Henry Moore: The Plasters
Henry Moore 19731
Focusing on the plasters reveals a fuller understanding of Moore’s working methods, in particular his use of this medium to transform found objects such as flint and bone directly into figures, questioning the relationship of man’s existence to the natural world. Occasionally Moore would make pencil drawings on the found object or the plaster in order to realise its transformation. In other maquettes sectional lines, which more frequently appear in Moore’s drawings as a means of delineating form, are attempted in plaster, drawn directly onto the plaster to indicate the ridges that would be incised into a mould for the bronze enlargement. These lines would then follow the undulations of the figure’s form, mapping its contours like an environmental survey. This was most effectively carried out with the plasters for Reclining Figure: Festival 1951 (fig.1) and Three Quarter Figure: Lines, 1980 (fig.2). In these works the string from the original plaster is carried over to create sectional ridges in the bronze.
Compositions such as Studies for Sculpture c.1939 (fig.5) contain the genesis of many of the sculptural forms developed subsequently, including the 1943 mother and child terracotta studies that led to the renowned Madonna and Child carved the same year for St Matthew’s Church in Northampton (fig.6)7 and Mother and Child 1949. The idea that even realistic representational images ultimately derived from found objects was a radical departure in sculpture. In such compositions Moore questioned the fundamental relationship between man and nature at a time when such an approach was unfashionable. His affinity for natural forms and relentless investigation of the relationship between the human form and its environment was spurned by post-war art critics, and increasingly divided the artist from his contemporaries, though was later recognised by some as one of Moore’s most significant contributions to the sculpture of the twentieth century.8 Yet simultaneously these subjects, concerning the major themes of life, fostered a continuity with the past and confidence in the present, during a period of intense rebuilding of local communities following the devastating aftermath of the war.
So, why plaster? For an artist as concerned as Moore had been in the interwar years with the mantra of ‘truth to material’, a carver who above all enjoyed the resistance of materials and spent decades hewing forms from blocks of stone and wood, the sudden predilection for plaster and bronze after the war may seem peculiar. But stone and wood have inherent limitations – their material strength determines how far one can continue opening out form – and Moore continually stretched these limits to enable his figures to achieve equilibrium between positive and negative space. The size of the stone or wood blocks was restrictive. Although he did not make sculpture over life size until after the war, he had conceived of monumental sculpture in landscape settings in his drawings as early as the 1930s, and even photographed a number of his works at this time against the sky in order to make them appear colossal. Plaster enabled Moore to experiment freely with both form and scale, and also to work directly with found objects and incorporate them physically into his work at the maquette stage. Finally, plaster had the distinct advantage of being able to be both modelled and carved. Once set, it could be chiselled and chipped away just like stone or wood.
But it was in the 1950s that Moore really got his teeth into plaster, exploiting the medium’s ability to create twisting, angular and distorted figures that capture the alienation and anxiety of the post-war era. Often the plasters are far more disturbing than the bronzes cast from them. In Woman 1957 (fig.12) the dismembered torso harkens back to prehistoric fertility figures while at the same time evincing a distinctly modern pain. Even with the elegiac King and Queen 1952–3 (fig.13) there is something disconcerting about the cross-hatching and apparently scarred features, which in plaster are heightened to an intensity that is not present in the bronze. Sculptor Anthony Caro worked with Moore during the early 1950s and recalls initial trials in wax:
While predominately working out ideas for sculpture with plaster maquettes and found objects, Moore’s drawings became increasingly inventive and related to the plaster sculptures in unique ways. The plaster in progress for Standing Figure 1950, its armature tied with rope and heightened dramatically in the top-lit studio, became the intriguing subject of eight drawings in which the subject was transformed into a Wrapped Madonna and Child (figs.16 and 17). Such a transformation also occurred the other way around, with a found object drawn and then a plaster made based on the drawing.
The large plaster Seated Woman 1986 (fig.19), cast in plaster from painted polystyrene, was still being worked on at the time of Moore’s death in 1986, although it had begun thirty years earlier as part of a family group maquette that was never cast. Abandoned in his studio, the full-scale work remains unfinished, its smooth, pale form in stark contrast to the roughly gouged trial marks on the knee. Yet it is possible to imagine what the finished sculpture would have looked like from looking at the working model its fine green wash subtly picking out the contrasts of smooth surfaces with robust textured areas (fig.20). Admiring a small Egyptian plaster head, Moore once said, ‘Well, if that plaster has lasted for three thousand years, so should my plasters’.18 Questions persist concerning the care and restoration of these original works, as does discussion of their value in real, historic and aesthetic terms, but contrary to conventional views on this matter, it is clear that the significance of plaster as a sculptural medium for Moore was profound.
How to cite
Anita Feldman, ‘Henry Moore: The Plasters’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www