Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Albert Elsen, ‘The New Freedom of Henry Moore’

Art International, vol.4, no.10, December 1960, p.50.

In the last five years Henry Moore has created some of his best sculptures, and they include works not drawn from his signature themes of the reclining figure or the mother and child. Locking Piece, Archer, Three Point Piece, Large Torso Arch, Sliding Piece and Atom Piece have put Moore’s art into areas of thought, feeling and focus on the physical aspects of his form that he has not as consistently invaded before. These sculptures resist thematic interpretation and lack obvious formal rapport with the human body. Late in his career Moore seems to have become more boldly and consistently inventive rather than interpretive, without withholding his natural generosity of spirit or the fullness of intellect and feeling with which his figural work has always been endowed. Locking Piece, for example, was not conceived as a metaphor or paraphrase of an existing object or situation. It is the unique encounter of two analogous but dissimilar shapes whose perfection or imperfection of joining, openness and closure, stability and instability depend upon our changing angles of vision. Almost hall a century of Moore’s patient study and shaping of form with its texture, color, space, and proportion is visibly brought to bear on each new piece, such that we feel that a work like Large Torso. Arch was endlessly considered and refashioned into a dense concentration of nuances. What helps to set Moore apart from younger British sculptors is an undiminished passion for the manually shaped and reworked surface of a continuously inflected solid mass.
The possibilities of large scale for his work, first opened up to him in the late fifties, appeal to the sculptor because they afford a “stretching of my vision”. Moore knows the difference between large size and a form perfectly attuned to its final scale, and all of the works illustrated experienced important adjustment in proportion as well as shape as they were enlarged from small maquettes. Coupled with a new liberality of scale, there persists the impression of frugality of means and composition. Moore’s single-shape works have an astonishing complexity and imaginative physiology when surveyed from all sides. No series of works from the preceding decades by Moore seemed to have as persistently attacked the challenge of achieving so much with so little on such an heroic scale. Yet, for those who have followed Moore’s evolution, these newer, more abstract pieces seem partially invested with formal ideas from his previous figural art; the hard conical smoothness of the Helmet series, the stance of the legs and hollows of the reclining figures, the curving parental shoulders of the maternal themes, the tapered edges of the knife edge figures, the rounded breast bones of the early stone half length women ... Nothing has been forgotten, but everything has been transformed.
With few exceptions, abstraction in sculpture came late to England. Largely due to Moore himself, until the late nineteen fifties and the emergence of Caro and his former students, English sculptors for the most part seemed unshakably convinced that sculpture presupposed the human figure. Art students were reminded by older sculptors and critics that they should be “humanists” and this meant treating the human figure, and “public values”. (One could mangle or mock the figure, but not ignore it.) Even today some English critics seek to reassure the public that a new young artist is still a “humanist”. At the end of the fifties and early sixties either the younger artists discarded the word and its inhibiting conceptual baggage, or else came to think that humanism (with a small h) could encompass all that men made for better or for worse. Caro and David Smith and the work of Brancusi did much within the last ten years to convince young British sculptors that abstraction was possible in good sculpture, and the former helped rid their admirers and followers of a guilt complex.
Since about 1960 it appears that Henry Moore has come to personal and more durable terms with abstraction than he did in the 1930’s. In 1962 he made a simple and prophetic statement: “I often think I could be even freer than I am from the tie of what the thing might ‘mean’. I’d like to be able to carry the form as far as possible without having to define its significance.” (“Moore explains his universal shapes.” Article by John and Vera Russell in New York Time Magazine, 11 November, 1962. Quoted in Philip James’ Henry Moore on Sculpture, Macdonald, London 1966, p. 205.) With this new attitude, abstraction will never mean that a work he makes is devoid of a mysterious rapport with life, both for Moore and his audience. It means that he can’t explain how his works came about or what they signify. (Out of conviction, and not bet-hedging, he continues to reconjugate the reclining figure and, like Picasso, enjoys a simultaneous plurality of modes and themes.) This new freedom of conscience with which such sculptures as Locking Piece have been made probably derives from a number of sources. These may include the artist’s own belief that he had proved himself to the public and served their needs as well as his own with the figure. Moore has always been conscious of his position or pioneering role as England’s first great sculptor since the Middle Ages and in many ways he served as a teacher for the British art world. Until recently, it is probable that Moore also shared Picasso’s and other European artist’s mistrust of abstraction as being too remote from the great artistic traditions. Moore is still inquisitive and venturesome and perhaps the abstraction of his former and still respected assistants, Caro and Witkin, contributed to his change, along with the recognition that an international audience continued to repond favourably to the shift in his work. His own ideas about an artist’s humanism today are based upon the scope and impotance of the problems with which an artist concerns himself and these may or may not include the human figure. (Moore feels younger artists today settle for too limited or narrow problems.) It was apparent in watching and listening to Moore that these new works evoke his excitement and satisfaction because they have, if anything, increased the challenge to his mind, eye and feelings. New demands have been made upon the viewer because these sculptures, compared to the artist’s work before 1962, possess greater mystery and surprise. As an example, they cannot be absorbed or understood from one or two points of view. Individually and as a group these sculptures have a greater unpredictability as to their total appearance in the round. According to the sculptor, his recent work differs from the of previous decades in that he is “not now consciously following programs”. The abstract work of thirty years ago had a serial aspect, and he methodically studied the character of space achieved by cutting open the torso. He doesn’t feel that his new forms “are as consistently curled around the hollow or implied central core” of his work as heretofore. No preliminary drawings precede a new work’s emergence in small maquettes. Above all Moore says he wants sculptures that “cannot be foreseen or foredrawn.” He points out that previous drawings for the reclining figures, even though of one view, pretty much determined the entire three-dimensional conception. Works such as Archer or Locking Piece “wouldn’t make sense in drawings from one angle”. To the suggestion that he is working more spontaneously now, Moore demurred and said, “Drawings are the most spontaneous way of working. I can do several in one day whereas it takes me a whole day to do one maquette.”
Using the sculpture that he calls The Pipe because one of its shapes resembles a smoking pipe, Moore pointed out that his recent sculptures “have more of a repertory or mixture of parts from the body. The Pipe has all sorts of reminiseences of other things such as a breast at the right, and I know it is like a breast. But all the forms have some reference to nature and there is a purely geometric relationship.
“I am ready now to make an object which doesn’t have in it the logical plot of an existing piece ... I am willing to break with complete units in nature such as the tree’s roots, trunk and branches ... the human, animal and vegetable are more fully mixed in my recent work ... that which is organic is still necessary, but I wouldn’t in principle be against mixing mechanical forms with organic ones...”
Referring to the Archer. Moore commented that in it he could now see a woman’s thigh, a neck and an arm, “but all amalgamated into a multi-associational form ... They have to have an overall unity of form. They need a matrix in order to have a correctness. Now I need not make sculpture with a specific reference to the figure. Maybe I am echoing my own period of around 1930 to 1935, but then I did not work as freely as I do now.”
Although the figure in fact is absent from the sculptures, Moore looks upon them in anatomical and physiological terms. When talking about his new pieces he often points to parts of his own body to indicate where he “feels” a certain stress in the sculpture. In discussing Large Torso Arch he bent forward and with his arms extended downward in a pincer gesture indicated how he identified the stretching and arching of his shoulders with the sculpture’s movement. In describing Locking Piece, he made twisting motions with his hands as if screwing a bolt into a nut or fitting two dissimilar bones into a common joint. The Archer evoked for him a thrusting arm holding a bow, an association he recalled that came to him midway during the making of the piece. Atomic Piece was first developed as a maquette and two weeks later it was selected by a University of Chicago committee for the memorial now on their campus. Working on his own, Moore did not start out by interpreting atomic power or have any idea of its final purpose. For him it now has a morbid skull-like quality.
Like Michelangelo and Rodin, with whom Moore constantly compares his own work and ideas, the sculptor’s premise is that the human body provides certain models for the artist to follow. Comparable to the skeletal and musculator systems, Moore wants his works to have parts that interact with other parts in a credible way and seem to belong to a unitied system. Machinery or man-made objects lack these possibilities for his empathy and emulation, and geometric forms lack the drama he finds in every form of bodily stress or tension. The continuing assumption upon which Moore builds his new art is that to be effective, which for him means to have character and vigor, sculpture must reflect the energy and structural logic of organic life.
Moore likes to call attention to his indebtedness to fragments of animal bones and stones culled from his own land and the seashore. The fragments have been cut more often than broken, and their violent abbreviation seems to appeal to him along with their contrasts of smooth and rough texture and beautiful natural curvature. Though small, bones can inspire in him ideas for monumental sculptures by their compactness of silhouette and continuity of surface. It was sharp-edged bones that lead Moore to his knife-edge figure and thus introduced the wedge shape or tapering volumes into his style. Sliding Piece enjoys the double character of a broad relief-like expanse from the front, and then tapers almost to invisibility when seen from the side. Moore also shows a predisposition to bones which come from pivotal parts of the body, notably the hip or knee. He is currently working on a double sculpture whose twin parts contain holes similar to those found in bones his studio.
One still hears some members of the British art establishment contending over whether or not Moore is a carver or a modeller and voicing preference for sculptures that seem to have been produced by one way of working or the other. This debate seems a hangover from the unfortunate and inconsistent “truth to the medium” doctrine of the thirties preached by Herbert Read and Moore himself. Looking long and hard at the more abstract pieces like Archer or Three Point Piece, the question of how they were made or whether they are truer to carving or modelling strikes one as terribly petty and irrelevant.
Moore has modelled some very hard and smooth shapes and carved some very soft and rough forms. Working on his maquettes in his small studio. Moore does both modelling and carving, often on the same piece, looking at and feeling a given work with his hands – doing everything he can to coax lite into new plaster embryo without observing neat distinctions between ways of working. The old Haptic-Optic theory winged aestheticians never seems to land at Much Hadham. Moore loves and is proud of his craft, but part of his new freedom may be that he can forget about it during the crucial moments in which an idea first takes shape.
Another aspect of Moore’s new found freedom which is to be found in the recent pieces is that they more consistently succeed usually as self-sufficient sculptures because the artist has never added to the need for easy legibility. In certain reclining figure pieces there are some views from which the severed neck is formally a troublesome if not dispensable appendage. The figure can be imagined and improved without the neck.. Archer, on the other hand, has an all over and all around visual right-terms and logic to the shaping and proportion of its various meas. While Moore sees a severed neck in this piece, he was not constrained to put that shape on to broad shoulders for, as he pointed out, bodily sequence can now be changed.
A senior sculptor like Moore, whose work has followed for over forty years a logical though not linear evolution, can count on having a large audience attuned to the wavelength of the formal language and to whom the voice is familiar and reassuring even when he has something new to say. It would be surprising, however, if at this late date Moore were to make sculptures whose only intentions were to be beautiful, or as he put it, “to observe the niceties of form alone”. It would be just as surprising if he made sculptures that enacted violence or menaced the viewer. Moore’s abstract works have character and power, but do not engage in internecine warfare like those of Lipton. (Lipton’s themes of strife take place in the present.) To my mind Moore’s work, past and present, shows the aftermath of a long struggle. His forms have often shown the imprint of forces having once been exerted upon them, like glacial traces on rock surfaces, which have altered their original shape and evolution. One of the persistant attractions of bone and stone for Moore may be that they bear the marks of past violence, much as his final sculptures will wear the trace of his energetic editing. The materials that thus inspire him and those he uses for his sculpture have a hardness and durability that has associations with resistance to disintegration. Moore dramatizes the double pressures of internal growth and its invisible external nemesis. Industrial objects do not have this double history for Moore. His Large Torso Arch is a world apart from Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch for this reason alone. Rodin believed in the latent heroism of every natural movement. Moore believes in the latent heroism of every natural form.
Like a hundred before me I asked Moore what he felt was the purpose of sculpture. He replied, “To help us understand the shape of things.” This struck me as Henry Moore the teacher-sculptor speaking. As I have reflected on his answer, I feel that it accurately represents the view of a man who in order to make sculpture has spent a lifetime studying innumerable natural forms and understands their morphology. For my own part, Moore’s sculpture has made me more aware and interested in certain aspects of nature, but has not advanced my understanding beyond what my biology and geology instructors imparted. Pondering Moore’s new abstract works makes me believe that they are embodiments of what he has seen, dreamed, read and felt – pages in his autobiography. Thus the shapes he creates help us above all to understand Henry Moore.
The illustrations in Albert Elsen’s article are as follows (captions are provided in the original style):
Three Way Piece (Archer), 1964. Bronze, ht. 10’8”, 1. 11’2”.
Sculpture – Atom Piece, 1964. Bronze, ht. 48” approx.. All photographs courtesy the artist and Marlborough Fine Art Ltd.
Another view of Three Way Piece (Archer).
Two Piece Sculpture (Pipe), 1966. Bronze, 1. 37”.
Sculpture – knife–edge sliding piece, 1962, Bronze, ht. 9’.1.12’.
Three point piece, 1964. Bronze, ht. 76”, 1. 85”.

How to cite

Albert Elsen, ‘The New Freedom of Henry Moore’, in Art International, vol.4, no.10, December 1960, p.50, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/albert-elsen-the-new-freedom-of-henry-moore-r1173027, accessed 23 May 2024.