Henry Moore’s global fame cast a huge shadow over a generation of younger British sculptors. Chris Turner examines the Oedipal reaction which ensued.
When I arrive at Hoglands, the Hertfordshire studio and sculpture garden that once belonged to Henry Moore, a crane is in the process of ripping a massive bronze from the lawn. Despite initial iconoclastic appearances, it is not being torn down but temporarily removed to the sanctuary of Tate Modern, where it is now shown as part of a display of Moore’s public sculptures. Elsewhere in the idyllic grounds stand other monumental bronzes, their bases polished smooth by the fleeces of the sheep which graze around them. Moore’s studio, visible behind protective glass, is much as he left it – his cane is propped up by his wicker chair and every available surface is covered with pebbles, knives, shells, bones, skulls, photographs, drawings, dentist’s tools and strips of wax. The shelves are crammed full of the maquettes he constructed by building up bones and flints with modelling clay, a miniature museum of his entire oeuvre.
Moore moved here during the Second World War, when the studio in Hampstead he had inherited from Barbara Hepworth was bombed. After the war, he became a worldwide celebrity. He won the International Sculpture Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1948; there had been a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946; and there was another at the Tate in 1951 to coincide with the Festival of Britain, where his Reclining Figure was chosen to preside over the main entrance to the South Bank. Moore came to be seen as the official voice of British sculpture and the acceptable face of Modernism. Banks and large corporations fought to have his bronzes outside their offices, almost as if they were a badge of culture. Though he refused a knighthood in 1951, explaining that he felt such a title might tend to cut me off from fellow artists whose work has aims similar to mine, he was nevertheless an establishment figure. With or without the knighthood, the more prominent Moore’s public persona became, the more a younger generation of critics and artists wanted to distance themselves from him. Influence, as Harold Bloom has written, is influenza – an astral disease.
The New Aspects of British Sculpture exhibition at the 26th Venice Biennale in 1952 represented a new generation’s challenge to Moore’s dominance of the artistic scene. Moore’s gangly Double Standing Figure stood outside the British Pavilion and inside, as if introduced by Moore, was the work of eight young sculptors, all under 40 – Lynn Chadwick, Eduardo Paolozzi, Kenneth Armitage, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Reg Butler, William Turnbull and Robert Adams. In his catalogue essay Herbert Read said that Moore was in some sense the parent of them all, and their work exhibits all the Oedipal rivalry that this description invokes. They became known as the geometry of fear sculptors, after a phrase of Read’s, who wrote of the iconography of despair, or of defiance encapsulated by the artworks of this angst-ridden younger generation: Here are images of flight, he declared, of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.
The exhibition was a sensation. Alfred Barr, director of MoMA New York, wrote that it was the group of young sculptors that provided the greatest surprise of the whole Biennale. Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Paolozzi and others aroused not only international admiration but – what is more conclusive – a widespread desire to buy. The Italian press reported that the young English artists have secured the leading place in Europe, and Peggy Guggenheim, Elsa Schiaparelli, the Museum of Modern Art in Rome and MoMA all bought pieces.
The geometry of fear generation’s spiky, jagged and disturbing images seem to represent a conscious attempt to move away from Moore’s large-scale, pebble-smooth forms. Herbert Read thought that the consistent avoidance of massiveness, of monumentality, is what distinguishes them from their immediate predecessor, Moore, and the critic Robert Melville wrote that, in contrast to Moore, they have turned to modelling, manipulating and assembling techniques, to lighter and more sinewy materials. They have replaced the craft of the stonemason with the craft of the blacksmith, the industrial skills of the welder and the model and pattern maker.
Meadows experimented with crab-like carapaces and cockerels in an attempt to break away from Moore’s placid humanism, and other sculptors exploited a machine ethic, incorporating mechanical debris into the work. Butler was influenced by functional engineering, particularly the radio and radar towers he had photographed in Suffolk in 1947, and Paolozzi, who would found the Independent Group later that year, was also in thrall to machines and mass culture. The European avant-garde had impressed them – Paolozzi lived in Paris from 1947, where he met Giacometti, and Turnbull joined him there and befriended Brancusi. Robert Adam also claimed that Moore’s influence on him had eroded as his work became more abstract, in favour of Brancusi and Julio Gonzalez. This European influence was philosophical as well as visual, and gave the work a fashionable existential gloss: They have seized Eliot’s image of the Hollow Men, Read wrote, They have peopled the Waste Land with their iron waifs.
Moore was not immune to the anxiety of influence. The critic Peter Fuller described Moore’s almost compulsive need to ablate the memory of those artists who had a short-range influence upon him, preferring to admit to having learned only from the like of Michaelangelo and Masaccio. Similarly, the new generation owed much to Moore, even as they denied it. Bernard Meadows assisted Moore from 1936 to 1939, and lived for a time with the Moore family. Reg Butler had worked for three weeks on the right-hand figure of Moore’s Three Standing Figures 1947–8, while Meadows carved most of the left-hand figure. Moore subsequently recommended both for teaching posts. Moore had borne the brunt of the public’s cynical reception of Modernism, as Epstein had before him, and Lynn Chadwick reluctantly admitted that even though he didn’t influence many people – very few people have done work at all resembling the work of Moore – the fact that he had achieved some sort of breakthrough for what is called modern art in the form of sculpture, the fact that he had done it, had been recognised, did help other people to be accepted in other forms.
In 1965, after a show at the Whitechapel of these young British artists under the banner of another New Generation, Time magazine celebrated the abstract and strongly coloured work of these post-Moore sculptors who were in transition towards new forms utterly unrelated to history, anatomy, anecdote or the nature of materials. Moore, then 67, who had appeared on the cover of Time only six years earlier, commented graciously: The thing about the English school now is its variety. They don’t care what material or technique they use. They understand rightly that it’s the mind that counts.
By that time Moore was thinking of his legacy. He proposed to donate 26 major works to the Tate in the late 1960s, including plaster casts, working maquettes and the rest of the contents of his thinking studio. There was talk of building a special Henry Moore wing to house this collection. In 1968, the year of the Tate’s retrospective of Moore’s work in celebration of his 70th birthday, 41 artists wrote a letter to the Times objecting to the proposed scheme. In something of a final insult they declared that The radical nature of art in the 20th century is inconsistent with the notion of an heroic and monumental role for the artist and any attempt to predetermine greatness for an individual in a publicly financed form of permanent enshrinement is a move we as artists repudiate. Signatories included two of Moore’s former assistants – Anthony Caro and Philip King – and two of the geometry of fear exhibitors – Paolozzi and Turnbull.
Nevertheless, on the occasion of a new display, we can re-evaluate Moore’s work independently of the anxiety of influence displayed in the 1950s and 60s. And, in any case, even at the time that Caro and Paolozzi were signing their petition, other artists were paying Moore tribute. In Seated Storage Capsule for H.M. 1966, Bruce Nauman proposed to honour and preserve Moore’s memory for future artists, in the face of the disparaging attacks he was then receiving: Moore had been the dominant presence in British art for years – he was pretty powerful, Nauman later explained, so I came up with the idea for a storage capsule I figured the younger generation would need him some day.
This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 6