Summary

Between 1924 and 1930 Henry Moore made at least a dozen masks. Carved in stone or cast in concrete, they conformed to what was considered a 'primitive' aesthetic, that is to say one that drew on cultural sources outside classical antiquity and the Renaissance. Roger Fry, an influential commentator greatly admired by Moore, detected within these sources a formal freedom and vitality missing in most nineteenth century European art. Moore himself often commented on the vitality of 'primitive' art, regarding it not merely as 'art before it got smothered in trimmings and surface decoration' but also art which spoke 'the common world language of forms'. In this case his interests seem to have been in Pre-Columbian sculpture.

For this mask Moore chose a green stone with fine white veining. It has been carved and hand polished. The front surface, which is generally smooth, is scattered with small, shallow areas of rough stone giving it a worn appearance and drawing attention to the material of the stone itself. The back surface has been hollowed out and shows rough tooling marks. The holes used to denote eyes, nostrils and mouth run right through the block.

The facial features are asymmetrical, a characteristic which Moore claimed to have first noticed in the Pre-Columbian masks from Mexico he had seen at the British Museum, and subsequently observed in actual faces. The right eye is a different shape to the left, the nostrils are not aligned, nor are the ears, and the mouth is tilted. Such subtle modulations of form combine with variations in the treatment of the surface and the inherent irregularities of the stone to accentuate the uniqueness of every viewpoint around the object.

The nose is rendered by two deeply incised grooves. This use of an actual material absence to suggest a physical presence appears again in the eyebrows and the eyes. It was a feature that Moore was to develop in the early 1930s, particularly to suggest women's breasts.

Further reading:
David Sylvester (ed.), Henry Moore, Complete Sculpture Volume 1 Sculpture 1921-48, London 1944, reproduced p.9, fig.54
Robert Melville, Henry Moore Sculpture and Drawings 1921-1969, London 1970

Toby Treves
March 2000