Henry Moore and World Sculpture
Moore’s letters and sketchbooks of the 1920s show the development of his keen interest in the sculpture in the Ethnographic Room at the British Museum. On his second visit to the Museum in October 1921, he wrote to a friend that he spent an afternoon with the Egyptian and Assyrian sculptures and then, ‘An hour before closing time I tore myself away from these to do a little exploring and found – in the Ethnographical Gallery – the ecstatically fine negro sculptures’.16 Sketches of wooden African carvings pay close attention to free, abstracted treatment of the figure in the round.17 During the early 1920s he relished the freedom to explore outside the Western tradition, and was familiar with the art of many cultures, but it was above all in the sculpture from Mexico that he found inspiration. His research in the British Museum and in books on Mexican art and his thoughtful interrogation of what he perceived as its special qualities and their relevance for himself carried him onto a parallel track with the surrealists in Paris. In the British Museum the Ethnographical Room, he later recalled, ‘contained an inexhaustible wealth and variety of sculptural achievements (Negro, Oceanic Islands, and North and South America), but overcrowded and jumbled together like junk in a marine stores, so that after hundreds of visits I would still find carvings not discovered there before ... Of works from the Americas, Mexican art was exceptionally well represented.’18 This was a consequence of the English explorers and archaeologists who had brought back their treasures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the major Mesoamerican sites. Moore’s discovery of Mexican sculpture coincided with his first year at the Royal College of Art in 1921. He was already interested in direct carving, championed above all by Epstein, and found Mexican sculpture much closer to his taste and ambitions than the traditional figurative works he was taught in the College to copy. He later explained:
Although he expresses his preference in modernist terms, emphasising their truth to materials (in this case stone), a drawing bears witness to his consciousness of Mexican sculpture’s link to human sacrifice. This is on a sketchbook page from 1937, crowded with small drawings with clear connections to surrealism.29 The potential of the drawn image to follow the imagination into realms difficult for sculpture to follow takes several fascinating directions, and shows Moore experimenting with double images (fig.11). One of these also has a bearing on the chacmool/reclining figure conjunction. A note at the top reads: ‘Try some drawings in full solidity – see torso photos of Brassaï.’ The Brassaï Moore probably has in mind is Ciel postiche, which was reproduced in Minotaure in 1935 (fig.12). It makes a fascinating comparison with Moore’s desire to combine figure and landscape. Brassaï juxtaposed front and back views of a nude torso photographed against indeterminate backgrounds, thereby turning them into landscape – mountain and sea. This brilliant visual play clearly fascinated Moore, and two of the sketches on this page pursue the idea of the double image, which derived from the painter Salvador Dalí. At top left an elongated landscape with building is turned ninety degrees, with the potential to become a vertical abstract figure like those Moore endlessly sketched. At the centre top is a small, contained sketch that doubles as head and architecture: ‘sculpture head and mountain top with figure walking up steps’. The head, with two dot-eyes and a grill-form (Parthenon, prison, teeth) could be seen as an ancestor of his later metal sculpture heads, and his ‘forms within forms’. But it is a small drawing towards the bottom of the sheet in the centre that brings quietly to the surface an underlying resonance of the chacmool/reclining figure theme. A quite crowded architectural scene is annotated ‘steps up to a reclining figure’. The structure with the steps to the right of the sketch is unmistakably that of a Mexican temple platform, from what were known in Moore’s time as ceremonial centres – Teotihuacan, Tula or one of the Aztec sites. The chacmool/reclining figure – a tiny dark note on the page – is half enclosed by walls, and there is a rough indication beyond it of a rising temple. This evocation of a Mexican ritual building with all its implications of sacrifice and bloodshed is a rare, perhaps unique instance of the reclining figure shown in its original context. Moore had not forgotten this, even if the reclining figure has already by repetition become accepted in more humanist, and predominantly female, terms. It brings us back to the original chacmool and its fascination for Moore – ‘about as good a piece of sculpture as I know’.30 Did Moore have a sense of the uncanny in this sculpture, in which symbol, gesture and posture build up to the death in life, or life in death ambiguity? The shock of the abruptly turned head, above a neck that is clearly severed; the hard rectangular ear pieces, the combination of incision, low relief and carving in the round, the whole figure of a piece with its pedestal out of which it rises, these formal qualities marry perfectly with its terrible alertness.
31 But it may also be an echo of the ancient Mexican carving, an example of aesthetic and religious syncretism.
How to cite
Dawn Ades, ‘Henry Moore and World Sculpture’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www