In 1934 – back when socialism still seemed possible, before Mrs. Thatcher closed the mines, and before Labour turned itself into a pale imitation of Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party – a group of miners in Ashington, England picked up paintbrushes and began making pictures of their lives.
Over the next several years, these untutored working men emerged as a significant force in British Art. Known as the Ashington Group, these miners – pitmen, they’d call themselves – turned out hundreds of works chronicling daily life in the coal country. Their paintings, though, went beyond simple representational chronicles – the best of them have powerful political and spiritual dimensions; and the very best of them can be – to say it simply – stunningly beautiful. In other words, the “pitmen painters” produced some powerful, enduring works of art.
Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters dramatizes the journeys of the individual Ashington Group members as they grope their ways toward creating their particular works of art. In doing so, the playwright raises a number of difficult questions. Some are aesthetic: what is art, anyways; do works of art have meanings; does a painting “mean” what its painter intended? Or do the meaning, value and beauty of a painting exist only in the person looking at it? Some are political: what’s the implication of a bunch of working stiffs producing artworks to the class structure of pre-War and Wartime England? Some are downright spiritual: what is an artist? What does it take to create something that lasts, that is beautiful, that “means” something to the world? And one is completely unanswerable: what do you do when it turns out that the most beautiful art in the world isn’t enough to redeem disappointment, failure, mortality?
Needless to say, The Pitmen Painters is a comedy.
Really. For all the intense issues addressed in this play, one enduring fact is that it is continually, sometimes wryly and sometimes uproariously, funny. Frankly, if it’s about pitmen, it has to be. Men who live in the mines, whose lives are dust-filled and always dangerous, tend to wield humor as a weapon against the constant darkness. It’s an acerbic humor, a humor of jabs and insults, that I recognize from my Irish grandparents who were contemporaries with the Ashington Group painters, and shared with them, if not the mines (my grandparents were shoe workers), then the same irascible attitudes born of poverty and the daily struggle not just make do, but to make their lives enjoyable and occasionally beautiful and – every once in a while – filled with meaning. Their bruising jokes were the only kind that death would understand.
Lee Hall also wrote. Like that movie, The Pitmen Painters looks at the way that art – painting here, the ballet in Billy Elliot – can reach in and transform the harshest lives. In Billy Elliot, of course, the boy escapes – he makes it to the Royal Academy. The Pitmen Painters, on the other hand, don’t, won’t or can’t all leave Ashington. Or the mines. So the transformation for them – if you can call it that – is more constrained, more centered in the small facts of daily life. They have to find the beauty in the depiction of a union hall at night, men fighting against a wind, a boy in a soldier’s uniform getting married, the simple truth of a Bedlington Terrier.
And it’s not a tragedy if all these things don’t in the end transform their lives; it’s a triumph that putting these things on canvas – making them into art – so very nearly does.
~ Walter Maroney
tKAPOW presents a reading of The Pitmen Painters on Sunday, January 8, 2017 at 2 pm at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH.