The new Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain aims to show a darker, edgier, sexier side to the sculptor’s work.
Jill Glenn explores some hidden depths…
So… We all know the work of Henry Moore… Or do we? His name calls up monumental pieces in open spaces, public art for parkland settings or urban jungles – but here at Tate Britain is Moore as many people will not have seen him before. Indeed, says Chris Stephens, co-curator (along with Michael Parke-Taylor of the Art Gallery of Ontario) of the exhibition, here is Moore for a new generation. Stephens has had this show in his mind for around 20 years – since not long after the artist’s death in 1986, in fact – and it’s been officially in the planning for the last five or six years. He has long been asking himself the question: when will it be right to re-evaluate Moore? The answer, it seems, is now. Stephens is aware, he says, of an undercurrent in the art world that just doesn’t take the twentieth century’s pre-eminent artist seriously enough. His aim, with this ambitious show that will go on from here to Ontario, is to put that right, and he and Parke-Taylor have sourced work from public and private collections world-wide to support an interpretation that some may find controversial.
This is, therefore, not the Henry Moore of the massive scale of his later years, although it does include some pieces originally designed for siting outdoors. Rather this is early Moore – focusing on the 1920s to the 1960s – smaller works, generally, with multiple influences; ideas forming, rather than already formed… you can almost see them coalescing as he moves from piece to piece; much informed by the years in which they were made. Tumultuous times, the mid-twentieth century, for those who lived through them and whose artistic response was shaped by them.
Context is everything. Stephens wants to bring out the sense of claustrophobia, the narrowness, the turmoil: the post-World War I and pre-World War II experiences, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the development of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the nuclear threat. Moore, the seventh child of a Yorkshire coalminer, was a veteran of the first war, gassed at Cambrai, and a pacifist as a result; his political sympathies were left-wing (there’s even a suggestion that he was a member of the Communist party); he was a supporter of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, and a founding member of CND.
In a cultural landscape profoundly influenced by the trauma of war and conflict, Moore’s art was engaging with some significant artistic, intellectual and political issues, and, according to Chris Stephens, with “new ideas of sexuality and the body”, against an emerging framework of psycho-analysis and surrealism. Challenging times indeed. As early as the 1920s he was acknowledged as radical, experimental and avant-garde.
Moore was in pursuit of both artistic freedom and formal innovation, and his frames of reference were extensive. He spent time studying the artistic output of ‘primitive’ societies, and his notebooks reveal the sources of his early inspiration – from Egyptian to Peruvian, from African to Oceanic. Room One of the exhibition, entitled ‘World Cultures’, is where we see multiple influences beginning to come to fruition. And ‘fruition’ seems to be exactly the right term: these have so evidently grown out of fertility totems from beyond the dawn of time. There are Renaissance influences, too, though, and, of course, increasing abstraction. Erotic? Well…
As I trailed round the exhibition in a pack of journalists, hanging on Chris Stephens’s every word, I did find myself frustrated by the intensity of his interpretation – all this eroticism, all this claustrophobia, shoe-horned into his every explanatory sentence. I muttered crossly. A lot. But – and it’s a big but – once you’ve seen it, you can’t ignore it; once you’ve seen it, you wonder, actually, how you ever missed this aspect of Moore. His own words support the interpretation too, some of them writ large upon the walls here for all to read. “The fullness of form, the tautness of form, all these things are connected with life, and life is sex”. It’s a bit reductive, certainly, but it does key you in.
Moore’s ‘mother fixation’ (in his own words, his most ‘fundamental obsession’) is richly demonstrated throughout all these rooms, as it was, of course, throughout all his career. The natural eroticism of the mother-child relationship is fully exploited. With a predictable nod to psychology, there’s a suggestion that the long childless period at the start of his marriage (it was 17 years before his only child, Mary, was born) influenced his preoccupation with this. In truth, though, the reasons don’t matter. What does matter is the result.
Whatever you make of the interpretation, it is the work that counts. Either you like it, or, in the company of Brian Sewell, you don’t. If you do, then you will find this to be a stunning show, with a breathtaking selection of sculptured pieces in a vast range of materials that you just yearn to touch, along with works on paper. They speak for themselves, and that is enough.
The final room returns to large scale and immediate impact: here are four of the six pieces that Moore made from elmwood. In themselves they are stunning; their purpose here is to illustrate ‘truth to materials’, and Moore’s fundamental ability to work with grain and form. They do seem out of place here, though; a hint at the Moore we’re supposed to be overlooking in favour of a darker, more complex man.
If Chris Stephens’s enthusiasm for his own viewpoint is anything to go by, then visitors familiar with Moore’s best-known pieces – reclining figures, family groups, predominantly in bronze and characterised by flowing, organic forms – will come away with an entirely new perspective on the man whose art dominated the twentieth century. Those whose first experience of Henry Moore this is will perceive him entirely differently from the start.
And he’s a hard man to pin down. Terms such as ‘organic’ and ‘fluid’ imply softness, for example; although the words are true, the conclusion is inadequate: as critic Bryan Robertson said, as long ago as 1960, Moore is ‘anything but gentle’.
Six rooms. Forty years. It’s a big ask… and, on the whole, Stephens and Parke-Taylor give a good answer. Beautifully displayed, almost overwhelming in its extent, and, despite the inevitable repetition of forms and themes, in its diversity, Henry Moore should go a long way towards rehabilitating a surprisingly fragile reputation.
Henry Moore continues at Tate Britain until 8 August.
See www.tate.org.uk/britain or call 020 7887 8888.