Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Henry Moore, ‘On Carving’

New English Weekly, 5 May 1932, pp.65–6.

On Carving
ARNOLD L. HASKELL: I see that you never model nowadays. I have a delightful bronze of yours, the head of a young girl, (Head of a Girl 1923 LH 15, Auckland Art Gallery) that is exceedingly subtle and delicate in its modelling. It gives me increasing pleasure, as I notice fresh beauties in it. Are you concentrating entirely on carving now?
HENRY MOORE: Each sculptor differs in his aims and ideals according to his personality and point of development, and for many reasons I have preferred to work in stone rather than in clay. To begin with, I enjoy the actual physical effort, and I feel happier with a chisel and hammer than when using clay. I think that carving is an admirable discipline for a developing sculptor. His ideas must be definite, and the longer time needed to make a carving trains him to sustain an idea. This is especially valuable today when the tendency is to throw off a work in an afternoon. Each piece of material has a character and construction all its own; you are in touch with a solid mass of reality. I like the power a work gets naturally from the resistance offered by a hard material.
HASKELL: Do you agree with the widely prevalent view that carving as such is a virtue in itself, and that carving alone can be called true sculpture?
MOORE: That is a superstition that has arisen because of the hard fight for the practice and recognition of direct carving, and the sculptors of my generation have to thank Epstein, Gill, and Gaudier-Brzeska for the victory. Nobody now, except for purely commercial reasons, upholds the use of methods such as the pointing machine to produce stone and marble copies of works conceived in clay.
HASKELL: I have long been an enthusiastic admirer of African carving. Purely as an amateur of art I feel that it has taught me a great deal. I would be interested to hear what it can teach the practical carver of today.
MOORE: One great lesson that Negro Sculpture, more than most primitive schools, can teach the carver is the full realisation of form in the round. Too much direct carving nowadays follows the line of least resistance, and, from too great a respect, amounting to fear of the material, remains only relief carving, a smoothed up mass with forms stuck on in relief. By expressing only lines or surfaces it loses sculptural power. The Negro, working chiefly in wood, a fibrous stringy material, could produce form entirely in the round, without too great technical difficulty. He was able to free the arms completely from the body and to have a wide space between thin legs without an appearance of weakness as would have resulted in stone. One of the great problems of stone carving is to find the mean between mere surface scratching, that is, a smoothed-up boulder with decorated surface, and a work that needs a wire fence for its protection.
HASKELL: Michelangelo's dictum was that you could roll good sculpture down a hill without a piece being broken from it.
MOORE: And it is because he conformed to that in his later works that they are in my opinion his best. Perhaps I can explain more clearly some of my ideas about carving by telling you something of my own development.
When I started carving about twelve years ago my work had this limitation of relief. When I became conscious of it there followed a period of experiment, of forcing projections, of making a hole without weakening the composition as a stone construction. This cleared the way to a realisation of block rhythm instead of only linear and surface rhythm. Although sculpture should remain static, it need not be straight up and down like a telegraph pole, but it should have growth and rhythm as a tree trunk has.
During visits to the Norfolk coast I began collecting flint pebbles. These showed Nature's treatment of stone and the principle of the opposition of bumps and hollows. Then I realised that a work loses in interest through having its component forms too similar in size, and I began putting small forms against large forms, enlarging some and reducing others.
As with the flints I have studied the principles of organic growth in the bones and shells at the Natural History Museum and have found new form and rhythm to apply to sculpture. Of course one does not just copy the form of a bone, say, into stone, but applies the principles of construction, variety, transition of one form into another, to some other subject – with me nearly always the human form, for that is what interests me - so giving, as the image and metaphor do in poetry, a new significance to each.
HASKELL: I have heard your work called abstract, symbolical and humanistic. It is of course never possible to label anything in so simple a fashion, but I am interested to hear what you have to say on the human element in sculpture; what is said, as against how it is said.
MOORE: Except to the artist himself, to whom it is of the greatest importance, the theory upon which he works does not matter. What does matter is the attitude of the artist to life, the kind of mind the work reveals. It is, for example, of small consequence in our appreciation of their works that Uccello was obsessed by perspective and Michelangelo by anatomy. A work may show no illogical thinking, yet if it shows a commonplace mind it can be of little value, while if it reveals a unique and personal vision, though it can be open to criticism in other ways, it still will have great value. Also unless a sculptor adds life to his material, whether stone, wood or bronze, in my opinion he has failed no matter what his aesthetic theories. What alone makes Epstein remarkable is his power of imbuing with life whatever he touches, bronze or stone. The primitive mind has a great sense of reality and this quality of vitality is powerfully evident in all primitive sculpture.
To return more concretely to your question. All the best sculpture I know is both abstract and representational at the same time. I do not admire work which is produced as an escape from reality, which is soporific or prettifies merely as an entertainment. Some music (like Chopin's Nocturnes) is an escape from reality, it makes one sit back and go 'soft and mushy'. I prefer the kind which keys one up, – the later quartets of Beethoven, for example. There is sculpture and there is painting of these two sorts.
The primitive simplifies, I think, through directness of emotional aim to intensify their expression. Simplicity as an aim in itself tends to emptiness and monotony, but simplicity in carving, interpreted as lack of surface trimmings, reveals the contrast in section, axis, direction and bulk between different shapes and so intensifies the three-dimensional power in a work.
HASKELL: What do you think of pure abstraction?
MOORE: If you mean just pure geometry, turning subtle shapes into perfect cubes or cylinders, or all curves into sections of a circle then I think that kind of abstract art cannot have great meaning or lasting interest. But if you mean by abstraction the steps away from realistic representation, then it seems to me that most of the world's great art contains a good deal of the abstract.
There are two kinds of artist, the visual and the mental. Velàzquez represents the visual, Michelangelo or El Greco the mental. The visual artist reacts to forms, shapes and colours seen, and works often directly from nature, while the mental artist works more from the sum total of his visual experience and composes from his own ideas of nature. Carving is more in keeping with the mental attitude, modelling with the visual.
HASKELL: Renoir and Cézanne both in their work and influence seem to be admirable examples of the visual and mental artist in modern painting.
MOORE: And some artists have shown both sides, as Epstein; the carver of 'Genesis' and the modeller of 'The Visitation'.
HASKELL: How far is the carver bound by his material?
MOORE: The material used for carving should not be forced beyond its natural constructive build, or weakness is the result. At the completion of the work the material should retain its own inherent qualities. Sculpture in stone should look like stone, hard and concentrated. To make stone look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples, is coming down to the level of the stage conjuror.
HASKELL: Isn't carving just because of its materials very closely related to architecture?
MOORE: Most architectural sculpture is relief decoration and not carving in the round, and for that reason I think that a holiday for sculpture away from architecture might be a good thing for sculpture. A man is a sculptor, just because he needs the full reality of concrete form in the round to work with.

How to cite

Henry Moore, ‘On Carving’, in New English Weekly, 5 May 1932, pp.65–6, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-on-carving-r1175899, accessed 12 April 2024.