Henry Moore at the Tate
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Here are three anecdotes about Henry Moore.

In the first anecdote, Moore is seven, and the last of seven children in a Yorkshire miner’s home in Castleford. His mother suffers from severe rheumatism. On winter evenings, she likes her youngest son to rub her back with liniment. Remembering these after-school massage sessions many years later, Moore would claim that he still recalled the idiosyncrasies of his mother’s back well enough to draw or sculpt them with perfect accuracy.

In the second, less-cited but equally charming anecdote about his artistic development, Moore describes how attending a mixed secondary school helped him to hone his powers of observation. ‘I could tell you which girl was which,’ he says of his female classmates, ‘if you had only shown me her figure from the knees downwards.’

And last, a memory from the childhood of Mary Moore, Henry Moore’s only daughter. It is her birthday. As a party trick, her father guesses the weight of each of her friends in turn. He lifts up the child to be weighed and announces his estimate, which is then checked on a pair of bathroom scales. Give or take a pound or two, this estimate is always right.

What, if anything, can we learn about Moore the sculptor from all this? Perhaps, as Lyndsey Stonebridge suggests in the catalogue for Tate Britain’s exhibition of Moore’s work, the first anecdote indicates that ‘here, at the beginning, in the touch between son and mother, is the origin of Moore’s unique creative energy’. Perhaps, when Moore reminisces about his mental database of girls’ legs, he is revealing early evidence of the gaze that resulted in his ‘violent, fragmented and erotic’ depictions of the body (Chris Stephens’ description of Moore’s work in the 1930s, also in the Tate Britain catalogue).

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps all three of these anecdotes simply point to Moore’s intimate relationship with the physical world, to how acutely developed his tactile sense was. Physicality: a basic but crucial sense for a sculptor, like a playwright having a good ear for dialogue. Something that should not be underrated, because it is thanks in large part to this seemingly straightforward skill that Henry Moore is a great artist – not one of the very greatest, but certainly great.

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In 1931, the London Morning Post declared that ‘the cult of ugliness triumphs at the hands of Mr Moore. He shows an utter contempt for the natural beauty of women and children, and in doing so, deprives even stone of its value as a means of aesthetic and emotional expression’.

And that was basically as bad as it ever got: Moore’s one brief moment of controversy. Limited shock-factor, with no after-shock to speak of. The breathtakingly successful trajectory of his career is now well-known. With the shelter drawings a decade later, he began his rapid and unhindered ascension to a position equivalent in the art world to that of poet laureate. The 1950s saw the rather municipal series of ‘family group’ sculptures – with something ever-so-slightly-Soviet in the high square chest and shoulders of the father-figures – works that confirmed Moore as the ‘acceptable face of modernism’.

His early, anti-establishment dictum had been that of ‘truth to materials’: the idea that works carved directly into wood or stone were superior to works cast from models that had been built up from the inside out. Gradually, this conviction gave way to a nineteenth-century-style production line of assistants working on maquettes, for pieces that were sometimes cast in as many as nine copies. A set designer introduced him to polystyrene, allowing him to work bigger and quicker than ever before: a model that would once have taken six months to make could now be completed in just three days.

As his reputation grew and commissions started pouring in from major institutions all over the world, Moore’s works took on an increasingly monumental scale. Global success translated directly into financial success: by the early 70s, before the establishment of the Henry Moore Foundation, his tax bills were nudging £1,000,000 a year. None of this was good for relations with the rest of the artistic community. In 1968, 41 artists wrote a letter to the Times objecting to Moore’s proposed donation of 26 major works to the Tate (a gift conditional on the construction of a new wing to house the larger pieces). These artists included Anthony Caro and Philip King, both former assistants to Moore. And eventually, the inevitable devaluing that such ease of reproduction entails – that Big MacTM whiff of the franchise – made its way into more general opinion. Moore’s image today is avuncular, much-loved, best of British, but also a little lightweight, a little too easy. That his sculptures have been used by so many banks as proof of their humanistic, cultural sensibilities is surely responsible for a good deal of the damage. Like prawn cocktail or black forest gateau, Moore has become too mainstream to remain funky.

Contributing to the perception that Moore ‘sold out’ in some way is the fact that it is possible to read much of his later work as a betrayal of his earlier artistic rigour – the ‘truth to materials’.

Take his series of Warrior sculptures, made in the mid-50s. In the Tate Britain exhibition, there is Reclining Warrior, Falling Warrior, Maquette for Fallen Warrior, Warrior with Shield, and (note the poignant punctuation) Maquette for Warrior – without Shield. All the warriors are bronzes with rough, weathered finishes, their skin a mess of scratches and scars. Falling Warrior alone has a full complement of limbs; Maquette for Warrior – without Shield is down to just three-quarters of a right leg. As well as the shields, several of the warriors’ heads are partially bisected, forehead to mouth, by a wide slit that reads as an opening in a helmet. The overtones of Ancient Greece are unmistakable – those helmets, the circular shields, the nod to the stumpy torsos of vandalised statuary. All this is in sharp contrast to his early eschewal of Greek sculpture in favour of primitive art: ‘I tried to avoid looking at Greek sculpture of any kind… Greek and Renaissance were the enemy’. With the Warriors, Moore is borrowing the strongest, most potent associations of Classical sculpture – nobility and heroism – and transferring that glow onto images of dismembered soldiers not ten years after the end of World War Two. Like Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, this is divisive stuff: pathos and poignancy, or sentiment and melodrama?

When his niece questioned him about his titles, Moore gave the following reply:

All art should have a certain mystery and should make demands on the spectator. Giving a sculpture or a drawing too explicit a title takes away part of that mystery so that the spectator moves on to the next object, making no effort to ponder the meaning of what he has just seen. Everyone thinks that he or she looks but they don’t really, you know.

His titles are indicative of a more general disposition: a determination to resist the easy option without pursuing obscurity for its own sake is among Moore’s finest qualities as a sculptor. Works such as the Elmwood Reclining Figure (1939) are beautifully lucid without being over-obvious. Moore requires us to pause in front of this enormous, undulating bulk of wood, to adjust our vision until we are looking not at a weathered tree trunk but at raised legs, a crooked elbow, gently sloping shoulders. (Brilliantly, concentric ripples of the wood grain adumbrate and emphasise the left shoulder and knee.) Just in front of the torso of Reclining Figure is a squarish protuberance of wood with a large circular hole, about five inches in diameter, through the centre. Seen from one angle, this is unintelligible as anything other than a hole in a piece of wood. Seen from another, it reads as a breast with a nipple – although it looks nothing like a breast with a nipple. A sign, a prompt from Moore, onto which we impose our knowledge of reality. Moore’s ingeniously simple, central innovation is this: that in reducing the body to a series of signs or equivalences, he morphs his depictions of the human figure gradually closer to landscape; so that eventually, pieces such as Reclining Figure can be a woman and a tree and the South Downs all at once.

Yet there is none of this ‘mystery’, this invigorating onus on the spectator, in a title – or a piece – like Fallen Warrior, and some of the family groups seem to have a moralistic, even faintly devotional flavour. Moore, our great modernist export, is at times in his later years decidedly anti-modernist.

The Tate’s initial solution to this difficulty is to ignore much of Moore’s later work in favour of that of the first 40 years. In such a long career there are bound to be inconsistencies and fallow periods and, most problematic and inescapable of all, self-imitation that draws unwelcome attention to the idiosyncrasies of your style. Style risks becoming mannered. So for an exhibition to be selective, to be sufficiently relaxed not to attempt to fit the whole span of Moore’s work into an overarching theory of artistic progression – this seems entirely sensible.

Unfortunately, however, this is not quite the case at Tate Britain. There is a theory. And you can find it on the back of the catalogue, in the blurb that promises to reveal Moore as ‘a radical innovator, far from the establishment figure of his later years’: quite a promise to make on behalf of the ‘acceptable face of modernism.’

This is the Tate’s second difficulty with Moore: that acceptability is no longer very acceptable. The vogue is for the subversive – and for the radical, to the point where it is more important to be daring and new than to be doing something good. And so the Tate tries to circumvent the embarrassment of Moore’s palatability by looking for (and finding, at all costs) ‘a dark, sinister and sexually charged dimension’ to his sculpture. His works from the 1920s to the early 1960s, we are told, are ‘often imbued with dark, erotic overtones and morbid anxiety and so present a more complex figure and a different view of his modernity’. This is a shame, because it places undue emphasis on Moore’s more minor experiments with aspects of surrealism and Constructivism, and encourages a misreading of some of his finest works – works like Reclining Figure (1939), which aim not for ‘modernism’s dismissal of rationality’ (Chris Stevens again) but for a timeless beauty that is no less ingenious or enjoyable for not being revolutionary.

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Part of the plot to rebrand Moore as a radical involves playing down the influence on his work of European sculpture in the first few decades of the Twentieth Century – in particular, Picasso and Brancusi. These influences are never entirely glossed over, but the spotlight is always trained on primitive art as the nexus of his inspiration. At the other extreme, his detractors would have him as the ‘petit-maitre of Picasso’s bone-surreal’ (John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer). Neither position is valid. In fact, what we have here is a man taking for his own project whatever he needed from other artists – the project being the elegant equation of the human body with natural forms and landscape. Picasso is of paramount importance. His work allows Moore to make the crucial connection between the primitive art with which he was aesthetically and ideologically comfortable, and the Renaissance art to which he was drawn in spite of himself. If, as he initially believed, ‘Greek and Renaissance were the enemy, and… one had to throw all that over and start again from the beginning of primitive art’, then what of his perennial hero, Michelangelo?

(Picasso, incidentally, didn’t share Moore’s reverence for Michelangelo. Of the Last Judgment, he said: ‘Is it truly worked out? Is it worked out right down to the nostrils of Christ’s nose? Of course not! It’s just charm, decoration. When you reduce all that to its basic elements, there’s enough left to make a nice tie.’)

In a 1947 statement for Partisan Review, Moore articulated the confusion of his earliest years as a sculptor: ‘I couldn’t seem to shake off the new impressions, or to make use of them without denying all I had devoutly believed in before.’

Reclining Figure (1929, Brown Hornton stone) is widely recognised as a turning point in Moore’s development; and a primitive carving of Chacmool, the Mexican rain god (an iconic figure for Moore) is rightly identified as a key source for this sculpture. In both Chacmool and Reclining Figure (1929), the head is turned at 90 degrees to the body to look directly at the viewer and the knees are raised. But this Reclining Figure also owes a good deal to Picasso’s monumental female nudes of the early 1920s.

The art historian Charles Harrison offers several of Picasso’s works for comparison, among them Trois Baigneuses, painted at Juan-les-Pins in 1920. In this picture, Picasso employs a playful, updated classicism – in the proportions of the women (big-thighed, round-bellied, small-breasted), in the painting’s fluidity, in the cheeky wink at the Three Graces. Three nude women frolic on the beach: one stands looking into the distance with her right foot resting on a rock; another skips towards the sea; and, in the centre foreground, the third and largest woman lies with both arms raised behind her head, facing outwards in a posture indisputably similar to that of Moore’s Reclining Figure (1929). The comfortably squat proportions, the outsized hands and feet, the mass of the mons pubis – all this is there in both works. Like Picasso – but unlike Chacmool – Moore has rotated his figure’s pelvis towards us for a fuller-frontal view. Also unlike Chacmool, Moore’s figure has an arm raised with her hand resting behind her head, further opening out the body.

This brings us to some interesting differences between Trois Baigneuses and Reclining Figure (1929). Picasso has it both ways with his perspective: at first glance, the central figure is lying on her side with her arms over her head. But when you look again, you notice that her breasts are tipping sideways and out into her armpits – as breasts do when you’re lying on your back. So this is at once a side-on shot (indeed, everything else in the picture confirms this, particularly the three horizontal bands of sky, sea and sand in the background) and a bird’s eye view. The breasts of Reclining Figure (1929), however, do not behave like breasts. They are perfect little hemispheres, undisturbed by gravity. On Michelangelo’s Night, a similar pair of breasts is problematic – because this figure is clearly striving to be representational. But Reclining Figure’s breasts (1929) have slipped away from the conditions of naturalism. The nipples have been poked in perfunctorily, improbably inverted – clearly indicating that these are not breasts but a sign for breasts, an equivalent.

Reclining Woman (1930, Green Hornton stone), a close relative of Reclining Figure (1929), has even more implausibly upright breasts – both nipples (again indented) staring resolutely at the ceiling despite the tilt of the torso. Unlike Reclining Figure (1929), the breasts of Reclining Woman (1930) only look hemispherical from the front; from the side, they are flattened, distorted. They are less like breasts than ever. The head is similarly squashed; in fact, the whole of Reclining Woman (1930) is significantly less coherent as a female figure when viewed from any angle other than centre front. This is intentional. Moore wants to be multiple. If you move round to her feet so that you are looking up her body, between her legs, the effect is something like the reverse of stepping to the side of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where the curious white blur in the bottom right hand corner suddenly becomes a human skull. But unlike Holbein’s skull, Reclining Woman (1930) is intended to make sense from every angle – though that sense alters with the position of the viewer. The apparent distortion of the figure when seen from the side is an invitation to interpret the work as something other than (and as well as) a body. What we can’t see from the front is that the space between Reclining Woman’s legs has been filled in with a smooth swoop of stone, even though the figure is unclothed: a little shift that inches a pair of raised knees a fraction closer to hills.

While the link between figure and landscape here is nowhere near as pronounced as it is in later works, Reclining Figure (1929) and Reclining Woman (1930) constitute an important stage in the process of reduction and refinement that led Moore to pieces such as the Elmwood Reclining Figure of 1939. Moore learnt a great deal from Picasso – about stylisation, about being playful with perspective, about updating classical themes. But he wasn’t merely reproducing: he was developing in another direction of his own, and he was doing so with confidence and flair.

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In the first two decades of his career, Moore carved directly into stone and wood. In Unit One (ed Herbert Read, 1934), he wrote: ‘Each material has its own individual qualities… Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh… It should keep its hard tense stoniness.’ This was a conscious turning away from the old illusionist sleights of Rodin and other nineteenth-century sculptors who aimed to transform stone into skin. In the late 20s and early 30s, Moore was working with a vast range of materials. Their idiosyncrasies seem to have provoked invention in much the same way as the constraints of rhyme and metre do in poetry. Moore often incorporated the grain of the wood or the vein of the stone into his experiments with stylisation, cleverly exploiting the effects made possible by the almost collage-like interplay between natural and artificial markings. (Brancusi is an important influence here.)

Girl (1931) is carved from Ancaster stone, which is lightly mottled but unveined. On this blank canvas, Moore expertly and economically approximates the undecided physicality of adolescence. Girl is slim with small high breasts, her head tipped diffidently to one side. Her hands are in front of her stomach, right above left, and her left thumb is hooked over her right little finger. She isn’t nervous, but she isn’t quite comfortable, either. With the lightest of touches, Moore has engraved a few details into the smooth surface of the stone: pinprick nipples and nostrils, pinprick pupils inside the two small, slightly wonky circles of her irises. The only other marks on the sculpture are four lines falling over her forehead to represent hair – lines that would read as a cartoon comb-over if the back of her head didn’t swell out into a bun. As it is, we read them as a few tenderly escaping strands, separate from the main body of her hair. Like many of Moore’s women, Reclining Figure (1929) also sports a bun. In the earlier sculpture, however, there was no need for Moore to add those extra strands. Thanks to the dark vein in Brown Hornton stone they are already there, sweeping across her face from just above her right eye.

With wood grain, Moore is a master at manipulating its stripes and rings to accentuate a bent knee or the swell of a breast. Reclining Figure (1951, Plaster and String) echoes this technique by formalising the wood grain into neat lines of string, stuck onto the creamy plaster to create geometric echoes of the natural patterning on his wooden figures.

Two of his large Elmwood sculptures (Reclining Figure 1936 and Reclining Figure 1959-64) make for another interesting comparison. On the head of the earlier, smaller and more highly polished figure, Moore has scratched an eye: two circles, one inside the other, with a straight line leading down from bottom of the small circle to just outside the bigger one. The same shape is repeated on the figure’s torso, closer to her legs than her breasts. Here, it could be a belly button, or her genitals. The contrast between the flowing lines of the wood grain and these crude markings is delightfully irreverent, almost as if Moore had graffiti’d his own work. Again, he is playing around with signs: inscribing a pair of identical shapes that read differently in different contexts. The larger, later sculpture, which is far less obviously figurative, is carved from a great hunk of wood pitted with cracks and pockmarks. Some of these are so deep that they have been filled in with a pale grey-beige substance, presumably to prevent rotting. This provides Moore with the opportunity for a little sleight of hand. Onto the featureless face of the figure, he has scratched the universal sign for a nose: a long-backed ‘L’ shape with its right-angle reduced to eighty degrees. This nose has been scratched unsteadily and then filled with the same grey substance as all the naturally occurring cracks. Moore is faking a convenient quirk in the wood: artifice attributed to nature, and yet another way of narrowing the gap between flesh and wood.

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Although much is made of Moore’s ‘obsession’ with the mother-and-child theme, it is more useful to investigate his life-long interest in his central themes in terms artistic choices rather than his conjectured subconscious hang-ups. A reclining figure is preferable to a sitting or standing figure, because the undulating shapes it creates are arguably more beautiful – and crucially, it links more obviously to landscape. (Standing figures are also out if you work in stone: unless you drape them for support, the ankles break under the weight.) On a formal level, the mother-and-child theme offered myriad opportunities for visual interplay between two figures – something that interested Moore throughout his career. These two subjects are also traditional to the point of timelessness, omnipresent in both primitive and classical traditions; and they are images of beauty, in keeping with what Harrison astutely describes as Moore’s ‘lay-pantheist’ aesthetic. (However unfashionably uncontroversial this may be, Moore’s abiding preoccupation is with beauty, be it natural or human. ‘In a sense all art is religious,’ he wrote. ‘No artist would work unless he believed there were something worth glorifying. That is what art is about.’)

In a 1962 BBC interview, Nabokov remarked that reality was ‘a very subjective affair’; he could only define it, he said, ‘as a kind of gradual accumulation of information, and as a specialisation’. He went on to give an example: a lily is more real to a botanist than a non-botanist, and still more real to a botanist who specialises in lilies. Moore’s thematic monomania was also a form of specialisation that allowed him to reveal more about his favourite subjects each time he sculpted them. ‘The human figure is both the most exacting subject one can set oneself and the subject one knows best,’ he wrote; and his project in the 1930s was to find ever more unfamiliar ways to depict the familiar. However ‘abstract’ some of the work from this period might seem, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Moore is always concerned with reality. When he says ‘all art is an abstraction to some degree’, he is talking about the inevitable stylisation involved in representing reality; his statement is really just a variant of Picasso’s assertion that ‘there is no abstract art. You must always start with something’. (There is also Brancusi’s more impassioned declaration: ‘Those who call my work “abstract” are imbeciles; what they call “abstract” is in fact the purest realism.’)

Far from presenting the body as ‘abject, erotic, vulnerable, violated, and visceral’, as Chris Stephens would have it, Moore’s work in the 1930s can be seen as a series of experiments with form. He is interested to find out how little information he can get away with giving us. Thus in Two Forms (Pynkado Wood, 1934), mother and child have been reduced to a wooden mouth rearing over a nearly spherical nipple. The title is unhelpful, but we know enough about Moore’s unvarying subject matter to make the necessary leap of association. Although highly simplified, it is still figurative; and the smooth dark brown surface of the Pynkado wood has allowed Moore to capture exactly the toothless gummy gape of a baby’s mouth.

Once you know what you are looking for (mothers and children, women lying on their sides), none of Moore’s works are particularly difficult. Nor are they all of equal interest; Stringed Mother and Child (Lead and string, 1939), for example, is a dutifully methodical little diagram of the mother-child relationship, with yellow strings linking the child’s eyes with the mother’s, and the child’s mouth with her breasts. The mistake is to see this as expressing ‘modernist ideas of the body and subconscious urges identified in the writings of Freud and his followers’. Moore was famously uninterested in Freud and very interested in form; these pieces are variations on a visual theme, not a psychoanalytical theory. When asked whether Three Points (Bronze, 1939-40) had erotic connotations, Moore gave a mischievously evasive answer: ‘No no, it’s a spark plug.’ This is not to suggest that Moore’s work is never erotic, only that sex in Moore is not nearly as sinister, as intrinsically linked to violence and fear and death, as Tate Britain would have it. If we need any more evidence that Moore, in these works,  is not ‘exploring images of the body as prone, violated, fragmented and erotic’, then a sheet of sketches entitled ‘Ideas for Sculpture: Studies for “Two Forms” and “Carving”’ (1934, pencil on paper, also in the Tate) is illuminating. At the top of the piece of paper, Moore has written the word ‘Symbolic’, and underlined it. Next to this he has written ‘Humanitarian ideas – theme.’

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Repetition was Moore’s modus operandi: the same subjects over and over again, with some variation but nothing like Picasso’s flamboyant formal diversity. Obviously, there are dangers – the risk of self-imitation, a certain calcification. The holes are a case in point. By the time of his death, the hole (possibly present embryonically in his 1920s figures’ hollowed-out chests and ribcages) seemed entirely arbitrary – a tired ensign for Hepworth and Moore that Hepworth’s son-in-law Alan Bowness (interviewed by the BBC for a documentary about Moore) would petulantly claim as Hepworth’s ‘invention’.  But there are also enormous benefits to be had from constantly looking at and re-visiting the same subject matter. Repetition, for Moore, was specialisation. Sculpting – and drawing – were how he looked at the world.

If every man were made to draw his wife you might have a few divorces come about, but that husband would start to look more intensely at his wife and he would know much more about her. He might make a very bad drawing, but that wouldn’t be the point.

This is Moore writing in the facsimile edition of the Sheep Sketchbook, which is a charming exercise in repetition – and a virtuosic series of sketches. In 1972, Moore’s studios were overrun with packers preparing his works for a big exhibition in Florence. He retired into a room overlooking a nearby field and set about drawing the sheep he could see from the window. For the first few pages, his drawings are nothing out of the ordinary: shapeless woolly bodies, spindly black legs. ‘Then I began to realise,’ writes Moore, ‘that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had its individual character.’ (This is one of Moore’s most important preoccupations as a sculptor – the awareness of internal vitality, by which he means ‘a sense that the form is pressing from inside trying to burst or trying to give off the strength from inside itself, rather than having something which is just shaped from outside and stopped’. He illustrates this point with the example of knuckles pushing through the skin of a clenched fist).

The rest of the sketchbook is masterful. It’s all there: the thick ruffs of wool around the necks of soon-to-be-shorn ewes, the s-shaped contortion of a lamb’s spine as it bends under its mother’s belly for milk. Most incredibly of all, the majority of the book is executed in biro, surely the most unwieldy, unsympathetic, unforgiving of drawing materials. (Unless it be felt-tip, which Moore also uses.) Yet Moore achieves endless subtleties of light and shade. By patiently building up a series of close-knit scribbles, he gives the fleeces a brilliantly convincing bulk; and there is something wonderfully literal about the equation of the unsmudgy biro with the tangled fibres of the wool.

Halfway through the sketchbook there is a rear view of a sheep which, Moore writes, was meant to be the end of the series – ‘like the end of a Charlie Chaplin film, where he turns his back and walks off.’ But it isn’t the end, because Moore can’t stop himself. In fact, he was never able to stop himself: in the final bedridden days of his life, he was drawing the objects around the room with shaky double or triple outlines.

The Tate exhibition includes many drawings, including two from 1942 (Sculpture and Red Rocks, Reclining Figure and Red Rocks) which make the connections between Moore’s figures and natural forms rather too explicit (the background of both drawings is a red rock formation exactly echoing the outline of the Henry Moore sculpture in the foreground). The shelter drawings are there, of course, looking more like Belsen than Bond Street. One influence that Moore would have been better off without came from Guernica, which he saw as a work in progress in Picasso’s Paris studio in 1937. In Guernica, the style is damaging to the subject matter, resulting in a glibly melodramatic presentation of war. While treating a different subject in a different manner, the shelter drawings make similar mistakes. Moore’s figures are shrouded, sleeping as if in death, devoid of character detail. Any humour – and therefore much of the humanity – is missing.

Perhaps the greatest disservice the Tate Britain catalogue (inadvertently) does Moore is to reprint a page of Picture Post showing three photographs from a series entitled ‘Shelter Life.’ In the first photograph, two women pose for the camera, their bodies obscured by blankets much as Moore’s figures are. Both women are wearing hats, one of which is frivolously decorated with artificial flowers. Next to this photograph is a picture of a young woman, warmly but elegantly dressed, sitting with one leg crossed over the other. She does not appear to be posing. She is powdering her face as she intently inspects her reflection in her out-held compact mirror. In the third photograph, an old man is lying on his back on the floor wrapped in blankets, again like Moore’s figures. Unlike Moore’s figures, he is reading the paper. No one is reading or putting on makeup in the shelter drawings. They are all too busy representing the dehumanising experience of war.

Another section of Moore’s oeuvre that suffers as a result of stylisation is the mother-and-child theme. With many of the mother-and-child drawings and sculptures, Moore’s quest to inject a sense of the primitive into his figures via a focused simplification is often unsuccessful. One of his finest mother-and-child pieces is Mother and Child (1924-5, Hornton stone). In Mother and Child, the torso of a woman with Mexican features raises one chunky charcoal-grey arm across her body to support her baby. The baby is clinging to her head possessively, its features squashed small below a domed expanse of skull. This is stylisation of something instantly recognisable – the top-heavy proportions of tiny children, the puckered ugliness of some babies’ faces.

In later depictions of the same subject, this crucial link to the real has been lost. There are sheets full of sketches in which the babies are implausible homunculi, long-limbed and ape-like with curiously protruding jaws. Often, the proportions are closer to those of five years than five months. And this error is carried over into the sculpture: Mother and Child (1929, Verde di Prato) could be re-titled Mother suckling monkey; the long-bodied baby of Mother and Child (1932, White alabaster) is more convincing as a meerkat; in Draped Reclining Mother and Baby (1983, Bronze), the baby looks like a blown-up PlayPeople figure, slotted awkwardly into the crook of its mother’s arm. It might seem inconsistent to complain that Moore’s babies don’t look like babies when his women don’t look like women either; obviously, Moore is trying for shorthand rather than dogged literal representation. But it is interesting to see how this shorthand works for the mothers and not for the babies – because his approximation of the latter doesn’t contain enough basic visual truth to be persuasive.

At Tate Britain, Moore’s sheep are notable by their absence. The trouble with the sheep is that it’s hard to find anything clever to say about them. Their comprehensive brilliance lies in the fact that they’re just sheep. And this is the key to understanding Moore: he is at his best when his subject matter takes precedence over his ideas – when he isn’t offering us a way to be. This is why the sheep are better than Samuel Palmer’s sentimental storybook pastorals. This is why Falling Warrior (Bronze, 1956-7) is not as good as Reclining Figure (Elmwood, 1939), which attempts nothing more nor less than the simple, lucid expression of ‘the human relationship with the earth, with mountains and landscape’ (Moore’s words). The Tate catalogue’s most alarming fallacy is the suggestion that behind all of Moore’s work ‘lay the Great War, the hopeless violence of which destabilised ideas of civilisation, re-affirmed modernism’s dismissal of rationality, and set traumatised mourning at the heart of European cultural experience’. That trite commonplace of university modernism. Moore’s relatively brief experience in the trenches is used as in interpretative tool for work he produced decades later. Surely it is foolhardy in the extreme to make a case for the traumatic effects of war on a man who describes the army as ‘just like a bigger family’; ‘for me, the war passed in a romantic haze of trying to be a hero.’

In interviews, Moore comes across as lively and warm, often stressing how lucky he considers his life to have been. Describing his arrival in London at the start of his career, he says ‘I was in a dream of excitement. When I rode on the open top of a bus I felt that I was travelling in Heaven almost. And that the bus was floating in air’. That he is unabashed by and articulate about his happiness seems to count slightly against him: we like our artists – and our art – to be a little more tormented. Or at least, Bryan Robertson does. His verdict on Moore’s work is that it is ‘grim, and on occasion tragic. There is no easy reassurance in it. It is anything but gentle’.

But in fact, almost the opposite is true – and there should be no shame in this. The way to enjoy Moore is to accept his art as fundamentally untroubled and uncomplicated, gently navigating a path between the various modernist movements to emerge as a revitalised yet basically traditional aesthetic. For the Tate catalogue, various sculptors were invited to contribute a page or two of their thoughts on Moore. These frequently make more sense than the critical essays. Lucy Skaer gets it right when she says ‘it seems Moore used modernity as a way to reveal rather than to invent, that is to say he used the new to reveal the underlying’.

What lies beneath the surface of Moore’s work?  Bones, certainly, pushing outwards with that vital strength. Rocks, trees, hills, mountains, the long unbroken line of the horizon. A sense of repose. Some sheep. And that’s enough.


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