Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Robert Melville, ‘Henry Moore and the Siting of Public Sculpture’

Architectural Review, February 1954.

Several sculptures were approaching completion when I visited Henry Moore on a build, damp day in 1953. The studios could not contain them all, and some large figures in Portland stone and plaster were out in the open. Their pallor caused the light to glitter in a way which usually precedes a storm, and they gave off a silence so dense that the noise of carpenters making a wooden template in the yard seemed to come from across the fields. The scene was in harmony with Moore’s views on the placing of sculpture, for in 1951 he wrote: ‘Sculpture is an art of the open air. Daylight, sunlight is necessary to it, and for me its best setting and complement is nature. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know.’
Stone sculpture was probably uppermost in his mind when he made this statement, and anyone who has seen the heads and shoulders of his Battersea Park group, honey coloured and rotund, thrusting into the blue of a summer sky, is bound to go part of the way with him. But the spectacle of stone in sunlight is too intermittent ever to become a ruling factor in our environment. Moore himself now works much more frequently in bronze than in stone, and bronze does not share stone’s capacity for basking in the sun. Indeed, the lean figure in green bronze which was exhibited at Battersea Park in 1951 only came into its own on bad days. In fine weather it was a ‘difficult’ structure whose acid green colouring, which had not then been modified by exposure, gave it a stridently avant garde appearance. But with an admirable premonition of its needs, the Panel responsible for the arrangement of the exhibition had placed it heron-like on the grass verge of the pool, and on the days when it rained and a mist crept over the surface of the pool a queer uneasy life mounted through its knotty forms, and, wavering between earth, air and water, it seemed to emblemize the pathos and predicament of life too restless ever to be in its element. If it could have stayed there as a permanent feature of the park it would have been profoundly complementary to the Three Standing Figures: when the one slept the other would have been awake, for the stone from which the Three Standing Figures is carved, so lively and beautiful in sunlight, goes the colour of khaki in wet weather.
Sculpture in the open air will not make Britain look like a Mediterranean land, but as Professor Pevsner has said, it provides ‘a set of sculptural quality’ even if the work is not intended for the outdoors. When Manzù’s young ballet dancer seated on a bronze replica of a rush-bottomed chair was exhibited at Battersea she seemed likely to catch her death of cold since she was sitting in a puddle of water most of the time, but she passed the rest of unrestricted light without difficulty. This is an obvious example of indoor sculpture, but there are sculptures which one would have thought were perfectly suited to a park setting which in one way or another are belittled by an exposed position, although their sculptural quality is not in doubt. The naturalism of Rodin’s St. John the Baptist, for instance, needs the unnatural setting of an indoor museum if the mind’s eye is to see him striding naked through the world; in the open air museum he is reduced to striding about a park, and his hurry seems excessive and turns him into a distant relative of the White Rabbit. One would certainly expect Marini’s horses and riders to look at home in the open, yet they have only to be slightly under life size to look a bit lost on a stretch of lawn; they need a sharply defined space – a courtyard or a small campo – before they look their best. This doesn’t however tell us much about the problem of scale, because, although works which are very much smaller than life size tend to look trivial in the open, there are a few, such as Modigliani’s formalized heads, or Giacometti’s groups of walking figures, that are quite unaffected. Probably it is the content of a sculpture as distinct from its subject –the content being the unpredictable outcome of the formal treatment of the subject – which gives us our sense of the fitness or otherwise of a setting. This might well explain why Moore’s work is never incongruous in the open: his early doctrine of truth to material still conditions his forms, and the human subject emerges not only as effigy but as the ‘looking outwards’ of stone, wood and clay.
The first cast of his bronze of two seated figures called King and Queen has been acquired by the Burgomaster of Antwerp for the open air museum at Middelheim Park. Other works which the Burgomaster has recently purchased for permanent exhibition in the open are by Rodin, Maillol, Despiau, Gargallo, Marini and Manzù, and I understand that there is a building in the park which will be used for the exhibition of figurines. This is an ambitious and wholly admirable extension of the kind of show that has been so successful at Battersea, and, to judge from the works already acquired, Middelheim Park is on the way to becoming one of the most important museums of contemporary sculpture in Europe.
Moore’s King and Queen is ideal park sculpture, but should have a long prospect of lawn in front of it, without other sculpture intervening, for the figures are watching an invisible procession or display, and their gaze should be expended on the air. It is Moore’s finest achievement since the war, and probably the most graceful of all his works. It is a resolution of a conflict between a static, hieratic approach and a dynamic, humanist one, and it has all the lovely, lilting composure reserved for those rare works in which equally deep-rooted and mutually exclusive inclinations flow freely together. The unusual title is a reflection of its remarkable content. If Moore had followed his usual practice this group would have been given a name which referred to the subject: it would have been something non-committal, like ‘Two Seated Figures’, because in the ordinary way the attempt to extract a name from the content only gives a false impression of symbolism. But in this case the processes of formal invention have brought into the open an aspect of the content sufficiently explicit to be namable without harming the layers of meaning. These two slender young figures are set apart by their high skill in deportment: the regality of their bearing does not depend upon stateliness; they are virtuosos of a reserved informality, and look through us with a lively concern.
Moore’s vision is essentially that of a carver, founded on a cutting through to form, and his modelled figures, made by a contrary process, do not pursue the more demonstrative possibilities of the armature. So although his King and Queen have a liveliness and a potentially snake-like quickness of movement which is the reverse of a static conception, they are characterised, like his carved figures, by an awareness of being alive which they do not need to demonstrate in overt action. The head of the King is an extraordinary invention, a kind of bone structure embracing bird-beak, helmet and crown, which suggests that the frequent wearing of some archaic mask of kingship has so modified the living features that the mask has become redundant. But magic and terror are only lightly touched upon, and if the King is watching a concourse of slaves pass by in chains the graceful young patroness of charities seated beside him is obviously watching a point-to-point or a nice demonstration of loyalty, and she is a kind of guarantee that the King will not peck out the hearts of his subjects.
The open-air museums are the Whipsnades of sculpture. They are intended as a kindness to sculpture, and have one inestimable advantage over the indoor museums: they eliminate the malaise that lies in wait for us wherever rows of artifacts are set out in rooms for our inspection and edification. It seems reasonably certain that other municipalities will follow Antwerp’s enlightened example. The LCC will be holding its 1954 open-air exhibition of sculpture in the grounds of Holland Park, where walls and courtyards will come into play. It may or may not prove to be a better setting than Battersea, but he apparent willingness of the authorities to experiment in the parks in heartening, for there does not seem to be a more effective way of stimulating public interest in contemporary sculpture.
Moore’s King and Queen requires a ceremonious setting of a kind which only formal park-land can provide, but when Moore was writing about landscape settings he was thinking not so much of parks as of downs, fields and heathland, where sculpture would be encountered unexpectedly. The Standing Figure which stood for a while in Battersea Park has been acquired by a Scottish collector, and now stands on an outcrop of rock in open country at Shawhead in Dumfriesshire. It is arguable that it leads a less restricted life there than if it were in a museum: it is not an exhibit but a queer landmark which can be closely examined and still retain the unexaminable look of an apparition. In a museum this bronze would be interesting, to quote the catalogue of his Tate retrospective, as a realization of Moore’s desire to create ‘opened-out sculpture that is neither a mass pierced by voids, nor linear structure in space’, but in its present situation it is a reminder that the sculptor desires above all things to create an active presence. If the other two casts of Standing Figure could join it there, not sharing its rock, but standing beside it on the ground, the group thus formed would be the first realization of the dream of a ‘free community’ of sculpture that so persistently haunts Moore’s drawings and gives them their unique status in contemporary graphic art.
The set of carvings made for the Bond Street façade of the Time-Life building is nor a free community in this sense, but the suggestiveness of number is nevertheless potent: one of these huge stones would be memorable enough in Bond Street; four of them constitute a mission or delegation from a world where time and life are measured by the throwing up and casting down of mountain ranges, for Moore has taken advantage of this commission to put an emphasis upon the stoniness of stone even greater than in the period of his entire preoccupation with weight and mass. A complete awareness of the elephantine bulk of these carvings is unfortunately limited to those who have seen them in the sculptor’s garden: they need to be base not much more than a yard above ground level to be seen in depth, and in Bond Street, two storeys up, their warm and weighty grandeur can only be glimpsed to the architect who persuaded Moore to make so remarkable and excursion into architectural sculpture. The germ of this set of carvings can be found in a drawing by Moore which is dated 1937; in other words, it comes from a region of the imagination where stranger and vaster plans for sculpture have been laid, and if one such dream of sculptural assemblies can find its way into actuality there seems no reason why other should not follow.
The bronze of a reclining female figure in the terrace garden of the same building has the calm alertness of his reclining figures in stone, and like them gives out ‘something of the energy and power of mountains’, and the inventive treatment of the drapery even intensifies one’s sense of being in the presence of a nature goddess, for it is achieved with countless nodules and runnels of bronze which bear a striking resemblance to aerial views of Himalayan snow slopes.
The plaster model of this figure was in one of the studios when I was down at Moore’s place. Other work was going on there, and she had been moved to one side and was staring at one of the walls. As if absorbed by boundlessness, she had raised herself on her elbows to stare at the horizon, and the situation in which we found her would have been disturbing if the sculptor had not immediately changed the position of the stand, so that she could stare through the open door. Moore had been careful to find a situation on the Time-Life garden terrace that gives the bronze version an unimpeded view along Bruton Street.
Some figures need and open prospect. Others seem happy enough in an enclosed place. There is a small hut close to Moore’s studios, in which he keeps maquettes and small bronzes. They stand on shelves and in glass cases all round the room. I saw not only maquettes of all the things he was working on, but small helmet heads and reclining figures in bronze, animal heads modelled in wax, many enigmatic figurines which were in the nature of notes for sculpture, and a fine bronze of a naked warrior, only a few inches high, but monumental in spirit. In the centre of the room stood a terracotta version of the female figure from the King and Queen. She is considerably smaller than the figures in the bronze group – about three feet high, I should say – and she was on a wooden stand which brought her to eye level. In this confined place, not much bigger than a store cupboard, she was too impressive as an effigy to allow one to give much thought to the sculptor’s figurative inventiveness or to the skill with which so difficult a piece had been fired. It was as if one had broken into the tomb of a Queen who had died young and had been surrounded by mementoes of the life of her times to keep her company in eternity. The effect of animation and subdued splendor in that very commonplace little hut was quite miraculous, and it suggested that the provision of deep recesses in the sculpture galleries of museums could bring the large and small works of an artist or a period into illuminating juxtaposition.
The magic that can suddenly invest works of sculpture when the conditions of the studio produce accidental tableaux was underlined for me when I went into Moore’s second studio where a large tree-trunk, lying on a bed of its own chippings, was beginning to take the shape of a ten-feet-high vertical form, which is to enclose another, separate form. Although it has other and perhaps more obvious associations, Moore himself relates this conception of one form within another to the fascination of the hollow tree considered as a hiding-place. His original intention was to make a 6ft. bronze, but when he came across the tree in a timber yard at Bishop’s Stortford its relevance to his theme was too evident to be ignored. So the 6ft. plaster model that had been prepared for a bronze cast is now the maquette for a wood carving. The hollowed-out tree-trunk resembled a primitive boat, and while we ran our hands over its strong, thick flanks the man-sized maquette stood watchful in a corner, giving me the sense of being an intruder; and once again I had the feeling that the fantasy in Moore’s drawings was knocking at the door of actuality.
The significant statuary of our time serves no sacred, commemorative or symbolic purpose, and has practically no validity as architectural decoration. It has to be valued as a community within the community, whose members, subtle and potent presences, rise about us at strategic points, and to all architects who perceive the possibilities of the psychological use of sculpture I would recommend an examination of the unique and magical documents on the subject to be found in Henry Moore’s drawings.
The illustrations in Robert Melville’s article are as follows (captions are provided in the original style):
Image caption: 1, Moore’s terrace-screen on the Bond Street façade of the Time-Life building, the architect of which was Michael Resenauer.]
Image caption: 2, detail of a drawing dated 1937, on which Moore based his preliminary studies for the Time-Life carvings.
In his treatment of the hands, 5, of the female figure in the bronze called King and Queen. Moore has reverted to the simplified realism employed in the modelling of the feet, but not in evidence elsewhere. Gracefully cupped in the lap, the hands express a dignity and pathos which powerfully modifies the pertness expressed by the inventive forms of the head. The head of the male figure, G, is one of Moore’s most fantastic inventions, and introduces an element of magic and cruelty; it sends a ripple of avidity through; the sleek, drumtight volumes of the torso and invigorates the entire figure. The reclining figure cast in 1953 for the terrace of the Time-Life building is another of Moore’s works which demands an open prospect. The lifted gaze, 7, calls for an expanse of sky and the raising of the body, 8, gives the nostalgia for horizons a kind of tranquil urgency. A nature goddess has always lurked with the forms of Moore’s reclining figures, many of which tend to evoke a landscape of hills and valleys, but his brilliant treatment of the drapery of this bronze has enabled him to bring her into a close association with the very texture of wind-blown, rain-drenched earth.
In his drawings, Moore has persisted with statuary in lonely, inaccessible places, making photographs of his own sculpture taken in the open, and as far as possible from signs of human habitation. Another draped reclining figure, 9, discloses place her deep in the countryside. The sculpture to be given a permanent place in the country includes the bronze Standing Figure. It is at Shawhead, Dumfriesshire. Also Internal and External Forms, at the sculptor’s own studio at Much Hadham. Henry Moore and the plaster maquette for a wood-carving and his daughter are seen in the background 11. Moore’s monumental Warrior, 12, is in factory bronze which the sculptor cast himself working on a much larger version.
Image caption: 13, a terracotta version of the female figure in the King and Queen. The size of this figure and the radical changes of volume, from the bulk of the chest to the thinness of the wrists, made the successful firing of this work something of a tour de force.
An exhibition of Henry Moore’s work opens on February 11th for one month at the Leicester Galleries.]

How to cite

Robert Melville, ‘Henry Moore and the Siting of Public Sculpture’, in Architectural Review, February 1954, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/robert-melville-henry-moore-and-the-siting-of-public-sculpture-r1173022, accessed 24 April 2024.