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When he died in 1986, Henry Moore had an international reputation unrivalled in British art before or since. In the post-war years, it became de rigueur for the world's cultural institutions — from Paris and New York to Sydney and Tokyo — to a commission a dauntingly large Moore piece to stand outside and serve as a statement of intent. The demand for him was insatiable: in 1983 alone he sent work to 77 museums and galleries worldwide. Courtesy of his greatest patron, the British Council, he was seen as an unofficial cultural ambassador fit to mix with presidents and prime ministers. Britain's civic spaces, especially the country's new towns, were spattered with Moores, too. This eminence made him rich: by 1975, he was the highest individual taxpayer in the UK. It also made him envied. It is unsurprising then that his place in the pantheon has come under attack.

Among other charges, Moore has been accused of peddling a watered down Modernism and of over-reliance on studio assistants. Over the past 20 years, he has been quietly but decisively reclassified as, at heart, an avuncular English pastoralist. Perhaps what really motivates the criticism is that his work seems too familiar and even too safe. Those rounded forms, the innumerable mother and child groups, the drawings of sheep — hardly the stuff of a radical sensibility. It is the intention of the Tate Britain exhibition of his work (which runs until 8 August), the first major retrospective in Britain since his death, to re-establish Moore as both a daring artist and, more interestingly, as one deeply involved with the concerns of the 20th century.

Henry Moore: Fertile and daring 

Moore was indeed distinctly a man of his times and metier. He was a lifelong socialist (one reason perhaps that his £1 million-plus tax bills did not send him scuttling to live abroad but to set up the Henry Moore Foundation to further appreciation of the visual arts), a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and he turned down a knighthood. He also had the distinction of seeing one of his carvings destroyed by the Nazis as an example of degenerate art. In terms of instinct though, his was a pretty standard mid-20th-century left-leaning CV.

Moore's artistic credentials were more striking. This exhibition takes his story up to the mid 1960s, the point, that is, at which Moore the brand became paramount. The effect is to concertina his career and highlight the fact that for much of it he remained an experimental artist. It is easy to forget just how he shook things up. In 1931, Jacob Epstein, a true original, stated: "For the future of sculpture in England, Henry Moore is vitally important" — and he was right. While his fecundity (the Moore Foundation alone has 3,500 drawings, 8,000 graphics and 400 sculptures) and his variety show a driven individual, his influences-ancient Greece, Oceanic art, Surrealism, Expressionism among them-show the sweep of his curiosity.

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Robert Persey
March 19th, 2010
10:03 AM
I have no problem with Henry Moore having been very rich. It has no bearing upon artistic judgement. I do take issue with your concept of quantity of experimentation as a measure of artistic quality. Experimentation is meaningless unless it has a purpose. One can "experiment" with unpicking woven cloth and end up with a pile of cotton, nothing is achieved. The best one can say of Henry Moore as an artist is that he achieved a recognisable style. If we pick any further than that there is little to commend him. His social and political opinions are irrelevant, art at its best is about the intensity of a unique emotion expressed in an individual work that transcends cultures and time. Moore's sense of form does not compare with the best sculpture in the European tradition and even less if we extend our sights to include sculpture from the traditions he plundered in his search for a style. You can adopt the look of other's art but you cannot appropriate another man's emotion. We should also treat Henry's much vaunted empathy with nature with caution. What principle in nature did he unearth? Erosion; the wearing away of hard matter by the relentless forces of wind and sea. He just accepted the idea, no observation, no analysis, no artistic enquiry and no sculptural synthesis beyond the creation of undulating surfaces held together by the vague symbolism of human image. He was a pessimistic English pastoralist and not a vitalist as so often has been claimed. Vitalism requires identification with those forces of the natural world that do not lead to entropy. It demands an understanding of the powerful forces and combinations that are the well spring of animate life. One finds little of that in Moore's work Moore ticked all the sociological boxes of his time and believed in the myth the art establishment created around him. That is the lesson we must try and absorb; great reputations do not presuppose great art. Less of Moore please.

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