EN / nl
Cycles of Realism
Cycles of Realism in this exhibition explores changes in the representation of mining and miners over the last two hundred odd years. Developments in artistic modes and media have brought a greater verisimilitude – not quite the same thing as realism – to the registering of the reality of the experience of the miner. Photography and film are the most obvious technological developments that transformed the way coal mining has been perceived.
It was the use of illustrations in the Report on Coal Mining in 1842 that most vividly brought the terrible working conditions home to the general public and to Parliament. Crude engravings showed women and children harnessed and bent over like beasts of burden dragging tubs of coal along low tunnels. As a result the Coalmines Regulation Act of 1842 prohibited women and all children under the age of ten from working underground. An upsurge of sympathy and interest on the part of the public enhanced the popularity of Henry Perlee Parker’s images of pitmen in the softened academic style characteristic of 19th-century genre painting, which he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1836. The picturesque scenes of the colliers gaming at the pit mouth, often with their families, as in Pitmen Playing Quoits, ‘The Disputed Shot’, reflect the curiosity of the middle and upper classes about a way of life both awful and colourful.
When cameras were finally permitted down mines towards the end of the 19th century, a more documentary approach developed, as in the photographs taken by the Rev. Cobb, and the mining regions of Europe and their inhabitants are the subjects of an extensive body of photography that has recorded the daily life (Frank, Brandt, Killip), triumphs (Stakhanovism), and decline (Bechers) of the industry.
Both documentary and narrative film took avidly to coal mining, which has been described as “deeply cinematic” (Russell 2008). Nonetheless, modern -painters continued to be fascinated by mining, and artists such as Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Keith Vaughan and Josef Herman visited mines to record their impressions first-hand. The spectre of authenticity has always haunted modernist painting, especially in its figurative guises. With the increase in universal education miners brought to the representation of their lives and experiences their own voices and visions, rather than being always the objects of other peoples’. ‘Pitmen Painters’ like Kilbourn, Daykin, McGuinness and Heslop painted straightforward accounts, which are neither naïve nor socialist realist, of what they saw and experienced. DA