Henry Moore: Back to a Land celebrates the artist’s devotion to nature’s shape and form
Artists are rarely averse to a bit of self-mythologising and Henry Moore was no exception. He liked to suggest that his lifelong preoccupation with the land was immanent and pre-formed — something to do with being born into a family of Castleford miners. The subterranean was a predilection he enhanced in the countryside around his home, searching for the mysterious and the unknown “in caves and holes in the sides of hills — you don’t know what is there until you look and explore into them”. What he found, and what never left him, was a feeling “akin to the mystery in poetry”.
There is a constant strand in almost all his work of his sculptures existing on the skin of the earth, the very point where the subsurface emerges into to air. It is why his pieces have the feel of flints and bones that have been pushed up by a farmer’s plough or of knobbly buds emerging and swelling but not quite ready to unfurl. Even his wartime “Shelter Drawings” of the London tube share this same sense of transition between the surface and what lies beneath.
Moore was among the first artists to design work specifically to be shown in the landscape — an idea that started in 1931 when he began to spend weekends at a cottage in Kent and escalated from 1940 when bombing forced him out of his Hampstead home and London for good. His relationship to nature fully burgeoned at his new home, a 17th-century farmhouse called Hoglands at Perry Green in Hertfordshire. It was there, in his own garden, grounds and surrounding fields, that he fully blurred the distinction between sculpture, the landscape and the human figure. As he wrote: “Sculpture is an art of the open air. Daylight, sunlight is necessary to it. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in or on the most beautiful building I know.”
This aspect of his work is the subject of the latest exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), Henry Moore: Back to a Land. The title comes from the book A Land (1951), by Moore’s friend Jacquetta Hawkes, the wife of J.B. Priestley, which was a meditation on the British landscape that starts with a line that could serve as the sculptor’s manifesto: “I have used the findings of the two sciences of geology and archaeology for purposes altogether unscientific.” Moore provided Hawkes with illustrations for the 1954 edition. The exhibition is also a recognition of Moore’s long links with the YSP, of which he was a founding patron and for which he kept a sentimental attachment as a link with his boyhood landscape.
Back to a Land is divided into two parts: a series of sculptures from the permanent collection situated throughout the 500 acres of the YSP’s rolling parkland and formal gardens, and a display of smaller pieces and some 80 works on paper in its purpose-built gallery. It should be the works outside that are most exciting, silhouetted against the lake, woods and hilltops or indeed seen in the distance when framed through the holes and arches of a foreground sculpture, but the deer park has a curmudgeonly half-dozen large works dotted around. The effect is denuded — there are too many to be surprising when one comes unexpectedly into view but too few to have much of a relationship with one another. There is none of the shock and grandeur that is perhaps best seen with the King and Queen group at Glenkiln in Scotland. The cluster of pieces in the formal gardens are closer together and work rather better.
One of the delights of the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green is that the sculptures are sited throughout the grounds, the different areas of which act like a series of rooms, some small and enclosed by trees, others large open fields, and all interspersed with the barns and studios where he worked. As a result the sculptures can be seen in quick succession in a series of settings. They are infused too with a tangible sense of this being the artist’s domain. There is little of this effect at the YSP. Where it trumps Hoglands, however, is in its dedicated gallery — a facility Perry Green currently lacks.
The works on paper here paradoxically make Moore’s case more strongly than out in the park. The drawings, watercolours and prints show not just his unwavering interest in monolithic nature but also his variety as an artist — one of his less remarked attributes. There is, for example, a wonderful lithographic series of Stonehenge where the stones are drawn in a primordial black with small geometrical patches of light between them; there are etchings of the elephant skull he was once given as a gift that comprise a skein of individually random lines; and there are, too, spontaneous works such as an unusual lithograph, The Shipwreck (1971), in which Moore drew on Caspar David Friedrich and adapted a drawing of rocks and added a group of survivors clustered on a seashore outcrop as their masted ship is ground to splinters on a reef.
The interest in patterning and texture apparent in such works is reflected in the smaller sculptures alongside them. Moore worked in a variety of materials; carving directly in stone (often local varieties rather than marble), casting in bronze, shaping fibreglass and modelling with plaster, and he liked to leave a trace of his methods on the surface. The pen and etching-needle marks of the pictures are matched here in rasp marks and abrasions, chisel channels and pitting. In their intricacy, the surface of some pieces resemble scrimshaw and others the discolouration of water erosion on minerals.
Moore described how “the whole of nature is an endless demonstration of shape and form and it surprises me when artists try to escape this.” In this holistic showing it is the detail that defines those shapes and forms.