Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘Thoughts on Henry Moore’

Burlington Magazine, vol. 86, no. 53, February 1945, pp. 47–49.

A FEW months ago Messrs. Lund Humphries published a book on Henry Moore,1 more ambitious and more complete than any brought out in England for a very long time on the work of one individual sculptor. This is as it should be; for England has not for a very long time possessed a sculptor as inspired, as independent and as consistent as Henry Moore.
This volume, produced with the most meticulous care2 and containing besides an introduction of 24 pages well over 250 excellently printed illustrations of which 14 are in colour, is a great achievement of British publishing after five years of shortages and controls.
The introduction is by Herbert Read, a nature dissertation on principles of aesthetics, principles of sculpture, and the development and characteristics of Henry Moore’s style. It is condensed writing, with no word put in but after exacting consideration. There are plenty of revolutionary statements, and I propose dealing with them as I go along in the discussion of Henry Moore’s work and its stirring and baffling qualities.3
There can be little doubt that he is the greatest British sculptor now alive – serious, intense, highly susceptible to shape in nature, yet never swayed by nature from his own purposes – an untiring searcher, but also an achiever. As to his achievement I take what some critics will regard as a conservative view. To me the acme of his work up-to-date is the Northampton Madonna. Herbert Read, on the other hand, seems to feel just a very little uncomfortable about it. I shall come to this presently. Looking back from the summit of the Northampton image at the course of Henry Moore’s development, one can see it clear and distinct, though with manifold windings and manifold reactions to varying circumstances. His work ranges from the human figure as easily recognizable as in the North Wind from the Underground Building to the string composition which has no other tie with the appearance of individual objects around us than title Bird Basket. The range of his media goes from many kinds of stone and many kinds of timbers to lead, terracotta, concrete, watercolour and chalks. But he had not the break-neck versatility of, for instance, Mr. Epstein. His personal idiom is ever perceptible, and it is one and the same however sensitively he may react to circumstances. The Mask of 1924, the first plate in the book, has it already, and it is essentially still the same in the recent clay sketches, the last of the plates – an elusive and ever fascinating idiom of bulging and receding matter, surging up in firm parabolic forms or in forms reminiscent of fleshy tentacles, and flowing back into caves deeply scooped out if not tunnelled right through. It is an idiom wholly of nature but hardly anywhere fully of human nature, rarely beautiful but always significant. It is every inch sculptural and every inch sincere, the result evidently of concentrated feeling and of long and tenacious solitary thought.
But it is a solitary art, which bewilders the public, not only because “the public are not worthy of the sculpture,” but also because no “spontaneous give-and-take of inspiration and appreciation” can at any time exist between any public and a sculptor who concerns himself so exclusively with “demented existence” (to use Henri Focillon’s term). There can be no resounding echo to the statements of an artist apparently so little in sympathy with the individual man, woman and child.
But are we entitled to deny Henry Moore such sympathy? May it not be that it is there, but that he refuses it that direct access to his art which we are used to finding in the works of sculptors of the past? And may he not be right in this? Herbert Read for one thinks so. “Sculpture,” we read, “is the creation of solid forms which give aesthetic pleasure. . . They arise and are proliferated by laws which are formal and not representational ... Nothing, in the history of art, is so fatal as the representational fallacy.”
Herbert Read condemns the sculpture of the last centuries, the sculpture between the Renaissance and Rodin, for this reason. But he should go further. He should include Rheims and Chartres, and Autun and Moissac, and a good deal of what he himself illustrates. Nobody denies that in admiration of art in the past much has been associational. Eighteenth century philosophers discovered that, and it has not been forgotten since. The importance of associational values may have been overrated in Ruskin’s time. But Ruskin was to my mind not much further off the mark than those critics who now insist on an exclusively aesthetic consideration of art. Admittedly a strong dose of aestheticism was, and perhaps still is, needed in Britain to neutralize Ruskin. But an antidote is not necessarily the healthiest of nourishments. The truth, I submit, is that while the specific values of a piece of good sculpture are formal, i.e. measurable only by aesthetic criteria, a piece of good sculpture should have others besides its aesthetic values as well. If it has not, it will be pure, but it may easily be poor. We are entirely in our rights, if we admire that slim yet strong body of the Etruscan warrior illustrated in Herbert Read’s Introduction, as a body and as pure form. The congruity between natural appearance and form is precisely what has made the work of great sculptors of the past great. This applies to Bernini no more than to the carver of the Chichester reliefs. If, as it happens in so much academic and fashionable sculpture of the nineteenth century, that congruity is not accomplished, if the nude is admired qua nude exclusively, and not qua form as well, then of course the sculptor has failed.
Now Henry Moore knows that. Herbert Read indeed appears at first sight plus royaliste que le roi. Henry Moore says of his Northampton Madonna that he intended to endow the figure with “austerity, nobility, and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) and with a quiet dignity and gentleness . . .a sense of complete easiness and repose.” Herbert Read quotes this statement and qualifies it like this : “. . . all qualities which can be immediately related to formal values.” His summing-up is : “Every intellectual virtue or emotional tone must be given an aesthetic justification.” But what remains of his indictment of the “fatal representational fallacy,” once he is ready to accept associational values, wherever they are “immediately related to formal values”? That is, it seems to me, exactly what the sculptor of the St. Theodore of Chartres did, and what Michelangelo did, while Henry Moore in the majority of his figures refuses to do it.
For what he wrote as his Credo ten years ago (Unit One, 1934) sounds different from what he has now said about the Northampton Madonna. He maintained then that sculpture ought to depend entirely on “vitality of its own, not reflection of the vitality of life, of physical action, frisking, dancing figures ...” Here, I think, Henry Moore unduly restricts the range of legitimate effects in a work of sculpture. The vitality of the Delphi Charioteer is sculptural, i.e. formal, vitality, but the fact that it is just and no other formal vitality is due to a process in the artist’s imagination which was set to work by a charioteer’s and not by a ballet dancer’s vitality, and which can only be reproduced in the onlooker’s imagination with any degree of precision, if the appearance of the Charioteer’s form offers a clue. Not only will it help the common man’s understanding, if he has the visible peculiarities of the Charioteer to guide him, but the associational and the aesthetic qualities will indeed enhance each other so that the final result is a fuller and more intense emotional pleasure than that attainable by aesthetic (or associational) values alone.
Thus I contend that Henry Moore had limited the response to his work for reasons of an arbitrary aesthetic purism. What he had achieved in spite of the self-imposed limitations is all the more worthy of admiration. In a piece such as the Reclining Figure at the Buffalo Museum (1936; fig. 83) a block of elm wood is hollowed out and pierced in such a way that an immensely suggestive interplay of solids and voids takes place. The grain of the timber underlines forward and backward movements and at the same time the unity of the entire mass. The movements feel convincingly like those of a live body with weight where our sense of stability demands it and perforation where no inert matter must stand. Head, breasts and limbs are indicated just sufficiently to keep our associational faculties at play.
The title Reclining Figure alone would of course have done that, and it is noteworthy that Henry Moore nearly always chooses titles for his sculpture more specific than Composition and the like. For Henry Moore has at no time ever been an abstract artist, although he has done abstract work. The particular emotional qualities of his work are determined by nothing more decisively than by his refusal to sacrifice natural appearance entirely. On the other hand natural appearance is nearly everywhere reduced to conveying a vitality, lower than that of the human (or the animal) body.
Nearly all Henry Moore’s figures and groups have this in common that the forms of higher life are converted into something overwhelmingly suggestive of lower life, of the blind growth of roots, of vertebrae or even cartilage, or of the passive suffering of the pebble gradually eroded by the slow action of water and sand. Now Michelangelo had also a deep feeling for nature in her inarticulate growth, for rock as rock; and in carving his figures he often left it unhewn or hardly hewn around them. But in his Aurora that rock has a second function besides : the function of expressing the travail of Day, that is full consciousness, arising. In Henry Moore’s figures there is powerful existence, but never action. Michelangelo has action – hemmed in by crushing resistance, but action all the same. Man in Michelangelo has the freedom to act. Man in Moore is not fit to act. Limbs often are tapered like stumps, heads often excessively small. The affinity with primeval animal stages, with dinosaurs, the diplodocus in particular, is not accidental. It is a groping towards the elementary, the pre-conscious. And there can be no doubt that this preference for pre-human vitality – in so far as it indicates an outlook on life behind the forms once more severely cuts down Henry Moore’s potential public.
Now this is all that I would have had to say, if it were not for Henry Moore’s work during the last three years or so. In the Northampton Madonna and the watercolours of Shelterers and Miners the jobs themselves, once the artist had accepted them, forced him into a reconsideration of his theories of 1934. The result in theory has been quoted above. For the result in practice we have to thank Canon J. Rowden Hussey on the one hand, and the War Artists’ Committee on the other. The commissions of the War Artists’ Committee have been a great gain to British art. They have shown up mediocrity, but they have also opened to a number of genuine artists avenues which, without the stimulus of very specific commissions, they might never have explored. This applies to John Piper, to Kenneth Rowntree, and it applies, in my opinion, very much to Henry Moore.
There is in the Shelter drawings a more direct and a more common emotional theme than in the previous works of the sculptor. This theme has enabled him to touch cords which were bound to remain mute or muffled before. “Abandoned to their misery,” Herbert Read calls the Shelterers. That is true, and it is eminently revealing of the artist’s character and feelings. Just as true a record of the tube shelters in the lives of Londoners could have been drawn by artists such as Mr. Bawden or Eric Ravilious, and would have remembered in years to come the warmth and fug and good fellowship of this anomalous and huddled existence. There would not have been less truth and less sincerity in this interpretation than in Henry Moore’s – on the face of it perhaps more. Ask the shelterers and they would not know of the infinite desolation which Henry Moore has seen. But then, he would see them in the watching crowds at a football match as well. He sees deeper than Eric Ravilious, but like Michelangelo’s his depth is lonely.
Besides, what he did discover in the Tubes, was only a re-discovery. Again he found below the visible forms of these inert sleepers a sub-human newt-like existence. No human beauty, no human pride, and certainly no ratio is left in them. But we cannot say that Henry Moore abandons mankind to this cavernous gloom without sympathy and commiseration.
If it is right to assume such a sympathetic pessimism as the root of Henry Moore’s work, then an explanation may be possible of what to most students of it remains the most intractable problem. Why did he not at some stage abandon human representation altogether? Why did he not develop similarly to e.g. Mr. Gabo who began with a piece such as the Head in sheet metal shown by Herbert Read and then went on to the more recent metal and celluloid constructions? Why does Henry Moore go on insisting on a hard core of humanity? The answer, if my interpretation of the Shelterers is acceptable, would be that the born abstract artist is a law-giver, not one who patiently listens. Henry Moore does; his note-books show how he lets forms grow. But in growing they lose their humanistic values, and they lose all their freedom of action. The power they gain is blind and awful. Is it the only power which we can express to-day without giving up sincerity? I am inclined to answer No, and to call upon the Northampton statue as my witness.
Henry Moore : Sculpture and Drawings. Introduction by Herbert Read. 44 pp. (25 ill.) + 300 pl. (Lund Humphries and A. Zwemmer). £3 3s.
It is only in appreciation of the care taken over every detail that I wish to express a few doubts on typographical matters. Is Perpetua really the right character for the title on the jacket? I would have thought something of the Beton-Luxor character might have been more in keeping with the work of Henry Moore. The chapter titles (in, I think, Erbar) have got that quality, but the captions strike me as a little oversized.
Wherever it is not specially mentioned, passages in inverted commas come from Dr. Read’s Introduction.

How to cite

Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘Thoughts on Henry Moore’, in Burlington Magazine, vol. 86, no. 53, February 1945, pp. 47–49, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/nikolaus-pevsner-thoughts-on-henry-moore-r1173013, accessed 24 May 2024.