Ronald Moody

Marseille Figure


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Not on display

Ronald Moody 1900–1984
Object: 109 × 26 × 21 mm
Presented by the Ronald Moody Trust 2019


Marseille Figure 1940 is a small carved sculpture, just eleven centimetres high, of a seated figure wearing a kimono. The near-square base is an integral part of the composition. The sculpture was made in Marseille following Moody’s departure from Paris, where he had been living since 1938, to escape the German occupation of the French capital. It was carved directly from a rectangular block of mahogany that had been salvaged from a fire by the Marseille fire department from whom it was purchased by Ronald Moody’s fellow refugees. The avant-garde vogue for direct carving had emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century as a reaction against a dominant school of academic sculpture based on modelling and casting. Direct carving was associated with Pre-Renaissance and non-European sculpture and as a practice it was invested with notions of the ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. The totemic nature of Marseille Figure is stylistically akin to Moody’s monumental carving Johanaan of 1936 (Tate T06591)

Following a successful exhibition of his recent carvings at the Galerie Billiet-Worms in Paris in October 1937 and a second show at the the Kunstzaal van Lier in Amsterdam in January 1938, Moody moved to Paris in the summer of 1938 and over the following year participated in many group exhibitions there and, towards the end of 1939, in America. His last exhibition before the fall of Paris was in April 1940 at the Galerie Rene Breteau. In June he and his wife Helene left Paris hoping to reach Bordeaux and a boat for Britain, but were unsuccessful and they switched course for Marseille where they arrived at the beginning of July 1940. During this time Moody was unable to work, and sensing his frustration a group of three refugees bought him some wood so that he could carve. Moody’s niece Cynthia described how the tiny Marseille Figure (sometimes known as the Hirondelle Venus), carved between 13 and 27 November 1940, was carried by Moody ‘in his pocket, as a kind of talisman. The need to create was irresistible and within six months he had written twenty-three poems.’ (Cynthia Moody, ‘Ronald Moody, A Man True to his Vision’, Third Text, no.8/9, Autumn/Winter 1989, p.11.) After one unsuccessful attempt to cross the Pyrenees with his wife into Spain in February 1941, his wife made a solo bid in May, reaching Lisbon and carrying Marseille Figure with her. She reached Britain in July and it took another three months and two more attempts before Moody successfully made his escape from the continent, arriving in Liverpool in October 1941.

Moody was significant for being the first recognised Caribbean artist to settle in Britain (he had arrived in London in 1923 to study dentistry). His drive to become an artist was stimulated by his encounter with Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum; he is additionally important because he did not adopt a purely European aesthetic for his work, but one that fused Eastern philosophies with Caribbean and other cultures to create a hybrid modernist language. In 1938 Moody sent twelve major sculptures, including    the monumental carved wood head Midonz 1937 (Tate T13324), to the Harmon Foundation in the United States to be included in    the 1939 exhibition Contemporary Negro Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art    and the Dallas Museum of Art – a key event in the late Harlem Renaissance and for which Moody was one of the few artists from outside the United States to be included.

Despite such prominence, Moody was overlooked by the mainstream and, after 1930, was largely compelled to follow two professions – both as a dental surgeon and artist. Assessing his position, the artist and critic Rasheed Araeen made a telling comparison with his contemporary, the British sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986):

It is a strange coincidence that Henry Moore also visited the British Museum during the same time and was inspired by, among other things, pre-Columbian Mexican sculpture. There is a similarity between the thinking of Moody and Moore, who both use the human figures as their mode of expression. And yet they are different, not only in terms of their life experiences, and what their works signify, but also in their status. While the former is modest in ambition, knowing his (marginal) place in the colonial society, the later work of Henry Moore seems to relate to the milieu of the post-war imperial ambitions of the British state.
(In Hayward Gallery 1989, p.19.)

Further reading
Rasheed Araeen, The Other Story, Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1989.
Transforming the Crown, African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996, exhibition catalogue, Studio Museum Harlem, New York 1997.
Cynthia Moody, The Works of Ronald Moody: Catalogue Raisonné, Bristol (unpublished) 1998.

Andrew Wilson         
November 2018

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