Henry Moore: A Study of His Life and Work
Henry Moore: The Life and Work of a Great Sculptor
To have somehow become the favorite sculptor of the Philistines is not the worst fate that can befall a modern artist. Among its many benefits, it permits a sculptor, who is likely to face immoderate expenses if he works steadily on an ambitious scale, to go on making sculpture. Yet it is a fate guaranteed to induce a certain discomfort—if not in the artist himself, then in those who have followed his accomplishments with more than routine attention and respect. However much we may have disabused ourselves of the cant about the great artist being the least appreciated in his lifetime, no matter how distant we may feel from the old avant-garde pieties that once lent a certain credence to this cant, the suspicion persists that an artist whose name is always first on the lips of every dim-witted cultural entrepreneur and civic benefactor lusting after a monumental object to reflect a little glory on an otherwise dubious enterprise must, in one way or another, have sacrificed a measure of quality, integrity, or artistic conscience to merit such conspicuous and unsavory patronage.
In the case of Henry Moore, the suspicion is reinforced by the decline of his influence on the most interesting younger sculptors on both sides of the Atlantic. In England today, no less than in America, sculptors are in active revolt against everything Moore represents, or is alleged to represent, when they are not simply bypassing him altogether. All Moore seems to have contributed to this younger generation is the myth that the English are a race endowed by nature with a rare genius for making sculpture. This myth is energetically rekindled every four or five years by the ritual cheers of the London art critics, who, upon finding that they can no longer even look at the products of the last “renaissance” they proclaimed, several seasons back, without acute pain, laughter, or exasperation, press yet a younger group of newly fledged art students into service in order to brighten community spirits. Until recently, it was Moore’s influence on the young that was adduced as evidence of this national genius for sculptural form; now it is their independence from, or indifference to, Moore that is cited. But whether as a positive or a negative factor, Moore’s achievement and his great success remain indispensable to the myth itself.
BUT A MYTH of this sort cannot disguise the fact that Moore’s achievement, as distinct from his success, is no longer what it once was: an important source of ideas for serious sculptors. Whereas Matisse, Miró, and Mondrian have retained their hold on the young—and not only the young—Moore, like Lipchitz and even Picasso in this respect, has not. This means, among other things, that though the artist continues to be copious in his production, he looks more and more like a figure of history. No longer in active aesthetic commerce with the future, he offers himself as a candidate for the glorious past. And it is this which so arouses suspicion about Moore at the present time: that this figure of the past should have survived to become the laureate of a period—and a class—that prides itself, mistakenly or not, on its advanced and enlightened taste.
Of the two books under review, only one—Donald Hall’s—openly acknowledges this discrepancy between Moore’s current public standing and the boredom and/or contempt his work now inspires in his younger contemporaries. Mr. Hall even speaks of “anti-Moore forces” among the English critics and of “the movement to dump him” in the late Fifties. But like everything else in Mr. Hall’s sunny profile of Moore, this unpleasant episode has a happy ending: “Then abruptly [Moore] survived his attackers. The voices against him are heard in studios but seldom in public.” Mr. Hall suggests it was “the great bronzes of the end of the decade” that were responsible for this beneficent reversal, but one suspects it had a good deal more to do with the fact that Moore’s detractors were quickly absorbed into the Establishment where it would have been foolhardy for them to continue the attack.
Such considerations would amount to little more than gossip were it not for the light they cast on the art in question. As it happens, they do serve to remind us of the utterly changed circumstances in which this art is now conceived, and thus provide us with a clue as to why Moore, though assuredly a major artist, has somehow lost the power to engage the deepest interest of the sculptors who have followed him.
Neither of the books at hand shows much enterprise in confronting this for a very good reason: They are themselves the products of these changed circumstances. The attitude their authors adopt toward Moore and his work—an attitude of eulogy and uncritical affection—represents the reverse of everything that nourished Moore in his strongest work. Far from discriminating among the varying strengths and weaknesses of Moore’s accomplishments, both these books belong to the movement of canonization that has deprived this marvelously gifted sculptor of the sharp critical crossfire in which his talents once flourished.
For Moore is an artist who has been peculiarly responsive to, and at times even dependent on, a certain kind of critical intelligence. In the Twenties, in the dullish atmosphere of the English art world—a world in which the cautious and essentially conservative Jacob Epstein could be taken for a revolutionary—it was the critical writings of Roger Fry and Ezra Pound that set Moore on his course. We have the sculptor’s own word for the liberating effect that his reading of Vision and Design and Gaudier-Brzeska had on his early development—the one turning his attention to African and Pre-Columbian carving, the other relating the mystique of direct carving to modernist aesthetics by way of Vorticism. In the Thirties the Surrealists played a similar role. Their polemical battles with the Constructivists and geometrical purists, with whom moore had close ties of friendship, placed a high value on poetic, erotic, and fantastic imagery—on the whole literary and psychological side of the expressive equation that a follower of Fry’s Cézannesque formalist aesthetics might have been expected to eschew. But Moore did not eschew the Surrealist program. He appropriated its outrageous poetry to the strict formal probity of which he was already a master. The result was a series of sculptural masterpieces—the abstract Surrealist carvings of the Thirties that remain his strongest claim on our attention.
FRY LIBERATED MOORE from the genteel academicism of the schools, but this turned out to be an ambiguous liberation. There was a danger that the sculptor would simply become an accomplished archaist, trading one convention—the worn-out usages of the classical tradition—for a pastiche of more primitive styles. Fry himself apparently saw this danger. According to Mr. Hall, he “once derided Moore by saying that Moore knew what works of art looked like, and so he tried to make them.” The impetus for transcending this infertile dilemma had to come from a source more adventurous and contemporary than the British Museum, Moore’s real “school” of the Twenties, and it came from Paris. Surrealism completed Moore’s conversion to modernist art by providing him with something not to be found in even the most powerful objects of ancient and alien cultures: an introduction to contemporary feeling, a rich vein of visual metaphor that transformed the primitive and the archaic into symbols of modern experience.
Sculpturally, the change meant the penetration and reordering of the solid monolith—not only the now famous “holes” but the entire rethinking and reinvention of the sculptural image. The sculptural object was no longer simply an inert mass with an exterior skin but was conceived as having an interior terrain as well. Space was no longer a neutral medium occupied by the sculptural mass, but something contained within it, and impinging upon it—as susceptible to metaphorical exploration and elaboration as the most palpable block of wood or stone. Others—Gabo, Lipchitz, Picasso, Gonzalez—had likewise taken possession of the new “open-form” but where they were either modelers or constructors, Moore was preeminent in claiming this new sculptural space as the domain of the carver.
Moore’s radical work of the Thirties advanced in two directions. Following Arp’s example, it adapted the refinements of Brancusian carving to the imagery of Surrealism. The result was a species of abstraction, but an abstraction that remained open to symbolic representation and that always stopped short of becoming pure non-representational form. At the same time, Moore never relinquished his interest in the figure, and in fact produced his noblest and most heroic reclining figures in the second half of the decade. (Like the abstract, or near-abstract, works, the reclining figures were extraordinary feats of carving.) Like David Smith in America, Moore moved freely in this period between abstraction and representation, applying the lessons of one to the needs of the other. Resisting the sectarianism that was common at the time—and that has remained the bane of many artists since then—he showed in Alfred Barr’s pioneering exhibition of “Cubism and Abstract Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 (Moore’s first appearance in the United States) and in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London the next year.
The war marked a break in Moore’s development. Like Picasso after the First World War, Moore fell into a more conservative mood in the Forties. He showed signs of wearying with the modernist adventure, and of harboring ambitions that would have been inhibited by a strict adherence to modernist orthodoxy. It was not only because his work grew more avowedly representational in character and abstract and Surrealist elements were scuttled in favor of themes (like the family groups and madonnas) that a ready response was guaranteed. He also abandoned carving as his principal sculptural means, and turned more and more to producing works in bronze “editions.”
ALL THESE CHANGES contributed to, and decisively hastened, Moore’s emergence as a world figure. As Herbert Read notes: “Between 1943 and 1947 more than one hundred and forty bronzes were cast, and their diffusion to collectors and museums throughout the world helped to establish the fame of the sculptor.” The other side of this fame was the conviction, which now gained ground for the first time, that Moore was paying a high price for his growing eminence. “There were purists at the time, devotees as Henry Moore himself had been of the ‘mystique’ of direct carving, who deplored this development in his technique,” writes Mr. Read, “and imputed it to a loss of integrity.” Mr. Hall offers us a somewhat fanciful existential explanation for the wholesale switch to bronze: “The most important source for the change is inside Moore, and arises from his sense of the conflict between creative energy and approaching death.” He dates this picturesque anguish from a “mild illness in 1954,” but the fact is that the change had already been in effect for a decade. There may indeed have been an “illness,” but it came much earlier and it was not “mild” and it had more to do with the spirit than the body.
Many artists have begun their work as rebels against the academy only to end as self-appointed candidates for a grandeur that is inseparable from the academic ideal. Moore’s dream of assuming the mantle of Michelangelo resembles, in this respect, Lipchitz’s ambitions to be a latter-day Rodin. In both cases, something crucial in the artist’s sensibility had to be suppressed: Call it purity or integrity or the artist’s critical sense of his own artistic identity. In both cases, fame and position seem to have displaced, or at least weakened, the uncompromising critical faculties that once safeguarded their purest work. The very conditions of fame seem to have precluded the possibility of finding a moral equivalent for the stringencies of youthful rebellion and discovery. In this, as in so many other matters, it was Picasso who first showed the way—down.
Down, but not out. Despite the conviction one has that Moore is no longer the artist he once was, his work retains a quality and distinction that mark it as the art of a master. In the Fifties he certainly lost ground. His Reclining Figure (1957-58) for the Unesco building in Paris is only the most notable of the self-parodies he produced at that time. But in the Sixties he has regained a measure of his strength. Going back to one of his most interesting carvings of the Thirties—Two Forms (1934)—for inspiration, Moore has produced a series of divided figures that embody his earlier facility at invention while at the same time realizing his dream of monumentality to a greater degree than one had thought possible. Like all his work in bronze, these divided figures are carvings manqués—and none more so than the immense example that rises out of the lagoon at Lincoln Center. In a sense we experience this work at one remove, translating its expressive properties back into the carver’s idiom where they have their real artistic existence. Yet even at this remove the work has great power. It looks backward, but backward to something of real and enduring significance. And it demonstrates Moore’s ability to rise above—not too far, but still above—the values of his mundane patrons without violating their pious tastes.
IN THE END, every artist is responsible for his own fate, yet one cannot help reflecting on what has been lost to Moore by the disappearance of the critical atmosphere—an atmosphere of rebellion and contending issues—in which he once flourished, and its displacement by the machinery of publicity and adulation. Fame has isolated Moore from the issues that once nourished him, and no critic of consequence has been able to penetrate that isolation in a way that could stimulate his further growth. Indeed, none has tried. Instead we have had reams of commentary of the sort represented in the two books at hand, which are to the art world what campaign biographies are to politics. Herbert Read has written a sizable portion of this literature himself. Here he has simply turned out another of the potboilers that drop from his typewriter with the regularity of the seasons. The only new issue that seems to engage his interest in this book is a silly argument with Erich Neumann, author of The Archetypal World of Henry Moore, for whom Moore’s sculptures are little more than souvenirs gathered on a leisurely tour of the Jungian underworld. And as a sometime sojourner in this realm himself, Read cannot even put up a very convincing argument against Neumann’s fatuous claims. Mr. Hall’s book, originally a New Yorker profile, at least has the merit of situating Moore in the real world. There are some touching pages about the artist’s home life and his early struggles. But it is all finally too sweet, too uncritical, too devotional. What is upheld is not Moore’s art but his reputation—precisely what we need least to be informed about. The book we need about the art itself remains to be written.
Too Perfect February 9, 1967