Think of the celebrated scene in ’Fight Club’ where initiates are commanded to “destroy one piece of corporate sculpture.” And of course all we need is those two words to conjure up visions of such ghastly artifacts – big and ostentatious as the buildings they masthead for. Their semi-abstraction is both ostentation and figleaf. They’re supposed to represent the ‘modernity’ of lumbering institutions well past their sell-by-date, while their ‘abstraction’ masks what would otherwise have to be a grasping hand or slamming fist. You watch that film sequence with only one question - why stop at one?
Perhaps more than any other Modernist artist, Henry Moore is seen as the midwife of corporate sculpture. Even the largely derided Impressionists are dismissed as kitsch wrapping paper, while Moore is seen as a worse thing. Much as the punk generation said of the Rolling Stones, he’s seen as tame masquerading as wild. His few innovative gestures have long since lost their currency, his sculptures are now safe as a rock and ideal for entry lobbies everywhere.
But is this dismissal simplistic and historically reductive? Bryan Robertson has curated this exhibition, and enlisted a back-up BBC4 documentary (‘Henry Moore: Carving a Reputation’, shown on 20th March), to argue just that. Using the gallery walls to quote no-one less than himself, he claims Moore’s work to be “grim, and on occasion tragic. There is no easy reassurance to it.” Perhaps Moore is really akin to Francis Bacon, another artist to have recently received a Tate retrospective (reviewed by me here) – not soft and reassuring but edgy and experimental. (Disclaimer: This comparison is not Robertson’s but mine.)
Virtually the first sentence used by this show is as follows: “After the Great War, ‘primitive’ art offered universality, permanence and integrity as a welcome alternative to the brutality of modern civilisation.” It’s of course an irony that the roots of Modernism are always in the ancient. But few were quite as influenced by the primitive as Moore. Looking through the introductory ‘World Culture’ room, you could readily believe it to have been his only influence. And, though his art modified as it went along, Moore seems peculiarly aloof from the fads and factions of Modernism. You can see the thumbprints of the Surrealists, plasticating his Thirties figures into Dalian twists and distortions, but little else. Similarly he has no interest in psychological or biographical readings of his works, which he gave only the simplest of titles. The primitive was his furrow, and he pretty much kept ploughing it.
Moreover, Moore’s tight fist of fixations arrived early. The mother-and-child combinations, the reclining figures, both were there before the end of the Twenties. But it’s with the next decade that the killer app of his art kicks in – his simultaneous move to larger forms and landscape sculpture. This is also associated with a move away from already-stylised representation into “sensuous undulating surfaces.” As his work moved beyond human scale, it did the same for human form.
As sculptures, his mother-and-child works never look like separate figures. You’re always aware that they’re of the same block, and you think of them as still somehow conjoined. Similarly, his reclining figures never quite look raised from the landscape, and seem to be already blurring back into it, shoulders morphing into hillslopes. His trademark holes, the gaps through which the actual landscape is spied, seem as important as the stone. In fact Moore collected stones and pebbles, whose forms suggested works to him.
In one of the film clips that accompany the exhibition, someone comments that you accept the works as simultaneously blocks of stone and figures. The material isn’t polished into some blank-slate state of neutrality, like in Classical sculpture, but remains present. That seems key to Moore, and quite possibly Modernism in general. As Bacon said, “the image is the paint and vice versa.” Behind Moore would seem to lie the ancient fantasy of the autochthonian, that we were born from the ground. (We learn Moore’s father was a miner, which may be one for the psychologists.)
His early work gains its effect not by merely duplicating the forms of ancient art, but also it’s eeriness, its savage eye shorn of sentimentality. There’s none of art’s sense as a separator of the human from the natural, nor any easy divisions between life and death, joy and sorrow, or even inside and outside. (Check out works such as 1953’s ‘Internal/External Form’ for his interest in layers and innards.) Instead such things are in some ambiguous, shifting symbiosis.
...none of which sounds much like the stuff of corporate lobbies. And in fact Moore was insistent his art should be shown amid nature. In another film clip, of an earlier Tate show, he rejects the idea of his work shown outside the front of building, as part of the urban environment, but takes to the idea they could go in a garden.
And yet at times Robertston doth protest too much. Moore is frankly not an existential artist like Bacon, intent of freeze-framing on the impossible escape from form. (Itself a modern idea.) To suggest this Robertson has to fixate upon a minority of his works, such as 1953’s ‘Mother and Child’, where the two figures become snapping, fractious forms. Robertson writes of how “heads twist and look away, bodies are kept at arm’s reach and the gaze of mother and infant is rarely met” – an electrifying description but one which turns the exception into the rule.
The centre of the exhibition is given to Moore’s wartime ‘shelter’ drawings, figures huddled in Tube stations to escape the London bombings. As I’ve already suggested the Earth itself as Moore’s rosebud, it may be no surprise that these drawings are my favourites of his works. (Alternately, you may want to argue I am more primed to appreciate illustration than sculpture.) The figures aren’t delineated through outlines but built up by amassed contour strokes, thick and still, filling the frame with claustrophobic effect. (The trademarked holes are not in evidence.)
What’s notable is that, though drawings of such an immediate event, they have almost no contemporary context to them – no iconic London Underground signs, no tracks, no trains. The very elements the Futurists focused on, as part of the new world they saw emerging, are here expunged.
Moore described the scenes as “hell” but (ironically for the arch-Primitivist) they’re actually suggestive of something more Classical – the shade-populated underworld of ancient Greece. Figures which seem some pale echo of life line the walls of what might as well be caverns. While his sculptures exist as forms, with no need of faces, 1941’s ‘Woman Seated in the Underground’ parades her absence of a face, as if she had been dehumanised.
(Ironically, though none deny conditions in the Shelters became sordid, many at the time saw them as an eruption of people power. The authorities were not keen on the stations being occupied, but feared to act against it. One woman in the films asserts she “made a lot of friends”, and that they were “one big happy family.”)
There’s an accompanying series on Miners I was previously unfamiliar with. Though stylistically similar, its’ notable that these do use contextual elements – we see miner’s lamps, picks, beams – even tracks! Both series might make for an interesting comparison to the other great British modernist sculptor – Barbara Hepworth, with her NHS series. (One example here.)
I occasionally toy with the theory that Modernism was inextricably bound with War, the extremity of the World Wars burning away the old world, driving art to more radical reactions, creating an urgency where art and politics could not be separate. If it’s true Moore’s initial impetus to ancient art came from the First War (as Robertson attests), it’s perhaps significant that the Second War brought out of him his finest series...
Scale Becomes Comfort
...and certainly the post-war years lead to a Moore as his detractors tend to think of him. Before you’ve even looked around the later rooms, you’re already reading how he was commissioned to work with the New Towns movement and your heart is starting to sink. Certainly the ‘Elm Figures’ show his art as its most reassuring. On occasion, this reassurance is tragic, but not in the way it used to be.
He’s quoted as saying “trunks of trees to me are very human”, a quote which rebounds. It’s single-edged precisely where Moore used to double - once the human form was simultaneously very landscape. But these are people writ large, blown up to tree size to dominate the landscape, like Tolkien’s Ents striding in like the Cavalry to save the day. Okay, so they don’t belong in corporate lobbies. But for urban gardens or country estates they’d be (if you’ll forgive the term) a natural.
This feeling is accentuated by the way they’re displayed, with four large figures given their own room to sit astride and occupy - which may well be deliberate. The website calls these figures “highlights of the show.” Yet it’s notable that the bulk of the exhibition is focused on the early years, by a factor of five rooms to two. The previously mentioned ’Carving a Reputation’ BBC documentary goes further, suggesting Moore became the ‘prisoner’ of his mentor – the art critic Kenneth Clark. (Not to be confused with the current Lord Chancellor, who ends his name with an ‘e.’) It suggests that a desire to impress Clark drove Moore back into the arms of Classicism.
Of course it would be inadequate to dismiss Moore’s whole career for its later years. The decline in his work followed almost exactly the trajectory of the more celebrated Bacon – becoming bigger in scale, more grandiose and imposing, more empty. And of course Modernism was overall a failure, in all the tasks it set itself.
But the decline had a catalyst in Moore’s case, his almost insistent fixation upon the primitive becoming first his asset then his curse. While his primitivism was arresting and surprisingly convincing, it could be said to remove one of Modernism’s keystones – the (ahem!) modern bit. The Shelter drawings, though Moore’s triumph, also display his lack of interest in the contemporary. It might also be true this fixation led to Moore’s narrow stylistic range. Compared to a polymath like Picasso, it was perhaps inevitable that Moore would face a sharp decline.