Published: January 8, 2002
By Stephen May
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Over the course of a celebrated, six-decade career, British artist Henry Moore (1898-1986) came to personify Twentieth Century sculpture, especially through the large public works that made him one of the most recognized artists in world history.
Organized in rough chronological order, the sprawling show emphasizes stages and themes in the artist’s oeuvre. It traces crucial phases in Moore’s development from the pioneering work of the 1920s, to experimentation with abstraction and surrealism in the 1930s, to drawings of the war’s devastating effects in London during World War II, to postwar focus on human relationships in his imagery, to the large-scale outdoor sculpture of the last quarter century of his life.
For varied reasons, Moore fell out of favor with critics toward the end of his prolific career. They felt the one-time radical sculptor had become passé. But of late he has been making a comeback, aided by exhibitions and critical reexaminations such as this show and its scholarly catalogues.
Included are over 100 works of sculpture, ranging in size from an almost 40-foot-wide bronze to palm-sized maquettes. Lots of large, sinuous sculptures, for which Moore is best known, mingle with examples of his family groupings, reclining female figures and interlocking forms. They document how the artist sought to strike a balance between figurative and abstract art, and between the human body and nature.
The sheer diversity of Moore’s sculptural work is dazzling. As the exhibition’s principal organizer, Dorothy Kosinski (curator of European art at the Dallas Museum of Art) puts it, “There’s almost a ubiquitous quality to his work. You think you know him, but then you’ll see an array of shapes, forms, colors, moods that you didn’t know before.”
Also featured prominently are nearly 100 drawings, from early portraits to studies of Londoners during the Nazi blitz of World War II. The quality of Moore’s drawings will come as a revelation to many American viewers. He was a superb draftsman.
“Henry Moore,” which was organized with the collaboration of The Henry Moore Foundation in England, which owns many of the works on view, opened at the Dallas Museum of Art last February. It traveled to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and will be seen at the National Gallery of Art through January 27. Coordinator of the Washington installation is Jeffrey Weiss, the National Gallery’s curator of modern and contemporary art. The exhibition catalogue is outstanding.
Moore was born in 1898 in Castleford, a rundown coal-mining town in northern England, the seventh of eight children. His father, a miner who became a pit manager, was a man of great intelligence who helped his son in many ways.
Youthful excursions into the Yorkshire countryside exposed Henry to stone outcroppings and slag heaps that he said “influenced me…over wanting to do sculpture in the open air and to relate my sculpture to landscape…” He was also impressed by medieval stone carvings on local churches.
By age 11, having heard about the sculptor Michelangelo, Moore resolved to become a sculptor himself. It was a daunting choice for a youngster in the north of Britain on the brink of World War I.
In his late teens Moore qualified as a teacher, but at 19 he joined the army. While serving in the trenches in France he was poisoned by mustard gas, a condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. Demobilized in 1919, he returned to teaching for a time, but soon used an ex-serviceman’s scholarship to study art at the Leeds School of Art.
His career really began in 1920 when he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, whose traditional curriculum emphasized the classical ideal as embodied in the college’s collection of Greco-Roman plaster casts. “British art was then in a state of extreme degeneration,” observes British-born John Russell, one-time art critic of the New York Times, and an academic training had little to offer.”
Fortunately, London provided Moore with opportunities to pursue his own progressive interests, notably so-called “primitive art.” He was particularly take with Mexican sculpture, which he discovered in the British Museum. “Mexican art,” Moore recalled, “seemed to me true and right, perhaps because I at once hit on the similarities in it with some 11th Century carvings I had seen as a boy on Yorkshire churches.”
He was also befriended and influenced by American expatriate Jacob Epstein, a controversial sculptor, who showed Moore his collection of Egyptian and tribal art. Moore soon tried his hand at direct carving, embracing the precept of “truth to the material.” Direct carving remained a lifelong passion for him.
During an extended sojourn in Italy in 1925, Moore developed a deep allegiance to the works of the great Italian masters of the Renaissance. Throughout his career he sought to create sculpture that was of its own time, yet has the qualities he admired in Renaissance art. His affinity for Italian work found its more direct outlet in his creations of the middle 1940s.
Frequent visits to Paris, starting in 1923, exposed Moore to modern art movements and profoundly affected the course of his own sculpture. He admired the work of Naum Gabo, Alberto Giacometti and Piet Mondrian, and was highly impressed by the paintings of Paul Cézanne. Cézanne became a lifelong inspiration for Moore’s reclining female figures.
By the late 1920s, he had married and begun to have gallery shows of his avant-garde sculpture. Moore’s “Reclining Woman” of 1927, presenting a rounded, generalized figure in cast concrete, reflected the influence of non-Western art on his early work. His initial reclining sculptures are similar to a Mayan carved figure of the rain spirit Chacmool that he had seen among the Mexican art at the British Museum. “Girl” (1931) is another primitive figure from this early period.
Moore became friends with Herbert Reed, the influential art historian and critic, who championed his work for the rest of his career. Read helped bring the young sculptor to public attention and introduced him to kindred souls in Britain’s modernist movement.
As Steven A. Nash of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco puts it in his perceptive catalogue essay, the 1930s represented Moore’s “most creatively experimental period.” Building on his affinity for primitive art and his attraction to the modernism of Epstein and others, Moore “seemed suddenly to find new confidence and the inspiration to push his art into realms not previously explored.”
Experiments in abstraction, radical anatomical distortions and an innovative geometric vocabulary mark the work of this fecund, daring phase of the sculptor’s career. “Family” (1935), a 40-inch tall elmwood piece, suggests the high degree of abstraction in his work at this time.
Surrealism, the focus of Nash’s chapter, became an important element in Moore’s 1930s output. “[T]he more aggressive approach to form and metaphorical content that his interests in Surrealism promoted left an important mark,” Nash writes, citing Moore’s “Reclining Figure” (1939). This mysterious elmwood masterpiece, punctuated with holes, hollows and curves, topped by a small, carved-out head, suggests the sculptor’s selective incorporation of surrealist ideas into his work.
During one brief but intense time in the 1930s Moore combined surrealist concepts and geometric elements in his sculpture. Inspired by mathematical models he saw at London’s Science Museum, he crafted a series of 18 idiosyncratic stringed objects.
Mathematical models – designed to help engineers examine potential structures for buildings, bridges and ships – gave Moore new artistic freedom. As he later observed, he gained the “ability to look through the strings as with a birdcage and see one form within another.”
Among the examples in the exhibition is “Stringed Figure” of 1937, a fascinating piece in which taut, harp-like strings stretch across organic shapes made of cherry wood on an oak base. It is on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Moore’s stringed sculptures, created over an 18-month period, influenced the work of a number of artists, including Gabo and Moore’s great friend, Barbara Hepworth.
Preoccupied with the threat of his beloved England and hindered by shortages of materials, Moore was unable to execute major sculptural projects during the Second World War. Keenly aware of the devastating effects of the war, particularly the constant German air raids in 1940 on his countrymen, Moore began sketching views of wartime London. Most notably he recorded people taking refuge in the city’s underground railway stations, capturing the spirit of civilians enduring the vicissitudes of war.
“Tube Shelter Perspective” (1941), for example, a pen-chalk-watercolor-gouache drawing, offers an elongated view of a large number of reclining Londoners huddled together in a subterranean station during the Nazi blitz. Each shelter, he said, was “like a huge city in the bowels of the earth.”
Moore’s images of beleaguered Brits toughing it out against the German onslaught were extremely popular with his countrymen. Published in book form, they significantly boosted the artist’s reputation. These “Shelter Drawings” pack an evocative punch to this day.
The enigmatic sketch, “Crown Looking at a Tied-Up Object” (1942) is based on a photograph of a Nigerian tribal ceremony, according to sculpture historian Alan Wilkinson in the catalogue.
In 1940, Moore’s friend Kenneth Clark chose him to be an official war artist, and commissioned him to record activities at the mining pit in Castleford where Moore’s father once worked. His dark, sketchy drawings showed miners at work in dark, dank, claustrophobic conditions that he considered worse than “Dante’s Hell.” A far cry from his family-oriented three-dimensional work, these superb works on paper are an unexpected highlight of the show.
After his studio in Hampstead was bombed in 1941, Moore moved north of London to the small village of Much Hadham. The rural setting offered more space for work and outdoor displays and, after the war, helped relax the driven artist somewhat. His work softened, suggesting an increasing interest in human relationships and man’s connections to the natural environment.
After the birth of his only child, Mary, in 1946, he began a series of works on the theme of family life. “Family Group” (1948-49), a highly expressive, green-bronze depiction of a mother and father holding their infant between them, is a highlight of the show.
A major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946 augmented Moore’s worldwide standing. His wholesome and universal imagery, suggesting a spiritual rebirth following the carnage and destruction of the war, struck responsive chords everywhere.
Several works created in the wake of the war explored darker themes. In “Warrior with Shield” (1953-54), a scary-looking figure with a Picasso-like, gashed head and missing one arm, a leg and the foot of his remaining leg, recoils in horror behind his raised shield. This strange, even bizarre image presumably reflects the sculptor’s anguish with the destructiveness of World War II.
Moore’s continuing interest in primitive art manifested itself strongly in some postwar pieces. For instance, he created a series of internal/external forms that were apparently inspired by Oceanic tribal styles, specifically Malanggan carvings from New Ireland that he had seen at the British Museum. The sinuous plaster “Working Model for Upright Internal/External Form” (1951), is an example of this fascinating, complex motif.
By the late 1940s Moore’s work was being promoted abroad by the British Council as proof of England’s artistic genius, and as offering reassuring themes and earthbound figures that spoke a common language to people the world over. His international celebrity, confirmed by an appearance on the cover of Time magazine in the 1960s, and numerous honors and awards, abetted his interest in creating large works for public appreciation. With success came the ability and means to hire assistants, to work on a larger scale, and to realize his lifelong dream of placing massive sculpture outdoors near his rural studio.
Size became an increasingly important element in Moore’s work. “Most everything I do,” he said, “I intend to make on a large scale…Scale itself has its own impact, and physically we can relate ourselves more strongly to a big sculpture than a small one.”
In 1955 Moore was selected to create a major sculpture for the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris. Carved from white travertine marble, it was the first of many international commissions that today can be found in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Mexico and Venezuela, as well as England and the United States.
Among the most familiar are sizeable works outside the Houses of Parliament in London, at Lincoln Center in New York, and adjacent to the Dallas City Hall. For a time Henry Moore was the sculptor for important pieces in major public places.
Shifting his focus from direct carving, by means of which he had shaped many of his earlier pieces, Moore worked increasingly in bronze, a durable metal ideally suited for outdoor sculpture. Bronze was also a resilient material for the hollows and voids he incorporated into many major works.,
Several galleries filled with intriguing, expansive, reclining figures toward the end of the exhibition underscore the power of Moore’s late, monumental pieces. They include “Reclining Figure: Festival” (1951), “Reclining Figure” (1959-64), and “Reclining Mother and Child” (1975-76). Each is a show-stopper.
Moore’s massive “Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece” (1976-78), created and sited in consultation with I. M. Pei, architect of the National Gallery’s East Building, greets visitors as they prepare to enter the museum today. Also at the gallery entrance is the ominous bronze, “Goslar Warrior” (1973-74), another memorable work.
A complex and charismatic figure, eloquent and appealing, Moore had a significant influence on sculpture in general and British art in particular. His unusual, innovative oeuvre inspired sculptors everywhere, and his achievements gave heart to younger generations of British artists.
Toward the end of this career, Moore’s fame, the extreme popularity of his work and the public visibility of his monumental pieces led to overexposure–and to a diminution of his reputation. In becoming “too popular,” he lost favor with the art establishment and was attacked for being too “conservative” and insufficiently “contemporary.”
In recent years, however, a spate of exhibitions and critical reassessments of his oeuvre, including this splendid show and catalogue, have spotlighted the magnitude of his achievements–and reconfirmed his seminal role in the evolution of modern sculpture.
By all accounts, Moore was a complex man who combined modesty with the kind of large ego necessary to undertake daring work. This rewarding exhibition confirms his unique, epochal contributions to world art.
It underscores, for example, how Moore’s explorations of the possibilities of abstraction and figuration in sculpture led to a formal language that celebrated the human form at a time when realism was considered dated. His postwar public art, in which he grappled with issues of monumentality and scale, changed perceptions about artwork in public places.
Henry Moore’s expert use of materials, his pioneering experiments in form and space, and his commitment to the importance of the human figure have earned him a place in the front ranks of modern sculptors. This comprehensive exhibition measures up to the magnificence of his achievements.
“Henry Moore” is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated, scholarly catalogue, entitled, Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century. Edited by the exhibition’s lead organizer, Dorothy Kosinski of the Dallas Museum of Art, it includes essays by Nash. Deputy director and chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and other Moore scholars.
The book places great stress on the contradiction between Moore’s popularity and accomplishments and the harsh criticism of his work in recent decades. It offers ample coverage of his early sculpture, much of it unfamiliar to the general public, and all facets of his later work. The detailed, illustrated chronology is especially well done and useful.
The photography is spectacular, with images of over 200 works, some taken by Moore himself, including bronzes, carvings, maquettes, plasters and drawings. Many have never been published before.
This is an extraordinarily handsome and informative volume that will be treasured by Henry Moore fans and all interested in the history of modern sculpture. Co-published by the Dallas Museum and Yale University Press, the 320-page tome may be purchased for $50 (hardcover).
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets at Constitution Avenue in Washington. For information, 202-737-4215.
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