Henry Moore OM, CH



Henry Moore OM, CH 1898–1986
Gneiss stone
Object: 212 × 190 × 87 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1993


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

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Display caption

Moore carved a disembodied head in alabaster in 1923 and a small mask in 1924. But it was not until 1928 that he showed a serious interest in the making of masks. In that year Moore bought a French book on pre-Columbian sculpture which included many illustrations of masks. During 1928-9 Moore made eight masks, four cast in concrete and four carved in stone. In this stone mask the eyes, nostrils and mouth are holes which have been drilled right through the material. This device of drilling a hole points to future developments in Moore's work because the sculptor came to believe that 'A hole can have as much shape-meaning as a solid mass.'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Although its title identifies it as a mask, this sculpture was not designed to be worn but displayed on a wall. The sculpture is almost heart-shaped, with a wide forehead and hairline tapering to a narrow chin. Holes have been used to denote the eyes, nostrils and mouth, and run right through the stone. Thin, incised eyebrows balance the face but the other features are subtly asymmetrical: the eye on the viewer’s left, for example, is larger than the one on the viewer’s right. The nose is indicated by a pair of thin grooves – one marginally longer than the other – terminating in two small round holes. Beneath, a faint diagonal incision marks the end of the nose, while a slightly tilted and flattened oval-shaped hole denotes the mouth, seemingly caught mid-speech or in surprise. Oval-shaped ears, marked with keyhole-shaped recessions, complete the head. When viewed in profile the sculpture does not show any great variation in depth or protrusion.
Mask was carved in green gneiss stone, which has fine white and orange-brown veining. Gneiss stone is a metamorphic rock found internationally as well as in some parts of Britain. The stone is often identified as marble or granite due to its similarities in hardness and veining. The front and rear of Mask bear the marks of a number of different stone carving tools and would have been carved and polished by hand. The front surface, which is generally smooth, is scattered with small, shallow areas of rough stone giving it a weathered appearance. The back surface has been hollowed out and shows rough tooling marks.
When it was accessioned into the Tate collection Mask was deemed to have been made in 1928, but there is some uncertainly over the accuracy of this date.1 In Moore’s catalogue raisonné published in 1957 the critic and curator David Sylvester, who edited the volume, noted that although ‘dates have been carefully checked and counter-checked ... those which are still in any way conjectural are prefixed with a question mark’.2 Sylvester, with Moore’s approval, dated Mask ‘?1928’.3 This dating seems reasonable given that between 1928 and 1929 Moore made at least seven other sculptures of masks, created in a range of different types of stone and concrete.4

Raymond Coxon and Edna Ginesi

Alice Correia
December 2012


See Tate Gallery Biennial Report 1992–94, London 1994, p.56.
David Sylvester (ed.), Henry Moore. Volume 1: Complete Sculpture 1921–48, 1957, 5th edition, London 1988, p.2.
Ibid., p.4.
See for example Mask 1929 (Tate T03762).
P.M-W, ‘Distortions in Stone’, Westminster Gazette, 26 January 1928, p.8.
For example, see Herbert Read, Henry Moore: A Study of his Life and Work, London 1965, p.72; Henry Moore: Early Carvings 1920–1940, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Galleries, Leeds 1982, p.62; Andrew Causey, The Drawings of Henry Moore, London 2010, p.34. In the 2010 Moore exhibition at Tate Britain this sculpture was displayed in the room titled ‘World Cultures’; see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/henry-moore-0/henry-moore-room-guide/henry-moore-room-guide-room-1, accessed 22 November 2012. The term ‘pre-Columbian’ denotes the period of history preceeding Christopher Columbus’s voyages to South America in 1492 and European contact with and influence on American indigenous cultures and civilisations.
Barbara Braun, Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World, New York 2000, p.104.
Roger Fry, Vision and Design, London 1920, p.73.
For example, the French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) took inspiration from ancient Peruvian pottery for his figurative ceramic works in the 1880s, a precedent of which Moore was certainly aware by the time he carved Mask; see Braun 2000, pp.74–5.
Christopher Green, ‘Expanding the Canon: Roger Fry’s Evaluations of the “Civilized” and the “Savage”’, in Christopher Green (ed.), Art Made Modern: Roger Fry's Vision of Art, exhibition catalogue, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London 1999, p.126.
Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism, 1981, revised edn, New Haven 1994, p.225.
Henry Moore, ‘Primitive Art’, Listener, 24 April 1941, pp.589–9, reprinted in Alan Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot 2002, p.104.
Henry Moore cited in James Johnson Sweeny, ‘Henry Moore’, Partisan Review, March–April 1947, reprinted in Wilkinson 2002, p.45.
Alfred P. Maudslay specialised in the study of ancient Mayan inscriptions and his collection of Mayan sculptures had been kept in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until ethnographic curator Thomas Joyce transferred it to the British Museum and dedicated a room in the museum for its display. See Braun 2000, p.95.
Braun 2000, p.96.
For reports on these excavations see Anon., ‘Ruins in British Honduras’, Times, 12 January 1926, p.11, and Anon., ‘More Mayan Ruins Discovered’, Times, 10 February 1926, p.13.
See Leon Underwood: Mexico and After, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1979.
Moore cited in Sweeny, reprinted in Wilkinson 2002, p.44.
This link between the photographic reproduction and the sketch is asserted in Alan Wilkinson, ‘Circus Drawings and Study of a Mexican Head’, in David Mitchinson (ed.), Celebrating Moore, London 2006, p.99.
Alan Wilkinson, The Drawings of Henry Moore, London 1977, p.150.
Alan Wilkinson, Henry Moore Remembered: The Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Toronto 1987, p.68.
Adolphe Basler and Ernest Brummer, L’Art précolombien, Paris 1928.
Henry Moore, Henry Moore at the British Museum, London 1981, p.74. Although scholarship undertaken at the British Museum has suggested that the Xipe Totec mask might date from the nineteenth century and had been created to satisfy the growing European market for antiquities, it nonetheless remains important for understanding the development of Moore’s sculpture; see http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/m/masks_of_xipe_totec.aspx, accessed 23 November 2012.
Braun 2000, p.107.
Henry Moore and John Hedgecoe, Henry Moore: My Ideas, Inspirations and Life as an Artist, 1986, revised edn, London 1999, p.62.
Henry Moore quoted in John Hedgecoe (ed.), Henry Moore, London 1968, p.56.

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