Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation
Reclining Figure 1929
Leeds Museums and Galleries © Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
24 February – 8 August 2010
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
What is it about Henry Moore’s body of work which makes much of it still seem so compelling today, despite the fact that there is, at least on the surface of it, nothing particularly shocking or unsettling about it? This essential, enlightening exhibition seeks to address that phenomenon and chooses to do so in a way which sheds light on the darker undercurrents adherent to Moore’s artistic trajectory.
Moore, himself a veteran of World War I, one of a unit of 400 men of which only 52 survived, explored his feelings on the horrors of war and other loathsome aspects of mankind such as abuses of nuclear power and the cold war through his art. Moore’s work, though initially influenced by primitive, non-Western sculptures, particularly pre-Colombian art, eventually came to coalesce both Modernist and ancient perspectives, as well as the rise of Freudian/psychoanalytical thought, which though formerly denied as an influence, was eventually acknowledged by the artist, who cited a possible ‘mother complex, ‘for his frequent return to the timeless, but little explored in European Art until then, theme of mother and child. Perhaps Moore’s inborn fascination with the almost prehistoric, ‘standing stone’ aesthetics inherent to his work were also expressed, along with such concerns via his many, but varied carvings of reclining females.
One of the things which is most admirable about the fruits of Moore’s artistic practice is that despite his time-spanning influences, his views, as expressed through his artistic interpretations were always, uniquely his own. Although the exhibition casts doubt over the sources of some of Moore’s underground figures in his beloved Shelter Drawings, there is no denying the true source of their inspiration. Following a tube ride on the fourth night of the Blitz, Moore quickly set to work trying to depict the scenes he’d witnessed. Admittedly, some of the ‘mother and child’ groupings in two of the initial drawings seem to mirror some of those depicted in photographs seen in Picture Post at the time, but perhaps it is important to remember that Moore had been, until then, specifically a sculptor and, to ask ourselves whether his admiration of the photographs in question detracts from the overall scenes he created to honour those sheltering here, in London, on the night of September 12, 1940 when he and his wife took their inspiring tube ride. While we’re at it, we might also ponder the notion of whether we’d question the sources of say, Damien Hirst’s artistic inspirations/aspirations or, how original his completed works were, or even, who had worked on them. The bottom line is that Moore’s inspirations were transferred to viewers in a way that was identifiable and moving, thus realising his artistic intentions.
Ever a believer in the power of the human form, Moore viewed the body as a vehicle ‘through which one can express more completely one’s feelings about the world than in any other way.’ However, as the rise of psychoanalysis was beginning to be assimilated into society, and surrealism assumed its mirroring position in countless psyches, Moore’s sculptures began to occupy their own indefinable space in time, one they still, admirably fill today, despite criticism encouraging the contrary.
As with any major exhibition, the work is divided into sections, via a time line of sorts, from 1926 to 1978, through the artist’s trajectory, prior to the era of his epic, publically situated bronzes. Our journey begins with World Cultures, reflecting some of Moore’s non-Western influences, moving on to Modernism, a three room, pivotal section setting works in context, Mother and Child, featuring varied examples of one of the artist’s favourite, ‘universal’ themes, Wartime, housing some of Moore’s seminal drawings of London’s masses sheltering against the Blitz, as well as his drawings of miners, Post War, reflecting his thoughts as both veteran and concerned citizen, Post War as well as a sense of Britain’s reconstruction via Moore’s artistic output and Elm, dedicated to four, large reclining female figures beautifully carved and crafted with respect for their elegantly grained material, once that of the predominant trees of Britain. As Moore himself stated, ‘Trunks of trees are very human to me, they have a connection with human life.’ That belief is made tangible through those seminal works, even more so, because they were not created for any commission.
In addition to being a prolific artist, Moore was also one who worked with a vast assortment of materials, many of which he masterfully carved, among them countless types of stone, plaster, concrete and a myriad of wood. On show here too are many of his cast bronzes, large and small, with the exception of the huge outdoor pieces created in his later years. For practical as well as artistic reasons, no representations of the latter are in this exhibition, for, as curator Chris Stephen claimed the large, outdoor pieces were ‘not his (Moore’s) best.’ While that statement may be open to debate, particularly among fans of the Moore exhibition of large scale outdoor pieces at Kew Gardens three years ago, there is nevertheless, much to be reckoned with in this comprehensive exhibition.
Even early pencil, ink, pen and wash drawings of Moore’s such as ‘Six Studies for a Sculpture’ (1925) display a sense of the mass and contour that would become preoccupations and present challenges throughout his sculptural career. The artist’s journals on display here too, are intriguing for what they convey about Moore’s ongoing processes and progress. During hours spent drawing in the British Museum while on a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Arts, he found himself drawn to primitive, non-Western works and many of his earlier sculptures such as the oddly dignified, totemic Girl (1931), carved from Ancaster stone reflects on those influences, while at the same time marking Moore out as an artist capable of conveying his own sense of feminine beauty and, essence, as does ‘Reclining Figure’ (1929) in Brown Honiton stone, which seems to exude great presence of mind. Being able to walk completely around such sculptures only serves to emphasise their differences from their more primitive but often sacred and/or ritualistic counterparts, which would not have taken their subjects inner lives into account or, conveyed a sense of looking at a completely different piece of work, depending upon which angle one was looking at it from.
‘Masks’ (1928-30), literally, a collection of masks Moore cast in bronze, concrete and/or carved from green stone, begin to show strong inclinations towards abstraction, inspired by what he referred to as ‘the erotic intensity of African carving.’ Along those lines, ‘Pynkado’ (1934) carved from wood conveys a sense of tension between its two forms. By this point in the exhibition, still early on, I was already beginning to lose track of the number of materials Moore had worked with which included, among many others, carved concrete, Corsehill stone and dark African wood.
By the late ‘30’s, Moore’s sculptures already seemed tailor made for the great outdoors, a thought seemingly backed up by his charcoal and water colour wash, pen and ink drawing, ‘Stones in a Landscape’ (1936) as well as other drawings on show in one of the Modernism rooms. ‘Mother and Child’ (1937) carved from Hopton Wood stone seemed to personify both beauty and power, as did the serene yet forceful ‘Recumbent Figure’ (1938) carved in Green Honiton stone with its sparkly beige going into green colouring. A selection of the very Modernistic though gourde like ‘Stringed Figures’ (1937-39) are also on show here, as are a surrealist row of lead marquettes, reclining females all.
The War Time room’s main focal points are, of course, the famed Shelter Drawings, which are both striking and, heart-wrenching. The acclaimed, ‘Pink and Green Sleepers’ (1941) and ‘Two Sleepers in the Underground’ (1941), both drawn with pencil, ink, gouache and wax crayons, exhibit sleepers who, if still living, convey a weariness beyond measure. Both were part of a war-time exhibition of Moore’s Shelter Drawings at the National Gallery. Notable here too, are his drawings of the notorious Tilbury Shelter in London’s East End, a huge basement with no sanitation facilities, capable of housing 15,000 people. It and other poorly-equipped shelters for the great unwashed of London caused Moore to state that ‘The only thing at all like those shelters I could think of was the hold of a slave-ship.’ In this room too are Moore’s powerful drawings of toiling miners, who together seem to make up one hulking, heaving mass, going about their wearying work in the confined, darkened pit.
By 1950, Moore was seen as the world’s ‘pre-eminent modern sculptor’ whose work thus far was, as one of his former exhibition curators Bryan Robertson stated, ‘anything but gentle, a claim which easily translates onto the bronze sculpture, ‘Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy)’ (1964-65) and ‘Animal Head’ (1951) seemingly, an abstraction of a desert baked skull. However, the centrepiece of this room is, understandably, (smaller than its final version), white, bone like rendering of the reclining figure, made in a larger sized bronze for the Festival of Britain in 1951, which, curator Stephens reminded us at that time, may have been seen as representative of the shattered victims of war. The piece in this form is also notable for its tan, map like markings, which possibly, make reference to the branding of those in concentration camps and/or maps and plans used by those going into or orchestrating battles. Moore felt that the Post WWII world was not necessarily a better one and this feeling is also echoed in the second of his two helmet pieces, ‘Helmet Head 1’ (1950) which has a much darker interior than its predecessor.
The fact that the material the Elm reclining females (mid 1930’s – ‘70’s) were carved from has since died out as a result of disease seems significant in hindsight, though Moore must have been aware of that fact as he created the final piece in the series. These sculptures are clearly labours of love, as much a homage to the diminishing materials they are derived from as to their ever changing subject matter. ‘Reclining Figure’ (1959 – 64) conveys a sense of form emerging out of mass almost suggestive of Michelangelo’s rough hewn, unfinished ‘Slaves.’ Moore would have been eighty by the time he completed the fourth and final piece in this impressive series before moving on to the no doubt, less physically taxing, though much more imposing outdoor public art exhibited around the world that he is so well known for. ‘Reclining Figure Holes’ (1976 – 78) with its undulating contours reminiscent of landscapes, naturally darkened ‘knees’ suggestive of repetitive wear and tear, and blank face, as if braced for the changes time will bring, left a lasting impression as we moved towards the exit.
As Director of the Henry Moore Foundation, Richard Calvocoressi stated, ‘This is the most important exhibition of Moore’s work in the thirty-three years of the foundation.’ One could easily agree. However, this repackaging of Moore’s work for a ‘new generation’ is actually much more than that, for it offers viewers a rare chance, in the midst of it all, to reassess the fact that what was once radial, or, is radical today, invariably, comes to be viewed as mainstream over time. Hopefully, taking into account the all important ‘critical distance’ curator Stephens cited, those visiting this exhibition will be inspired to take a second look at some of the all too often overlooked aspects of this great 20th Century artist’s creative processes and expressions.
Tube Shelter Perspective Liverpool Street Extension 1941
Tate © Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
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