The Great Experimentalist

The new Henry Moore retrospective re-establishes him as a pivotal artist of his time

Michael Prodger

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.

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.

It is an irony that because Moore’s figures are so instantly recognisable their form has hidden the fact that they have both historical context and often surprising content. For example, when you consider that Moore was one of only 52 men from his battalion of 400 (he was the youngest soldier in it) to survive the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, his experiments with the human form take on a different aspect. He himself claimed: “For me, the war passed in a romantic haze of trying to be a hero” — but the sculptures show bodies taken apart, reshaped and rearranged in a way that uncomfortably mirrors what he had seen shells and bullets do to his comrades. And the megaliths of his later career can be reread not as extensions of an ancient landscape but as giant bones, the parts of a buried ossuary showing through the soil.

It is worth remembering too that Moore was one of the organisers of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London. He was, therefore, familiar not just with Surrealist imagery but also with the psychological and sexual theories that underpinned it. Seen in that light, his experiments with sculptural holes and concavities seem less to do with mass and three-dimensionality and instead rife with sexual symbolism. If you put any one of his extruded reclining figures into a painting by, say, Dalí, it would fit perfectly, not just for their dreamlike shapes but for their naked sexual invitation.

The psychological aspect is apparent too even in the most simple-seeming group of his works — his seated women and mother and child series. These may indeed be expressions of his inherent humanism but they are also obviously Freudian motifs, deeply personal and linked with the death of his mother in 1943 and the birth of his only child, Mary, in 1946. He explicitly identified his 1957 Seated Woman with his mother, describing how in modelling it he was “unconsciously giving to its back the long-forgotten shape of the one I had so often rubbed as a boy”. At this point, most psychoanalysts would be scribbling the words “Oedipus complex” in their notepads.

Moore once said that “there are universal shapes to which everyone is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond, if their conscious control does not shut them off” — a claim that is both a statement of his aims as an artist and a recasting of Jung’s idea of the “collective unconscious”. It would be a mistake though to see Moore only through the murky spectacles of psychology. He was too quintessentially concerned with aesthetics for that. However, what this exhibition makes vividly clear is that the real reason it is wrong to dismiss him as simply a humanist schooled in the language of nature is because for the bulk of his life he was at the mercy of a host of covert and often dark impulses too. 

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