The Enigma of Henry Moore

Composition, 1934. Bronze, 14 in. high.

The first U.S. retrospective of the work of Henry Moore in nearly 20 years opened at the Dallas Museum of Art this spring. The exhibition will travel to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, later this year. “Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century” examines Moore’s contribution to 20th-century sculpture through 207 works spanning the entirety of his 60-year career. It places special emphasis on his early works, exploring his role as a carver and his dialogue with Surrealism and early abstract art, as well as his impact on popular notions of sculpture in public places.

Just as Shakespeare evolved what Peter Brook calls “density,” a narrative meaning overlaid with a huge range of associations, so too Henry Moore provides a basic meaning, but beneath it lies a dense web of imagistic resonances. Good theater shows the surface of life, but great theater shows what is hidden underneath, just as good sculpture provides us with surface interest, but great sculpture penetrates into and under life’s gleaming formalistic surfaces to explore the meaning of the activity we apprehend as “Life.”

Moore once commented that “there are universal shapes to which everyone is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond if their conscious control does not shut them off.” Herbert Read suggested that in Moore’s experience there existed “a buried treasury of universal shapes which are humanly significant, and that the artist may recognize such shapes in natural objects and base his work as a sculptor on the forms they suggest.”1 This fits neatly with the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious and, for that matter, with Roger Fry’s somewhat Jungian notion of “significant form”; we know that Moore was hugely influenced by Fry, in particular by his book Vision and Design.

Upright Motive No. 1: Glenkiln Cross, 1955, cast 1956–57. Bronze, 131.4 x 38.4 x 38 in.

Moore himself referred to the viewer of sculpture as someone who needed only to “feel shape simply as shape, not as description or reminiscence,” and he noted approvingly that Brancusi had made the 20th century conscious of shape by stripping away and refining form to simple or closed-form shapes. But he himself, never one to worry about contradictions, did exactly the opposite by opening up shapes and by combining them. How can one conceivably use the repeated themes of mother and child, reclining figure, and seated figure, all of which have long lineages of association, emotion, and thus “description or reminiscence,” yet claim that one is seeking simple form?

Critics have tended to underestimate Moore’s contradictions and complexity. Upright Motive No.1: Glenkiln Cross (1955–56) is a crucifixion scene with, as Margaret Garlake observes, “allusions to a human torso, with truncated limbs and facial features…reduced to a gaping orifice.”2 She notes that the critic Susan Compton suggested Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion as a formative influence, but then concludes that Moore’s work “can more convincingly be located within a pastoral and holistic reading of nature than in the existentially orientated context of Bacon’s painting.”3 Much has been made of Moore’s interest in landscape, in particular the landscape “readings” often discerned in the reclining figures, but to suggest “a pastoral and holistic reading of nature” is to ignore huge swathes of Moore’s oeuvre and to be recumbent before accepted notions (promulgated by Moore and his proselytizers) of humanistic, untroubled surfaces displaying a warmly maternal, kindly tenderness.

Mother and Child Against Open Wall, 1956, cast 1956–57. Bronze, 8.3 x 10.75 x 7.4 in.

In fact, there is a Lawrentian sexual aspect to Moore (a deeply troubled psychological aspect in which repressed aspects of personality ooze out through works such as Upright Motif), which makes the suggestion of Bacon’s influence all the more likely. (There is a corollary here with Giacometti’s influence, noted by John Russell, in terms of sexuality). One does not need an “existentially orientated context” such as Bacon possibly possessed: the point of kinship lies in the darker impulses of the psyche that are given expression, overtly in Bacon but for the most part covertly in Moore.

Adrian Tinniswood notes another oversimplification, that Moore’s coal mining “background led generations of art critics to make heavy-handed comparisons between cutting into rock at the coal face and creating sculptures.”4 This is a misunderstanding on two fronts. It overestimates his mining background (his father was a miner for only a short period before becoming a mining engineer—quite different from working manually at the coal face); it also underestimates the formative influence, not just of local and family tradition, but more importantly, of childhood images. Moore was only “down the pit” as an observer in the 1940s, at the request of Kenneth Clark—and it was not an enjoyable experience for him. While Moore undoubtedly heard stories from his grandfather and father, it was a disused quarry in which he played as a child, not a disused coal mine. And a quarry is a rich source of images, textures, and sensations for a sculptor-to-be.

Seated Woman, 1956–57, cast 1962. Bronze, 60 in. high.

Moore once compared the Davids of Michelangelo and Pisano, considering that the Pisano “had behind it an intensity of human understanding, of deep personality,” which “had all the implications of the contradictions, troubles, and worries inside its head that Hamlet had, whereas the Michelangelo had no real troubles in its head at all, no unconquerable problems.”5 These comments are very revealing on a number of levels. The references to Shakespeare, and his comment that Pisano was a great sculptor because he used “three-dimensional forms to affect people, to portray human feelings, [and] to express great truths,” indicate that Moore’s ultimate goal was the combination of feeling or emotion and great truths or themes, as in a Shakespearean play. He was also, by implication, reacting against sheer physical skill (Michelangelo) in favor of content (Pisano), much as one might compare Ben Jonson’s carefully constructed plays with Shakespeare’s baggier, less shapely, but more powerfully explored and emotive plays.

In addition, the reference to Hamlet, a man who had marked problems of an emotional and sexual nature with his mother, is possibly revealing in terms of Moore’s expression of his “contradictions” and “emotional wellsprings.” Moore himself, discussing tactile experience, noted that as a boy he massaged his mother’s back. He then suggested that while working on Seated Woman (1957) he found that he was “unconsciously giving to its back the long-forgotten shape of the one that I had so often rubbed as a boy.”6 The implication is that his “long-forgotten” experience in relation to a woman “no longer so very young” only re-emerged in 1957. This scarcely squares with the interview that Moore gave Herbert Read in 1977 in which we are told that this rite was performed two or three times a week for a period and that he never forgot the sensation of her flesh and bones, the flesh yielding, and the bones resistant beneath kneading fingers.7 Moore’s biographer Roger Berthould acknowledged the “Oedipal overtones” that “doubtless played no small role in shaping his preoccupation with the female figure as a theme.”8

Reclining Mother and Child, 1975–76. Plaster, 51 x 80 x 41 in.

Moore’s mother, described by one of her grandchildren as “a very handsome woman…[who] had the kind of dignity that Henry’s figures have,” was for him “absolutely feminine, womanly, motherly…I suppose I’ve got a mother complex.”9 Six years later, after agreeing that the women in his sculptures “showed them to be in control,” Moore told John Heilpern that his mother was “absolute stability” for him, so much so that he would be “terrified she wouldn’t return. So it’s not surprising that the kind of women I’ve done in sculpture are mature women rather than young.”10

In a letter to a friend in the ’20s, about a wealthy mutual acquaintance, Moore wrote that if he were in the latter’s position he would go to a country district and wait until he “found and wedded one of those richly formed, big-limbed, fresh-faced, full-blooded country wenches, built for breeding, honest, simple-minded, practical, common-sensed, healthily-sexed lasses that I’ve seen about here.”11 This description fits his mother, who produced eight children, remarkably well. If it doesn’t exactly fit his wife at the time of his marriage (a conscious attempt to break away from the template?), it does indicate that his preference for generously proportioned female bodies was more than just an interest in formal considerations.

Draped Reclining Figure, 1952–53, cast 1956. Bronze, 40.9 x 66.5 x 34.1 in.

A psychologist would appreciate another strand in Moore’s work, the use of what we now recognize as classic science-fiction imagery, influenced by Surrealism. Science fiction has always been a medium of displaced anxiety, in which earth-bound scenarios, often in relation to sexuality, are transmuted into frightening images or metaphors. In the movie Alien, for example, the most nightmarish aspect is the transposed sexuality: those fear-inducing creatures, almost unstoppable predators, have enormous mouths whose dripping fangs exist within a visual representation of the vagina. Moore’s surreal Helmet (1939) is, in some ways, an eerie anticipation of this kind of science-fiction imagery (and specifically of the alien young breeding in the laboratory of the human body), with its sinuous, glossy vaginal cavity containing or incubating a biomorphic humanoid.

The “Helmet Heads” series, including Upright Motive No. 8 (1955–56) with its swelling biomorphic forms, King and Queen (1952–53) with its insect-like imprint upon the human figure, and Three Piece Vertebrae (1968) with its almost viscous biomorphism (rounded breast and socket shapes budding, sliding, distending, inflating, and stretching in a paradigm of sexual ambiguity), provides evidence of Moore’s continual deployment of images of anxiety that anticipate science fiction. A brutal case-in-point is the Maquette for Mother and Child (1952), which would be perfectly at home if placed within the early work of the young British sculptors dubbed The Geometry of Fear generation, a group that included Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, and Bernard Meadows, Moore’s assistant of the period, who produced spiky, jagged, disturbing images.

King and Queen, 1952–53, cast 1953. Bronze, 64.75 x 59.1 x 37.4 in.

Maquette shows us two “science fiction” figures, the “child” seemingly about to bite off its mother’s breast. Moore quaintly and disingenuously suggested that the baby was just gnawing, but its mouth is distended to such an extent that it is as large as the entire breast. David Cohen, the critic who wrote the entry for this work in Celebrating Moore, notes the “terrible struggle” in the work between mother and child. Citing Erich Neumann’s Jungian theory that the mother figure represented the “terrible” mother, archetype of Tantalus, Cohen then refers to Herbert Read’s relating of the image to the theories of Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst within the Freudian fold whose theory included a notion of fixation on the “partial object” such as the breast.

However, as Cohen further notes, Alan Wilkinson, ex-curator of the Moore Centre at Ontario, dismisses such notions, preferring instead to see the sculpture, on the basis of a link between a drawing in Moore’s sketchbooks and an illustration in a book he owned, as deriving from a Peruvian pot.12 This information, however, does not invalidate any psychological or critical exploration. Sources are only interesting in terms of what an artist makes of them. Moore’s science-fiction imagery and his recurring depiction of seemingly maternal or earth-goddess images, with their biomorphic ambiguities and atavistic anxieties, are evidence of a covert and fiercely repressed dark sexuality.

As recently as 1998, Anita Feldman Bennet took the usual critical view of Moore’s association with the Surrealists in the 1930s, regarding it as tentative.13 She acknowledges, however, that Surrealist concepts such as metamorphosis and transformation “informed his work throughout his career.” The link between Moore and Surrealism centers on psychoanalysis and its various interests: the unconscious, the ambiguity of certain kinds of imagery, the juxtaposition of objects, various kinds of associations, childhood, and dreams. Moore often practiced a form of automatism in his drawing. He clearly responded to the Surrealist practice of using rocks, bones, or other natural objects as the basis for transformation. Compton even suggested an early date for this practice, arguing, quite logically, that in the wake of Moore’s Composition (1931), the sculptor “began systematically to transform pebbles and bones into figures under the influence of the Surrealists.”14

Mother and Child, 1953. Bronze, 20 x 9 x 9.75 in.

While Moore’s practice suggests that the complex aspects of Surrealism appealed to him—those areas that delight in ambiguity, association, and suggestion—critical reaction tries to interpret his work either by sidelining the importance of Surrealism or by developing simplistic notions of eternal women or primal beings—generic types whose largesse is illustrational, depicting some general notion of what it means to be human. The irony is that Moore’s best work is quite the reverse: it is highly specific, highly imaginative, highly charged with personal complexity, and highly influenced by Surrealist practice. This, of course, does not stop any given work from having archetypal implications. But Moore is rather more than the sum of his generalities.

Moore noted that “the work of art with what might be called prophetic vision is doing more for art than the public authority that plays for safety and gives the public what the public does not object to.”15 The irony here is that Moore was, and still is, often perceived as someone who watered down Modernism and thus played for safety, giving the public what it didn’t object to. This is partly true. Moore colluded in this strategy when he turned out huge numbers of works, often in varying sizes, that could be placed virtually anywhere.

Moore was lucky on at least three counts. First, he arrived in the wake of Epstein who, to quote Penelope Curtis, had “taken the brunt of the press’s attack on emergent modern sculpture.” Second, he was fortunate in his friendships with critics, curators, and museum and gallery directors of major importance (not only Roger Fry, Herbert Read, and Kenneth Clark but also Adrian Stokes, William Rothenstein, and Sir Philip Hendy, Clark’s successor at London’s National Gallery). Finally, Moore was historically blessed, in that abstraction was specifically counterpointed by Social Realism during the Cold War period. Compared with the art of the Soviet Bloc, and because of Moore’s association with the abstractions of Barbara Hepworth, Moore’s work could be seen as primarily open, free, and humanistic; it was considered non-political, non-threatening, and essentially devoid of anything other than simple uncontentious subject matter—a viewpoint through which the promoters could nudge viewers into seeing what they wanted them to see.

Bird Basket, 1939. Lignum vitae and string, 16.5 in. long.

Thus Moore (and to a certain extent Hepworth) were toured world-wide by the British Council, to a degree that seems almost impossible today. Moore himself, as Margaret Garlake points out, was the most heavily promoted British artist of the century. This state of affairs was, and still is, cultural politics with a vengeance. Moore became a household name, an international star like Picasso. In some senses Moore paid a price (albeit willingly) for this astonishing platform of support. The polite fiction effectively stating that his work lacks specific, substantial subject matter not only allowed the British, and in particular the British Council, to develop him as the ideal propaganda subject, but also, I suspect, led to a lack of critical scrutiny of the sculptor’s work that continues today.

But Moore (just like Picasso) did dictate the terms in which he was discussed, aided by particular social and political climates. He was astute enough to change his mind, slowly, when convenient. By 1951 this champion of direct carving could claim that the method “is important, but should not be a criterion of the value of the work,” a very handy position for a sculptor who was producing very little direct carving, opting instead for mass production of bronzes.16

Stringed Object, 1938, cast 1956. Bronze and nylon thread, 1.9 x 2.9 x 1.9 in.

There is general agreement among many critics that Moore’s work suffered after the war, when he effectively jettisoned direct carving and began to move into large-scale production of bronzes. The almost factory-like production (requiring studio methods not much different from those of a 19th-century sculptor in which assistants were used in stone work as well as bronze), reinforced by the more overt figuration, not only increased Moore’s popularity among the general public, but also possibly created the climate of critical opinion which saw Moore’s postwar work as evidence of a slackening of aesthetic rigor.

And indeed there are problems with many of Moore’s postwar works: the abrupt jettisoning of the “truth-to-materials” aesthetic took time to resolve itself in terms of the new work; the factory-style studio conditions led to over-production, to generalized (rather than individualized) works that lack sensitivity to surface and governing idea; and, in some cases, there are serious questions about the scale of the works and nature of the participation of some of Moore’s assistants.

Reclining Figure: Bone, 1974. Travertine marble, 62 in. long.

But that having been said, in the postwar period, Moore began to get into his stride in terms of balancing form and content. Formally, he began to find an equipoise between his huge range of contradictory impulses. His collection of yin and yang aspects now encompassed tradition versus innovation, the subterranean versus the surface, the abstract versus the figurative, the harmonic versus the expressive, form versus content, naturalism versus stylization, and the passive versus the active, only to mention the most obvious of polarities. He now developed the vocabulary and the means to deal with the complexities of his inner self. He also had the benefit of a long period of gestation—the war years—during which the act of making sculpture itself had to take second place to drawing and note-taking.

In a sense, the postwar period was one long exploration of his inner self, an exploration that not only allowed his sexuality to seep through, but also allowed it to manifest itself in all its variousness: the darkness as well as the light, the fear as well as the sensual pleasure, the interest in the male as well as the female. The paradox was that nobody noticed, or if they did, they didn’t comment publicly. Perhaps, since Moore was increasingly making large-scale public sculpture, the sheer scale interfered with the obvious—a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Crowd Looking at a Tied-up Object, 1942. Pencil, wax, crayon, watercolor wash, and pen and ink on paper, 17 x 22 in.

His prewar work embraced a huge variety of sources and styles, and the same is true of the postwar work: Expressionism, Neoclassicism, biomorphic Surrealism, even Cubist references are all part and parcel of the latter half of his career. The point is that pre-war or postwar, Moore went on absorbing influences in a consistent manner.

After noting that “Moore’s sculpture didn’t go as far as Arp in interpreting the human being in terms of nature,” Albert Elsen once remarked that the sculptor’s thought “was so woman-centered that this was not possible.”17 Once alerted, one finds many such brief hints about Moore and the sexual impulse in his work, but they are fragmentary and illusive. Even John Russell speaks in code, referring to Moore’s “readiness to let the demons loose” and suggesting that “the private Moore has kept his secrets.”18 The decipherment of those secrets, I speculate, lies precisely in the area that Kenneth Clark said he had always wanted to discuss but could never do so, because of his close relationship with Moore.19 That area is sexuality and the manner in which it manifests itself in the sculptures.

Thousands of words have been written about the female forms in Moore’s work but most of them consist of formal analysis. The descriptive references are non-threatening: aloof, serene, static, healthy, optimistic, passive, firmly fleshed, fully rounded, introspective, contemplative, non-erotic, mature, or middle-aged, unemotional, and faceless. Moore’s women are the possessors of a quiet majesty, almost entirely lacking in any interior or psychological life. Even when a psychological approach is made, it stresses the generalizing element.20 One might have thought, however, that someone would have noticed the seeming paradox that in Moore’s drawings, the women are, upon occasion, quite specifically young, nubile, naked, and individualized.

Reclining Woman, 1927. Cast concrete, 25 in. long.

With respect to Moore’s prewar work, descriptions of the women as passive are fairly apt. But they make little sense when applied to the postwar sculpture, as an exploration of the wide span of Moore’s works sited in and around his studio at Perry Green makes clear. As John Russell noted over 30 years ago, there is still much decipherment to be done on the private, hidden aspects of the sculptor. His written statements on sculpture, endlessly quoted and blithely believed, are a good guide to what he was determined to hide in his concentration on form rather than content.

If Moore, in his earlier years, had conformed with the general notion of paring away traditional associations from his art, he knew perfectly well that there was only so far that one could go in this direction. Elsen believes that the sculptor counted on the persistence of psychological associations with shape. This Jungian view of the universe also explains Moore’s traditionalism, in terms of materials and basic subject matter. New materials, whether used by the Constructivists, by the new generation of British sculptors in the ’50s, or by artists everywhere after the ’60s, were selected for their lack of cultural memory, art historical baggage, and reference. Moore needed precisely these areas excluded by the new sculpture. His art was not one of paring down but rather, like a pebble in the pool, of resonance, whether in the echoing singularity of the ripple effect or in the complex creation of meaningful ambiguity.

Brian McAvera’s review of Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century, the catalogue of the exhibition organized by the Dallas Museum appears in this issue.

1 Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964), pp. 177, 180.
2 Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 191.
3 Ibid., p. 192.
4 Henry Moore in Public: A Pocket Guide to Works by Henry Moore in UK Public Collections (London: BBC / Henry Moore Foundation , 1998, p. 7.
5 Quoted in Susan P. Compton, Henry Moore, exhibition catalogue (Cracow: BWA Gallery, 1995), p. 31.
6 Quoted in Henry Moore on Sculpture, edited by Philip James (London: MacDonald, 1966), p. 131.
7 Quoted in Roger Berthould, The Life of Henry Moore (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), p. 26.
8 Ibid., p. 26.
9 Donald Hall, Henry Moore (New York: Gollancz, 1966), p. 30.
10 Observer Magazine, April 30, 1972, pp. 28–37: 37.
11 Quoted in Berthould, op. cit., p. 83.
12 David Cohen in Celebrating Moore: Works from the Collection of the Henry Moore Foundation , edited by David Mitchinson (London: Lund Humphries, 1998), p. 234.
13 Moore in Public op. cit., p. 136.
14 Compton, op. cit., p. 27.
15 Ibid., p. 33.
16 Sculpture and Drawings by Henry Moore, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Gallery, 1951), p. 4.
17 Albert Elsen, Modern European Sculpture (New York: Braziller, 1979), p. 50.
18 Russell, Henry Moore (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 260.
19 In the BBC documentary, Henry Moore: Carving A Reputation, 1998.
20 Anton Ehrenzweig (quoted in Russell, op. cit., p. 260) in The Hidden Order of Art referred to the “Great Mother,” while Erich Neumann’s The Archetypal World of Henry Moore (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1959, p. 17) considered that the female reclining figure came ever closer to the archetype of “the earth goddess, nature goddess and life goddess.”