Henry Moore at Whitechapel
THE EXHIBITION OF Henry Moore’s sculptures at the Whitechapel Gallery is confined to works produced during the last decade. The power and quality of it all is undeniable and satisfying and also surprising in a peculiar way. Had Moore died ten years ago everything Moore had it in him to make would have been made. We are not used, in this century, to a style which outlives its generic power to alter its appearance but which yet renews its vitality. We respond more readily to an alternative image than to a deepening of the original source.
For the first thing to be said about this exhibition is that it not only contains works which represent most of the various aspects of Moore’s creative nature but several which are the finest expression of those motives which he has yet created. Complementary to this satisfying surprise is the impression that the Whitechapel is, for the present, a noble and sombre anteroom to a great museum packed with treasures. We feel at once that all these works of art are in the mainstream of grand historical art –as we know it from museums. We are so accustomed by now to art informing us about things other than art that we tend to approach an art gallery as we used to approach the classroom – prepared for erudition and resigned to the voice of authority; with perhaps, too, a small voice of impiety waiting its chance within us. The combination of aesthetic erudition and authoritative statement is at first overwhelming: the small voice prompts us to reflect that schoolmasters are people who like to be schoolmasters.
The visual association between this exhibition and the Elgin rooms at the British Museum is neither casual nor fortuitous. The allusions to classical forms are explicit in the works, but beyond that there is the feeling, in both places, of agitated confinement, the bringing inside of works conceived out of doors. There is also a sense of disarrangement of style which makes apprehension of that style more acute; the Elgin room shuffles its fragments about in an asymmetrical array of what was, in its original form, a formal concept; the Whitechapel Gallery, with its three upright motives at the end and a certain, but not total, balance of pairs round the central fallen warrior, promotes a desire (which we share with the artist?) to pull them out of this context and give them some isolated rhetorical prominence in a wild landscape. For Moore’s concept of classicism is essentially a romantic one, containing that ambivalence of love and hate which informs the finest mannerist art. It is an inward intensification of subjective feeling projected on to or through forms which once partook of an ideal reality. But not now – the Pygmalion image of embracing an ideal reality is cut short, the fragmentary figures – Warriors, Motives in front of a wall, etc. – often aggressive in their mutilation, forbid actual contact with the broken-off limbs. The fragments are self-annealing, empathy is possible but not overt sympathy.
The various seated and reclining goddesses are by nature indifferent to our presence, making no concessions to identification. They are as stoic as the river gods in Arcady: in their water-flowing draperies their attention is alerted by more primal echoes. For Moore can engage classicism on more than one level. He can use it as a cloak to invoke status for a public work of art. These particular sculptures I find to be rather slenderly felt, great social occasions are eccentric to his aesthetic intentions. On the deepest level his works constantly imply formidable events, but they are concerned with the forces of nature rather than of man. It is as if he were on the side of the gods.
But not all his images are aloof. With the Family Groups, which do not come into this exhibition, the artist has told us that he wants these sculptures to be crawled over, handled, embraced – the artist appealing directly to children for understanding is a recurring feature of the twentieth century.
Is is not only Mediterranean paganism to which Moore’s work makes reference. Any archaic virility seems to communicate directly with him. His works make use of art history but do not interrogate it, they make statements rather than queries. And what they state is monumental and richly complex at the same time. All nature is drawn in – he photographs his own works with his own clouds and trees seemingly at his Olympian command.
The two most recent ‘Reclining Figures’, in spite of the division into related forms, are the most comprehensive and, in thie sense, the most successful of his works to date. They are made of bronze, but in sculptural terms they are both modelled and hewn, as the geological stratification they suggest is both eroded and fractured. The anthropomorphism is so balanced that the play between the human scale and the rock scale is never dissipated by visual adjustment. Their human scale is heroic, so the transposition is almost immediate. This exact coincidence of the two images also precludes a great deal of personal, subjective association on the part of the viewer. Too much personal fantasy would diminish the effect of impersonal grandeur.
These works succed in combining in one state and situation elements of Moore’s aspirations which had previously been stated singly. For one must remember that we do not altogether look at these sculptures with an innocent and trusting eye. Moore gave to modern imagery at least one new and original human image, something which as a sign and a symbol is instantly recognizable – the potato-shaped stone with a hole in it. This could not have had such an effect if it had not touched some deep common response. But as an image it became exploited; it is still being used by some to parody modern art as a whole.
Every work of monumental seriousness and pretension comes close to self-parody, and if it does not contain within itself those elements of human instinct which recognize human fallibility then someone will come along and put a moustache on it. Any significant form which is open to parody must rise above the implications that it is a cliché. Picasso, the other comparable living sculptor, forestalls ridicule by imitation by doing it himself better than his detractors could. He is seemingly more involved in the human predicament than Moore is. His attitude is Promethean rather than Olympian.