Barnett Newman, writing about the problem of a modern monumental style in sculpture (Herbert Ferber catalogue, Betty Parsons Gallery 1948) observed that “the hero in the garden has vanished as a symbol for us, and it is the linking of the heroic gesture to a hero that has led the sculptor to his dilemma. Perhaps during the Renaissance . . . a hero could have been some ideal man. Today such a notion is a mockery.” The large exhibition of Henry Moore’s sculpture of the 50s (at the Whitechapel Art Gallery) is concentrated on this very point. Moore has set cut to create an Heroic Family of Man, which consists of generalized human types, such as Warrior, Child. Woman, and Couple. As early as 1937 Moore wrote “I should like to work on large carvings more often than I do”. He carves little now but his scale is grandiose. His giant figures assert their significance by a sign-language which has led Moore far from his early work into an awkward repertoire of heroic gestures.
Moore has revied the miming of 16th and 17th century figure sculpture, as a way of making his work more public, more legible. Earlier sign-language in sculpture began with a belief in the human body as the most subtle and flexible of the works of nature. Thus, it followed naturally that gestures and expressions should add meaning and depth to the wonderful mechanics of our bodies. But Moore does not start with Renaissance-like confidence in the absoluteness of the human body. On the contrary, when he produced his best early works his figures were barely differentiated from the organic medium that held them. Raw material and made image were different states of one continuous process. As he wrote in 1934: “it is only when the sculptor works direct, when there is an active relationship with his materials, that the material can take its part in the shaping of an idea”.
Now that Moore’s figures are engaged in actual gestures (they sit, recline, stand, fall) and carry specific human details (tapering limbs, broad shoulders, five-fingered hands) he has lost his earlier organic propriety. The human attributes of pose or anatomical detail seem to grow neither out of a full mastery of the human body nor out of an intimate response to the material itself. Visitors to Documenta 2 may remember the operatic appearance of Moore’s sculptures in the Orangerie; this impression is renewed at Whitechapel. Opera, as a visual spectacle, is in continual conflict with the physical appropriateness of the character’s suitable form and all the performers tend to get lost somewhere within the total assembly. Similarily with Moore’s figures of the past decade: their gestures and poses seem less than heroic within the heroic massing. (One is somewhat reminded of the helplessness of di Chirico’s gladiators in his arena paintings of the 20s.)
In 1951 Moore stated: “I think that the most ‘alive’ painting and sculpture from now on will go more ‘humanist’, though at present there are more ‘abstract’ artists than ever (there is a natural time-lag in the work of the majority, who are following experimental artists)” It is clear from his work of the 50s that Moore did not have in mind an expressionist or an exploratory imagery of man in mind. Peter Selz, in his introduction to the catalogue of “New images of Man”, written to define an iconography shaped by anguish and individualism, wrote: “these images do not indicate the return to the human figure or the ‘new humanism’ which the advocates of the academies have longed for”. Clearly Moore is worlds apart from Bacon, Dubuffet, Giacometti, or De Kooning – to name some of Selz’s image-makers of man. One of the points at which he diverges from all of these artists is in his choice of public style, and many of Moore’s later characteristics seem to follow from this decision.
The difficulties in the way of a modern public style, based on models of alliance between the arts and architecture, between the artist and society, are well-known and usually thought to be insurmountable. Everybody knows that the 20th century has no traditional iconography, usable by the artist, legible to his contemporaries. Different explanations are given but everybody agrees that our culture is notoriously hard to summarise in heroic blocks of stones or metal casts. On the other hand, works of art privately done in the first place, acquire a supra-personal status. I cannot imagine, for example, the culture of the middle of the 20th century being discussed without some reference to Dubuffet’s and De Kooning’s women or Giacometti’s men. Works of art have a way of becoming representatives of “the age”, even if conceived, as all these are, in opposition to the idea of monumental, public art.
Jose Luis Sert, in one of those post-war symposia calling for alliances between art and architecture (“The Heart of the City”, CIAM, 8, 1952), wrote: “the works of the great modern creators of modern art are not shown in the places of public gathering, and are only known to a select few”. In trying to answer this we might get at one of the obstacles to monumental public style. What was the Tate Gallery last Summer if not “a public gathering place” to honour Picasso? The fact is, art, and modern art especially, has never been more accessible to more people than it is today. Museums, galleries, reproductions, give art a kind of currency that makes the whole world a show-case for art. In a sense all art is public, to the degree that it is communicative, and modern methods of distribution and standards of availability, have stressed this aspect of art to an unprecedented degree. Thus a desire for latter day Maestas (carried in triumph through the streets of Siena) and space age Colleonis (typifying the pride of individual power) may be beside the point. The art of the 20th century is, of course, a personal art, but access to it is made so easy that it becomes public, without any reduction of the artist’s autonomy. Simply by constant reproduction, De Kooning’s “Woman 1” became for the 50s what, say, Botticelli’s Primavera was for the later 19th century. To demand a public art is, therefore, absurd: we have one, and it is the same as the private art.
A notebook of Moore’s of the 50s (published as “Heads, Figures, Ideas”) gives some insight into the dilemma of a man who sees his art as a public humanist statement. He makes a memo to himself “not bother” about media differences but concentrate on “finding the common essentials in all kinds of sculpture”. One way of achieving these essentials is by a resolve, to quote the artist again, “to combine Sculptural form (POWER) with human sensitivity and meaning”. Other quotations are: “humanity and seriousness, nobility and experience” and “try to keep primitive power with human content”. Obviously out of the highnest motives, Moore is hoping to give his public sculptures a worthy message, a stirring content. His confident use of words like “humanity”, “seriousness”, “nobility”, “experience” seems like an effort to take hold of qualities which are not separate from the artist’s life and work. Karl Jaspers has written that “the opinion that we can know what the whole, historically of at this actual moment, really is, is fallacious”. Moore seems motivated by such a desire to symbolize the whole in his generalized, heroic, thetorical form. To quote Jaspers again: “I cannot possibly survey from without that entity [the whole] which in no circumstances whatever I can leave.” The only kind of comprehensiveness a man can claim is one rooted in his time and place and Moore seems dissatisfied with what he can reach from his own situation. As a result all he offers, despite his ambition, is a sculpture of empty Virtues.