Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Philip Hendy, ‘Art – Henry Moore’

Britain Today, no.106, 1945.

It is unlikely that the Church in Britain will ever again be the ubiquitous patron that she was in the Middle Ages. When there was only one religion here, there was work for the painter and still more work for the carver in every parish; and every cathedral was a great arts centre, where the finest music was to be heard and the most beautiful works of art were to be seen. The break with the whole medieval tradition was more thorough here than anywhere else; and the completeness of the English Protestant Reformation is probably the chief cause of the comparative crudity of our art in the later sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth. Sculpture, which had always been largely bound up with the architecture of the churches, practically disappeared.
Since the Reformation our churches have often been great works of art in themselves; but they have rarely contained any. The Puritan objection to images deprived the artist of his opportunity to propound a universal theme. How much the nobility of the theme can be seen by comparing with medieval Madonnas or Saints the figures in the only form of sculpture common in our post-Reformation churches: the sepulchral monuments. These are sumptuous and decorative, but they are rarely even in good taste.
To-day the Church of England as a whole has no art policy. Some individual Churchmen, however, are fully aware of art’s religious value. The Bishop of Chichester, whose chapel happens to contain one of the few surviving fine examples of medieval English painting, has instituted an art school in his palace; and in his diocese two schemes of mural decoration have been carried out by Duncan Grant and Hans Feibusch. The church patron with the best and boldest taste is Canon Hussey, Vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton, who has had music composed by Ben Britten, the boldest of living English composers; is commissioning a wall-painting by Graham Sutherland, whose best pictures have so far been devoted to a mystical rendering of nature; and has already had installed a Madonna by Henry Moore, who till now has been generally regarded as the English champion of “abstract” art.
Henry Moore’s Madonna is carved in Hornton, a softish stone of dull green enriched by occasional horizontal bands of rusty brown. The figures are just over life-size, and the square base of the carving is raised on a low plinth. It stands at the end of one of the shallow transepts; so that one catches a side glimpse as soon as one has entered the church. Ever since the unveiling in the summer visitors have thronged there from the town and the surrounding district and there has been excited local controversy. No wonder, for Moore’s Madonna is very different from those supplied by the ecclesiastical stores. But there is hardly less discussion among the sculptor’s many admirers. It is the first sculpture he has made in which the purely artistic ideas and harmonies are definitely subordinate to the expression of a theme, and in which there is no obscurity about the theme itself.
Its presence in a church alone proclaims it a thing of symbolic meaning. The theme implied emotion, though the emotion for which Moore has striven is grand and timeless. In a letter to Cannon Hussey he described some of the qualities for which he was seeking: “austerity” ; “nobility” ; “some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness)” ; “dignity” ; “gentleness” ; “complete ease and repose, as though the Madonna could stay in that position for ever (as, being in stone, she will have to do).”
That last parenthesis explains Moore’s fundamental principle. If he carves in stone, whatever he carves must remain stone, and must remain a carving. Whatever the material which the artist uses, he must humour it, and not outrage it; he must bring out its qualities, and not deny them. As a carver, Moore has proceeded step by step from consideration of the stone itself. His earliest works were representational, though in the broadest possible way.
Certain themes, those of Mother and Child and Reclining Woman especially, recur frequently throughout his career; but in the earliest sculptures what was inclined to dominate was the idea of the stone itself. The pleasure that we derive from their strength and simplicity is apt to be squeezed out of us again by the massiveness of the forms, by the very weight and density of the stone. Moore has freed his forms from the block out of which they are cut, has perforated them and allowed them movement only as he acquired complete knowledge of the stone’s nature. He has developed so patiently that one might almost say that he has taught the stone to lift itself.
With such preoccupations, the business of representation is apt to become more or less irrelevant. As he developed, Moore abandoned it more and more frequently to produce shapes sufficient to themselves in their rhythm and proportion, in the relation of part to part and to the whole, and, as always, in the integration of the whole with the character of the material out of which it is made. If, however, his interest in the last-named problem has assisted his progress towards “abstract” design, it has also prevented him from becoming a purist. Sometimes his shapes are arbitrary; sometimes they become a little stylized, usually when he in under the influence of one of the “primitive” traditions which have mostly influenced him: the African Negro or the Central American.
Far more often they are reminiscent of the rhythms in nature; from which and from the nature of the material they derive a strong mystical feeling most marked in the great figures carved in elm wood not long before the war. His abstractions are never due to a retirement before nature into the vacuum of good taste. He knows well that the true artist’s impulse to form derives from deep emotional associations. When he distorts the form of a reclining woman or omits in stone some fact of articulation which he would have included in a drawing from the life, what he substitutes is rarely an arbitrary statement, made for the sake of more obvious design, but usually some larger rhythm got from his wide study of the principle of growth.
It would seem from his writings that, when the war came, he believed his development was in the direction of still more abstract design. But the war, which has changed everything, has had also a profound effect upon his art. When his cottage in Kent had become uninhabitable and his London studio had been wrecked, he was forced to concentrate upon drawing; and at the same time the War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned of him the long series of Shelter Drawings which by now are probably his most famous work.
Shelter Drawings
In these he is always the sculptor. Even his most realistic figures have a stony quality and always what interests him is not the accidental gesture, however tragic it may be, but the fundamental organization of the solid forms. Nevertheless these exhausted or obdurate figures huddled together in the bowels of the earth have given him opportunities for observation such as no studio models would ever afford; and his appreciation of the richness and variety of rhythm offered by living human forms can hardly but have been increased. His stone Madonna, the first carving done since 1940, has followed upon these drawings naturally. It is the first draped figure that he has ever carved, and he has put, into the hands for instance, a more detailed study of anatomy than he has ever essayed before.
Some of Moore’s admirers have expressed their regret at this lapse from former purity. Herbert Read in a second and much enlarged monograph, which accompanies the almost complete illustration of his sculptures and reproductions of many of his drawings, has declared roundly that the preoccupation of European sculpture since the early Greek days with the problem of representation is the main cause of its collapse in the nineteenth century. Others maintain that Moore is only on the threshold of his greatest development, that the extreme simplifications of the earlier twentieth century were only a reaction, an extreme concentration upon bare fundamentals which was at best a necessary discipline on the way to the realization of more comprehensive and complete ideas. So the new stone Madonna is a test case for British art. Has anything been lost by its return to the service of the church? Or is there a gain which will help to bring the artist back into a closer relationship with his fellow men and so will ultimately enrich its content?

How to cite

Philip Hendy, ‘Art – Henry Moore’, in Britain Today, no.106, 1945, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/philip-hendy-art-henry-moore-r1173021, accessed 24 May 2024.