stonehenge in 1921. He estimated that over the years he went back another “twenty or thirty times.” As for Brandt, what may be the most spectacular work in the show is his 1947 view of Stonehenge in winter. It verges on the hallucinatory.

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Bill Brandt, "Stonehenge Under Snow," 1947.© Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.6./Digital Image: Yale Center for British Art

Part of the attraction these sites held for both men was formal, a matter of shape and texture and scale. Part of the attraction was conceptual: What is manmade and what is landscape seem to merge. Part of the attraction was as a means for two artists highly conscious of being very much of their time, good Modernists that they were, to evoke a sense of timelessness in their work. Here affinity takes its clearest form, as aspiration, and becomes commonality.

BILL BRANDT | HENRY MOORE

At Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, through Feb. 26. 877-274-8278, britishart.yale.edu



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.