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The Age of Coal: An Underground History of The Modern

“The variety of style and content in recent mining art is plain to see. It represents an all-embracing visual record of an industry whose fortunes are never free of the public gaze” (Gray 1982:42). This sentence in Douglas Gray’s catalogue essay for the 1982 exhibition Coal: British Mining in Art 1680-1980, is, strikingly, in the present tense. The second essay in the catalogue ends on an even more upbeat note: “The works of art in this exhibition... show an industry confident, proud and strong, and as vital to the nation now as it was two hundred years or more ago” (Kanefsky 1982:54). By the end of the decade the industry was to all intents and purposes dead: uneconomic, it was argued, as the coal became more difficult and expensive to reach and imports from Eastern Europe and eventually China were much cheaper. Pit closures decimated the mining communities. The contraction of the coal industry in Britain and much of Western Europe has been devastating, its scale and speed unique (Mayo 2002:ix).

The Age of Coal: An Underground History of The Modern, the historical part of Manifesta 9, covers a similar range of work to Coal, but with the drastic difference that it is no longer possible to speak of artists responding to a living thing, and being “profoundly moved by their experiences, becoming keenly aware of a people and an industry that share a strong tradition” (Gray 1982: 42). Does this alter the relationship between the historical and the contemporary works in the exhibition? What effect does the disappearance of the landscapes, objects and communities that moved artists for over two hundred years have on the art historian’s approach to their representation or evocation? “One wonders with the passing of time when no present day pitheads actually exist, if pictures of them might be thought of as picturesque and as socially significant as old windmill pictures” (Norman Cornish, quoted in McManners and Wales 2002:114).

Francis Klingender’s groundbreaking study Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947), whose thesis was ‘the interpenetration of art and technology’, was originally prompted by the first art exhibition sponsored by a British trade union. In 1945 the Amalgamated Engineering Union asked the Artists’ International Association to organise an exhibition on “The Engineer in British Life” (Klingender 1968:xi). Coal: British Mining in Art 1680-1980, one of the first exhibitions to take coal as its subject, was similarly backed by the industry itself, though in this case the National Coal Board rather than a union. There is often an uneasy relationship between ‘art’ and ‘document’ in such exhibitions. The ‘art’ may be present merely as visual illustration of a story or a history exterior to art’s own concerns and possibilities. However, like Klingender, who was alert to both the histories and the art histories of his subject, the exhibition Coal presented works, which ranged from a late 17th-century landscape that showed Coal Staithes on the River Wear to John Latham’s nomination of a slag heap as a found object (Carberry Bing), with awareness of their internal raison d’être as works of art as well as of their role in the history of coal.

The approach in the 1982 Coal exhibition was, nonetheless, different from ours. Coal was a history of coal in art, posited on the continuing reality of the mining world, and its ‘chapters’ are descriptive, structured to point up change and continuity in that world and its inhabitants: ‘The Mining Landscape’, ‘The Colliery Close-up’, ‘Pit People: personalities and events’, ‘The Mining Community’, etc. The Age of Coal: An Underground History of The Modern, is by contrast retrospective, looking back at a redundant industry which had been strangled by the capitalist economy it helped to create. But it is also embedded in a larger exhibition of contemporary art which emphasises the powerful role art now takes in the critique of global capitalism as well as its ambiguous position in frequently occupying the redundant sites of former industrial activity such as mining.

This places the visual production explored in The Age of Coal in a new light, as a material history of the long impact of coal on the modern sensibility and its aftermath. The exhibition draws its themes from aspects of visual production from the late eighteenth century to the early 21st century whose aesthetic assumptions are consciously or unconsciously related to the Industrial Revolution and its consequences, and in particular to coal. Landscape: From the Picturesque to the Industrial traces the ways that the picturesque, having shattered conventional assumptions about beauty, could be co-opted to see pictorial interest in a new industrial world; Underground as Hell comprises both the real and metaphorical horror of the mines; Aesthetics of Pollution recognises the environmental impact of coal and its effect on atmospheric conditions celebrated by painters such as Monet and Whistler. The exhibition is framed chronologically by two sections that consider the material itself: the Carboniferous Era looks at coal as a fossil with significant consequences in the fields of natural science and religion, and Dark Matter includes works by modern artists using the material of coal itself in a great variety of ways.

Photography and film transformed public knowledge of the conditions of coal miners underground. Photography’s claims to authenticity were welcomed as providing an unprecedented record of mining and miners. Whether it could be more than document, however, was a matter of dispute. Its advent did not stop artists like Henry Moore or Keith Vaughan from sketching from life and the expressive possibilities of painting were nowhere more movingly explored than in the works of the ‘pitmen painters’ themselves. Both photography and paintings are included in the section Cycles of Realism, which examines the interconnections between technologies and modes of representation, such as the question of documentary realism in photography. For Robert Frank, a good photograph was more than a record: “Most of my photographs are of people. They are seen simply, as through the eyes of the man in the street... This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph” (in Gray 1982:41). Many of the photographs that have transformed the reception of the medium have taken coal and mining as their subject: the Bechers’ shots of silent, abandoned and unpeopled mines, or Bill Brandt’s atmospheric and dark images of people on the margins of the industrial world, for example.

It was precisely works like these, however, examples of which were included in the 1982 Coal exhibition, that provoked an attack on that show by the critic Peter Fuller. Had that exhibition restricted itself to being purely documentary it is unlikely it would have so irritated Fuller, for whom the link between coal and aesthetics was not just improbable but anathema. Coal is “uniformly black...lacks visible variety and is filthy to touch;” it is “the absolute negation of the aesthetic;” “the rise of this anaesthetic substance symbolised the squeezing of art out of the everyday activities of life” (Fuller 1990: 200). Coal is the original sin of the Industrial Revolution, and constitutes its absolutely appropriate symbolism. The only way coal could have an “aesthetic”, Fuller argues, is through “imaginative or aesthetic transformation” (ibid 204) as in a painting like Turner’s Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight. Fuller can only see photographs as documentation, and for him they were fatally linked to a conceptual work by John Latham in the exhibition, Carberry Bing, which represented “the logical conclusion of that literalist (or social realist) view which argues that, in the face of a phenomenon like coal, and a practice like mining, we should abandon the idea of imaginative or aesthetic transformation altogether” (ibid 204).

The assumptions behind Fuller’s opinion that photography (plus land art, conceptual art, found objects and so on) was incompatible with “works produced through an aesthetic response” (ibid 203) reveal rifts within the fields of aesthetics and the history of art. Coal was a new kind of exhibition whose “failure” to distinguish between ‘documentary’ photographs and ‘works of art’ called into question traditional visual hierarchies. Exhibitions were, as much as theoretical texts, the places where the so-called New Art History plainly made its challenges. The New Art History was, though, never a unified front within the discipline, but massed loosely against a common enemy that was vaguely thought of as Old and connoisseurial. The main positions within it, which were not necessarily compatible, held that: what might be of interest was no longer restricted to the art of galleries or even of artists; theory is as important for the study of art as its history; works of art need to be understood in their wider social and political contexts; art is no more than the institutional structures and conventions that contain and define it; art has histories that are not catered for within the normal channels and canons of the discipline. A major shift occurred concurrently with these debates: the centre of gravity for art historians shifted from past to present. Rather than seeing contemporary art as something remote and often incomprehensible, to be left alone (i.e., to the critics) until safely part of art history – Duchamp once remarked this took about forty years – this is now the general locus for the study of art. As a result the art of the past is seen more and more through the lens of a present dominated by strands of practice over the last hundred years that once lay below the radar of Modernism, with Duchamp at their centre.

The starting point for The Age of Coal: An Undergound History of the Modern, the hinge between the art historical and the contemporary in the installation at Waterschei, is a recreation of the ceiling of coal sacks devised by Marcel Duchamp for the 1938 Exposition Internationale du surréalisme in Paris. This and the whole room of which it was a part formed a total environment that no longer announced itself as ‘art gallery’. The main thing was “to create an ambiance that would exorcise as much as possible that of an art gallery” (Breton 1947: 14). There is no doubt that the coal sack ceiling and the brazier beneath it transformed the ambiance of the grand spaces of the Galerie Beaux-Arts with its lofty ceilings and panelled doors, together with the smell of roasting coffee.

Coal holes, coal cellars, coal scuttles and coal sacks, the little shops selling “Bois-charbon” that spooked Breton, were then common in everyday street and domestic life. But short of hanging the ceiling with carcases or bones Duchamp could hardly have chosen anything less in harmony with an art gallery. This transformation together with the presence in the 1938 surrealist exhibition of many objects made and found lies at the head of a genealogy of installations, site specific art and spectator involvement, and eventually of showing art in non-gallery spaces, such as the Waterschei Mine. (The Galerie Beaux-Arts was, after all, still an art gallery).

The coal grotto is a direct and deliberate riposte to the white box museum or gallery space, and to one of the first instances of a total art environment: El Lissitsky’s Prounroom at the Grosser Berliner Kunstausstellung in 1923. Here not just the walls of the white box but also the ceiling and floor became the supports for Lissitsky’s ‘Prouns’ in two- and three-dimensions, ending with a space that was a three-dimensional abstract work of art. The Exposition surréaliste was also a critique of the great International Exhibition in Paris of the previous year, 1937. This was the World Fair at which the Soviet and Nazi Pavilions confronted each other with rival grandiose figurative sculptures on the main avenue. That Exhibition as a whole, beyond these nationalist rivalries, sought to ground its ideals in images of flight and illumination. Its double theme was “arts et techniques”, once united in the Greek term techne. Le palais aéronautique, also known as Le Palais de l’air, contained large abstract murals by Sonia and Robert Delaunay; Fernand Léger’s mural Le Transport des forces was in the Palais de la découverte, and the Palais de la lumière et de l’électricité housed Raoul Dufy’s History of Electricity. Energy and light were, in all these great pavilions, presented as clean, and white. The fact that coal was still by far the largest source of energy and of the grime that covered the city was ignored. By contrast the surrealist exhibition placed blackness at its heart: the room was unlit, except for the brazier, messy and sensual. Anti-hygienic coal is, in a sense, brought out from its hidden place and admitted not only as fundamental to the long development of the modern sensibility but as a material artists can use. DA