top of page

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951. 

Tate © Reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation Photo: Tate Photography.

Henry Moore At Tate Britain


By Anna Leung

Avant-gardist status and public recognition seldom go hand in hand, the one seeming to disqualify the other. By the 1960’s Henry Moore definitely seemed passé for many of the new generation of British sculptors who were searching for a new type of sculpture no longer derived from the human body and the real world. Moore’s sculptures were too solid, too stable. During the 1950s his figures came to stand for the conscience of the nation, national emblems that embodied classical humanistic values of suffering and endurance, stoicism and survival. In the immediate post war years this had reflected the spirit of the nation, for Britain unlike France and Germany had not known defeat despite years of protracted fighting, sacrifice and deprivation. Whereas in the years before the outbreak of World War II Moore was not known or admired by the general public but earned the respect and admiration of his fellow avant-garde artists, by the end of the war he was beginning to become a public figure whose archetypal sculptures represented not just historical continuity but elements of anti-modernity and a traditional pastoral quality that reinforced our cultural isolation in Europe. Increasingly, this high public profile which legitimised his practice contradicted the thrust of modernism’s avant-gardist rhetoric which by definition stood for innovative opposition to the entrenched establishment.  This exhibition purports to reintegrate Moore within the ranks of the avant-garde, to radicalise him by revealing the darker side of his imagination and in this way to rescue him from a secure but marginalised position within modern critical thinking. Placing more emphasis on his drawings plays an important part in this reinvention of Moore which is all the more intriguing since his war time drawings have often been used as evidence of his turning his back on the avant-garde and modernism. 

Situated mid way in the exhibition between “modernism” and the “post war” is a “war time” room dedicated to Moore’s drawings.  The decision to place these drawings at the centre of the exhibition is significant to both Moore’s artistic practice and his public persona.  For the Shelter Drawings of 1940 represent a pivotal point in Moore’s career marking the end of his abstract period and the beginning of a reengagement with figuration, albeit a modernist version of it. The origins of the Shelter Drawings are not clear. According to Moore mythology he did not often make use of the London underground, but when forced to do so some days into the Blitzkrieg, was amazed by the sight of Londoners asleep on the platform taking shelter there. This series of drawings, which also represents his contribution as an Official War Artist, were at first interpreted as Moore’s rejection of modernism and his turning to a much more legible form of realism accessible to the ordinary members of the public. But despite the evidence seemingly vouchsafed by Lee Miller’s photograph of Moore sketching in the Underground, which may well have been a re-enactment, whether he sketched from life, or as is also likely, adapted his drawings from press cuttings, is beside the point. Rather, Moore recognised in these sleeping bodies his own reclining figures and he admits as much, remarking that he saw “hundreds of Henry Moore Reclining Figures stretched along the platforms.” The technique of white wax crayon covered with washes of ink and watercolour lends itself to this atmosphere of darkness, drama and menace. For there is a distinctly dream-like quality to these drawings of recumbent bodies which, cocooned or mummified, seem suspended between life and death. It is this surrealist aspect that is highlighted by the curators who associate the Shelter Drawings  with the Freudian notion of the uncanny (Unheimlichkeit); I’ll come back to this concept when considering the “war time” section.  However, it is pretty certain that the Londoners sheltering there did not recognise themselves in these drawings and in no way do they suggest the ordinary untidiness and chaotic activity that must have accompanied surviving in these cramped conditions. The basic brief of this exhibition is that the darker side had always been there and was either a part of Moore’s own psyche going back to his relationship with his mother or related to his experience in World War I when he was gassed, hospitalised and never sent back to fight on the front. Both life experiences, the exhibition suggests, contributed to a hidden aspect of a mature personality normally seen as benign.

What comes over as Tate’s main objective is a re-appraisal of Moore. This begins appropriately in two galleries devoted to “world culture” with his discovery of primitive artefacts that coincided with the enthusiasm for direct carving that, by the interwar years, was becoming de rigueur for young sculptors. Brancusi spearheaded the movement by declaring that “direct cutting is the true road to sculpture.”  Sculptors in the 20’s and 30’s attached such importance to the notion of truth to materials, especially to stone, that together with direct carving it constituted a new orthodoxy. Part of a wider cultural rejection of both modernity and classicism, direct carving, it was argued, was more honest and more authentic than sculptural practices like Rodin’s that were based on clay modelling. This was because direct carving or cutting dispensed with mediators, assistants who created bronze casts from the original clay or plaster model or used pointing techniques to create scaled-up versions of the original. What were lost in these mechanised processes were the sculptor’s authorial control and artistic quality. The revolutionary and avant-gardist imperative was to restore through direct carving a relationship between head and hand, between the artwork as concept and as finished product. Moore had to wait till his student days at the Royal College of Art to study carving, since up till then it was still regarded as manual labour betokening the craftsman and not the artist. Carving into stone meant that a certain refinement tended to be lost but the directness and simplicity that was gained was in accordance with a new understanding of primitive artefacts that eschewed naturalistic realism for a deeper symbolic or expressive language. It was this that artists intent on introducing a new authenticity and truthfulness in their artistic practice, were searching for.

Henry Moore. Photo: Jane Bown.

As a student, Moore was going down a well-trodden path. Picasso, Derain, Brancusi and Kirchner had all studied and been inspired by “primitive” artefacts and masks, in most cases from Africa. Some of Moore’s sketches from his regular visits to the British Museum refer to Negro sculpture, which in Britain had already been admired by Roger Fry and Jacob Epstein for its simplification, directness, intensity of expression and abstract rendering of the human body, but from the mid twenties it was Pre-Columbian art that made the strongest impression on Moore for its “stoniness,” formal richness and three-dimensional qualities. These qualities are apparent in his marble Snake (1924) and in the two Reclining Figures, one carved from brown Horton stone in 1929, the other carved in the following year from green Horton stone. The model for both was the Mexican figure of Chac-Mool, the Rain God, but Moore transformed male into female and invested the nude form with connotations of landscape, a procedure that would acquire great significance for him over the years. It is however in Mother and Child of 1924 that we can see the formal solidity of Mexican art best translated into his idiom. It is also from Pre-Columbian art that Moore took the idea of inserting stone eyes into his torso of young girls with clasped hands. It is in these pieces that we begin to see Moore accentuating the holes between arm and torso that anticipate his preoccupation with the purely formal quality of holes in terms of positive and negative volumes in later abstract and figurative carvings.  

The theme of mother and child is all the more important to an understanding of Moore’s subsequent development to the extent that it transmogrifies into a period of semi abstract sculptures inspired by Surrealism, for example the hybrid form, half human, half thing in his Composition (1931). The curatorial choice in this section suggests that earlier mother and child sculptures do not exactly conform to the comfortably Madonna-like rendering of the genre that characterises Moore’s post-war family groups in the fifties; there is often evidence of ambiguity if not outright conflict in the relationship which could be construed as Kleinian rather than Freudian. Maternity, however, was a theme shared by many artists in this period. That Moore made it his own is all the more striking in that it was only in the seventeenth year of his marriage to Irina that a daughter Mary, named incidentally after his mother, was born. Underlining the importance this theme had for Moore is a collage put together in 1929-30 by Irina from his drawings of mothers and babies which perhaps imply that this leitmotif emerged from a deeper, more private part of his psyche that was rooted in his own relationship with his mother. Other sketches, that virtually exclude the mother leaving only the child in relation to the breast, prefigure Moore’s move to biomorphic abstraction and his reorientation towards Surrealism that prompted a change in his drawing practice from figure studies to what he called “transformation drawings” based on natural objects such as stones, shells, bones and pebbles. These objects acted as catalysts for his imagination, causing him to be described as “a constructor of images between the conscious and the unconscious.”  By working through these transformations, Moore developed a synthesis between abstraction and Surrealism - for he refused to take sides in this aesthetic conflict - all the while still focusing on the universality of the human form.

Though surrealist in terms of their derivation as “objets trouvés,” there is little of Breton’s menace in these pieces and it is extremely unlikely that Moore shared Breton’s belief that real political change was dependent on the liberation of the unconscious. Composition (1931), which in most respects looks back to Arp, probably represents Moore at his closest to Surrealism as he attempted to embody the surrealist notion of “continual movement.” It was at this point that his interest in direct carving waned and he returned to modelling, which was more opened-ended as a technique. Moore insisted on the quality of the initial idea and on the mind and vision of the artist or sculptor and this same impartiality ruled in terms of his non-partisanship between abstraction and realism. Though hardly a political activist, Moore signed the first “British Surrealist Manifesto” in 1935 and in 1936 helped organise the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London.  In the same year, he took part in the “First British Artists Congress for Peace, for Democracy, for Cultural Progress,” and signed a declaration in support of Spain; in 1938, he took part in a demonstration in Hyde Park in support of the Spanish people. There was no doubt that war was looming on the horizon. 

It was from this period in the 1930’s that Moore began to work on a series of multi-part reclining figures such as his Four Piece Composition: Reclining Figure (1934). Formally, the main influences he was working through were Picasso’s Dinard paintings and Giacometti’s table top sculptures, with their strong emphasis on horizontality. The curators of the Tate show would have us interpret this as “an iconography of broken, abject bodies.” But as with other of Moore’s incursions into surrealist territory, there is a minimum residue of surrealist threat hanging over the piece which could just as well represent one of Moore’s formal attempts to synthesise abstraction and Surrealism. For the main impact of the sculpture is that it allows each piece to exist as a separate entity while still conveying an overall apperception of unity. Similarly, in Two Forms of the same year; we intuit a sense of belonging. For though physically separate the two forms respond to each other and seem psychologically joined.

Henry Moore, Drawing, 1935.

Tate © Reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation Photo: Tate Photography. 

Moore’s drawings in the “war time” room are subjected to a similar curatorial interpretation. The Freudian concept of the “uncanny” denotes the intrusion of the unfamiliar and of the unknown into the realm of the familiar and known, thus creating an ambiguous zone between dream and waking and life and death. Significantly Freud’s essay on the uncanny was written in 1919 very much in the shadow of World War I.  It is therefore quite feasible that the spectacle of Londoners sheltering in the tunnels of the underground could have provoked memories of Moore’s own traumatic experiences of trench warfare, revealing aspects of himself not normally encountered even in his most surrealist phase. It is then not surprising that this series of drawings conveys a special sense of pathos and a certain dread associated with the uncanny. These drawings are unlike Moore’s sketches in that they are not preparatory drawings for future sculptures but represent art works in their own right. For obvious reasons, it was difficult if not impossible to continue creating sculptures during the war. And yet while revealing private aspects of Moore’s character they also prefigure his return to a more classicising form of figuration, especially in the emphasis on drapery,  that would characterise his sculptural practice in the fifties when the menace of the Cold War and the threat of atomic extermination was very deeply felt. Moore was after all one of the co-founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But equally viable is a view of these recumbent bodies as landscapes, a sculptural conceit in which figure and landscape come to represent a harmonic organic whole that runs like a leitmotif throughout Moore’s long career.

The idea of the warrior that emerges in the early fifties is unique in Moore’s oeuvre; this was the first time he worked on the single male figure.  Its origins in a pebble picked up on the seashore that suggested an amputated leg is characteristic of Moore’s work procedures. The Fallen Warrior and Warrior with Shield  were first constructed using an armature and plaster; the plaster sets like stone and can be carved or cut, then cast in bronze. The use of bronze reconnected Moore with the art of classical Greece. He had travelled to Greece in 1951 and was impressed and moved by the Acropolis and the Parthenon frieze which he already knew from the British Museum. His warriors, like those on the Parthenon, are vulnerable and mutilated figures though they retain an element of heroic defiance. Looking back, these figures convey the strain and suffering undergone during the war years but equally reflect the tenseness and anxiety of the Cold War years when total destruction was thought to be imminent. It is surely the same sense of anxiety that makes his Reclining Figure of 1951, commissioned for the Festival of Britain, look up and interrogate the skies. By this time, space as an interplay of mass and void had become totally integral to his vision, as can be seen in his elmwood reclining figures, and Moore was beginning to receive international acclaim.

It is, I think, in the last room “elm” that the curatorial agenda particularly  fails to impress. What does impress, and completely, is the pure poetry of these six elmwood reclining figures which, punctuating his whole career, date from the mid thirties and continue into the eighties. In them we can sense Moore’s ability to marry landscape and figure and his fundamentally Romantic belief in the indivisibility of man and nature. But more than that, they show his real joy in handling wood and in following the grain of the wood that suggests the undulations of the female figure. There are, I’ll wager, few viewers who will remain unimpressed or untouched by what remains an enduring ethic of humanism which despite seeming a tad provincial nevertheless speaks to us of our fragile yet enduring relationship with the world around us. Perhaps this humanist perspective is Moore’s legacy to contemporary British sculptors such as Richard Long and Anthony Gormley, who have made their own.

The exhibition Henry Moore was at the Tate Britain in London from 24 February - 8 August, 2010.

© Anna Leung 2010

Henry Moore, Four-Piece Composition: Reclining Figure, 1934.

Tate © Reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation Photo: Tate Photography. 

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

bottom of page