MUCH has already been written in Britain To-day about Henry Moore and his sculpture. But not enough to excuse the omission of an attempt to discuss the present exhibition of his work; for this must be the chief event of the year in the chronicles of contemporary British art. It is a retrospective exhibition of sculpture and drawings, dating from 1923, when Moore was twenty-five and a student at the Royal College of Art in London. It opened in April in the City Art Gallery at Wakefield, the capital of his native county, the West Riding of Yorkshire, a few miles from the small colliery town of Castleford, where he was born.
From Wakefield the exhibition went on to Manchester, where it remains at the City Art Gallery until July 17th. After that, the British Council will send it abroad for a long tour of the Continent, where the demand to see Moore’s work has grown importunate since he won the award as the best sculptor at last year’s Biennial International Exhibition in Venice. The Continental Exhibition opens at Brussels on October 21st. It will be larger than the present exhibition by the addition of at least one large “reclining figure” in stone, from the Tate Gallery, and of casts from the stone group now permanently established in Battersea Park. The Council also hopes to add the two big “reclining figures” in elm and stone from the Onslow Ford Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It is a pity that there was not space in the Present exhibition for one of these large figures; for in these alone one can estimate to the full the grandeur of Moore’s conception. They are too large, however, for indoor exhibition, not only in body but in spirit. Controlled as their composition is by a powerful mind, which is governed in turn by one of the best balanced and happiest of temperaments, they nevertheless have a wildness, a relation to the elemental forces of Nature which make them need landscape for their setting.
Moore is no romantic brooder over Nature. He does not tramp in solitude over the Alpine passes like Turner, or even roam the English lake district like Wordsworth. He seems quite content with the homely agricultural country round his old farmstead in Hertfordshire, within easy distance of London. Here he rarely goes for a walk; while for an Englishman he is remarkably sociable, on easy terms with all he meets and in positive need of society. Yet I can think of no other artist, painter or sculptor, whose work shows so much sympathy with Nature’s elemental forms, with downs swept naked by the wind, with bottoms ground smooth by the primeval ice, with water-worn rocks and water-hollowed caves.
His love of natural shapes is one with his sympathy with his material. He has never been guilty of satisfaction with the objet trouvé. His sympathy with Nature precludes any glee at the discovery and exhibition of her own macabre distortions. He has, at one stage in his evolution, taken little pieces of ironstone which Nature had already moulded, and completed her work by filing and boring, engraving and polishing them into works of art. But by so doing he has imposed his will, and given them a purpose, the very thing that the objet trouvé so conspicuously lacks.
These ironstone carvings of his are part of his scheme of coaxing Nature into co-operation, the extreme of his refusal to distort his material, of his determination that Nature shall always be there, that she shall always play a part in his creations. “Truth to material” – his phrase – is the essence of his creed. The great variety of substances which he has worked is no display of virtuosity, but a proof of the fundamental quality of his interest in form.
This basic interest in form and material, as one, has made Moore turn back upon the whole anthropomorphic, representational tradition of classical Greece and Renaissance Italy. He believes that the Greeks of the fifth century were able to combine so much true sculptural feeling with their representation of personal human beauty only because of the strength that they were drawing from the much older tradition in which intrinsic, non-representational qualities of form and material came first.
It is indeed ironical that for centuries Greek sculpture has been admired for the inward-glowing beauty of the marble, a beauty which the Greeks themselves had originally covered for the most part with illusionist colours. Moore has found more “truth to material” and a deeper, because more instinctive, understanding of form in the sculpture of “primitive” peoples. In Mexican art above all, which is richly represented in the British Museum, he found his ideal of a truly three-dimensional conception of form combined with sensitiveness to the qualities of the stone, nice appreciation of the strength and the limitations of its texture. The masks which are among his earliest and the first large “reclining figures” of 1929 (Leeds) and 1930 (Mr. Peter Watson) are plainly influenced by Mexican work.
In the second of these “reclining figures” especially Moore distorts the human form not, as a Bandinelli or a Bologna did, to make it surpass any living human beings by superhuman exaggerations of their typical physique but by leaving the stony quality of the stone to tell of its own weight and strength, and by seeking out and exaggerating those elements in the attitude and structure of the body which will suggest at the same time primeval movements of Nature: the downward sag of valleys, the upward thrust of hills.
In by far the greater part of Moore’s conceptions the human figure is his starting point. But to portray either persons or ideal types would be to deny to his wood or stone too many of its own qualities and to himself too many exciting possibilities of three-dimensional design which the very structure and attitude of the forms themselves may suggest.
He treats the human form with every degree of freedom. At one time he will take the mother’s protective embrace of her child and merely simplify and exaggerate, so that the stone stands for this elemental relationship only more emphatically and more universally than it could if it were chiseled into a more detailed and normally proportioned group. At another the tree or rock has been carved into a monstrous anatomy half woman and half landscape. Who knows what elemental emotions have stirred this rhythmic ebb and flow of form which links the tunnelled hollow with the swelling boss? Man came to life through woman, and in her loses and finds himself again. She is always there in his relation to Nature. And, as one stands beside this woman who still seems to exist as the presiding spirit in the wood or stone, one can send one’s mind for a walk over sweeping downland and into caves by the sea.
This is a bold enlargement of the very sphere of sculpture, akin to the sudden development of landscape-painting in the fifteenth century. It is made possible only by the equally bold strides that Moore has taken in the control of form. His earlier carvings are solid masses; he was content to give power to his forms by sheer weight and density. But he soon began to free them, to open them out by making full use of the hollow as well as of the round. He discovered the beauty of the space inside the form. By boring right through he drew the forms inward towards the other side, elaborating the movement, emphasizing again the third dimension. He let the light through.
Above all, perhaps, this tunnelling into the form refines and complicates the play of light. In pictures the form depends upon an illusion of light of the artist’s own creation, and there is no limit to the spatial extreme of this illusion or the subtlety with which the painter can make the light seem to play over his forms. Form and light are one; and the light on his figures is fixed by the painter for ever.
The sculptor has no illusion to create. The third dimension is there in his material; and so is the light, surrounding it. From the same block of stone the weak or the strong sculptor can make something which seems to have little substance and meaning or something which has infinite power and purpose. These things the blind man could feel, who can get nothing by contact with a picture. Nevertheless, he must miss one of the great beauties of Moore’s sculpture, the play of the light in and out of his forms. This is perhaps the first thing that strikes one on walking into a room full of his sculptures. One feels the activity of the light almost before one is aware of the nature and meaning of the forms.