Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson’

Bookman, November 1933.

Brief Chronicles : Art
HENRY MOORE AND BEN NICHOLSON
By Geoffrey Grigson
If “Art Now,” by Herbert Read,* is somewhat obscured by too much compression and too many quotations, it is a book which no one dare avoid ; and there is one passage in it above others which should be considered now most carefully. It is useful to recall it in respect of two exhibitions which will be open when this number of THE BOOKMAN is on sale – sculpture by Henry Moore at the Leicester Gallery; sculpture, painting and various objects by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth at the Lefevre.
Mr. Read quotes from Worringer’s “Form in Gothic.” Worringer, writing of primitive man, declares that he created in his art a second world of permanent values, which comforted him by subduing his “torment of perception” ; for primitive man was alone, surrounded overwhelmingly by an alien, chaotic and terrifying world. We again are in another such world. Science has gone beyond common sense. Evolutionary theory has taken away something of man’s complacency as a god-made superior being. Psychology has frighteningly discovered to him the narrow limits of his reason. A powerful, adroit, mechanized materialism now holds the reins – or rather the steering-wheel – and the only clear thing under the progress of the crowded lorries of humanity is the road heading past the ruby lights into the gorge. Mr. Read explains the emergence of various kinds of geometric, abstract art as the artist’s self-preservation in this dangerous, swift chaos. The artist leaps to an island in the traffic. He seeks refuge but not escape.
This is I believe the right explanation, though it need not be too narrowly applied. Since always there is some degree of chaos, it must explain also all great art. The great artist bores down and down. He reveals the universal substratum under all the ages, the pure earth under the concrete, tarmac or wood blocks of the road which again is under the tyres of the welter of vehicles. It explains much about the art of Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson – art which I am sure is truly great besides being truly typical of the day, in going further and further from representation of nature in naturalistic terms.
Those who go to the Leicester Galleries will see sculpture which is both intensely individual and, at its best, universal. Mr. Moore’s works in wood and stone are works in the nature of their material, and yet organisms which have grown outwards from their centre, inevitably. This figure I owe again to Mr. Read,† but its truth is confirmed by the evidence of my own senses. In front of the best of Mr. Moore’s sculpture – for example the mother and child in green marble exhibited two years ago, or the “Composition” in African Wonder Stone which will be in his new exhibition – I am aware of experiencing forms of a universal value, which have been produced in their simplicity and inevitability by passionate and undivided imagination. Even in Epstein’s good sculpture there is often an element which distracts and discomforts the spectator. Looking at a good piece by Mr. Moore, one is made at once happy. One is elevated by its unity and ease. It is complete and solid. It is harmonious, surprising and exhilarating. In this final excellence no English sculptor comes near to him except Barbara Hepworth.
Ben Nicholson I believe to be another artist as excellent, in a way not less simple or intense or less pure, but less wide and grand. The word for his art is “gaiety,” though I do not mean it at all as a trivial word. Henry Moore is an artist who affirms the depth, the exhilaration and certainty of universal nature in the solid purity of three dimensions. Just as positively and universally, Ben Nicholson affirms elemental gaiety in the pureness of colour, tone and line. Only a surface critic would sneer at his art of surfaces by calling it superficial. Text after text for his painting could be found in the “Songs of Innocence”; and like the sculpture of Henry Moore, it has progressed from the representation of natural forms to that abstraction which is the passionate denial of all distraction. His pictures are self-contained. All that is in them now is within the frame, and the best of them are stable worlds of an infinite joy.
Such a picture is the “Composition,” a photograph of which was reproduced with my notes last month. No photograph can suggest its quality, its power of exciting by form, surface quality and colour. I have seen no better painting by Mr. Nicholson ; and I would advise everyone to go and admire it in the “Art Now” exhibition at the Mayor Gallery ; and then to go on to examine the rest of his new work in King Street. Only Miro’s ballet, “Jeux d’enfants,” and the consciously naïve vision and colour of a more “Literary artist,” Paul Klee, have so delicately, so intensely impressed me with gaiety, but though Klee is a supreme draughtsman, Mr. Nicholson rightly detects, I think, in much of his art a recurrent, frightening deathliness which is certainly absent from his own. Nearly to the limit allowed to his individuality as an artist, Ben Nicholson, in Blake’s Phrase, has cleansed the doors of perception. He experiences colour as purely as our own half-sense of it has long ago become grimy and vulgar.
* “12s. 6d.” (Faber & Faber.)
† See the remarks on Henry Moore in “The Meaning of Art”
Note
There is a single illustration in this article (caption provided in the original style):
Composition in African Wonderstone by Henry Moore.

How to cite

Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson’, in Bookman, November 1933, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/geoffrey-grigson-henry-moore-and-ben-nicholson-r1173019, accessed 19 May 2024.