Saturday, 10 May 2008

COMMENTARY: 'Miners at Work' by Henry Moore (1941-1943)

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, May 2008 

Henry Moore, the son of a mining engineer, was one of the pioneering and most popular artists of the 21st century. Famous for his large figurative sculptures, this week we focus on a less well-known piece: ‘Miners at Work’, which is displayed at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Moore’s dark and oppressive image holds an eerie atmosphere and tension with the viewer. Created while Moore was a commissioned war artist during the Second World War, it portrays the often forgotten labour, which needed to continually take place in order for the fighting to continue and for life at home to be sustained.

The impact of this image is increased by its size, at only approximately 56 by 43cm it is surprisingly small, however this emphasises the pictures feeling of enclosure. The frame closes in around the image, just as one can imagine the heavy damp earth around the bent over figures. The canvas is broken in to three horizontal tunnels, which tear across the page, one above the other. We cannot see where these tunnels begin or end, or how many there are. We are only given a slice or segment of the expansive underground maze of tunnels and workers. Here Moore forces us to realise the extent of unceasing toil present working in the mines. It feels eternal, never ending.

Moore’s figures in ‘Miners at work’ are abstracted. All of the same build and stance, they turn in to one being, repeated over and over again. They all hunch their backs, crouching in the narrow tunnels. They are void of individuality and work relentlessly. Moore makes them seem mechanic while retaining their organic shapes and associations. We are not detached from them, but connected; one man with piercing white eyes, stares directly out of the canvas, looking at you accusingly. It makes you feel uncomfortable. They are shown as strong and beast like, yet they also seem like children – helpless and lost.

The many different materials, Moore has used in this piece, adds to the expressive rendering of the dark tunnels. Layers of pen, charcoal, watercolour and gauche create a deep and solid darkness; the scratched markings create the rough surface of the mines. The miner’s lamps, tiny in comparison to their huge bodies, emit no light. The darkness is unavoidable; it penetrates their skin, minds and thus filters into our own as we stand in the exhibition space.

It is a moving and strong visual message that Henry Moore depicts. It is oppression, claustrophobia and industrial struggle. It is not beautiful. It is uneasy and opinionated. Definitely go and look for yourself.

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