When Henry Moore died in 1986, he left a legacy of primeval public monuments across the world. From Scotland to Saudi Arabia, his bronze and slate-coloured hulks brood over the landscape like monoliths from an earlier era, presiding over our global disasters with a prophetic power. Moore’s sculptures were born out of two world wars and the glories of the machine age, yet their rugged textures and simple forms were inspired by the Yorkshire countryside of his childhood. It was this duality, of nature and modernity, which instilled in the sculptures a timeless quality that has had a lasting universal appeal. It is perhaps because of this that Moore’s relationship with the British Council was a close one throughout his career. The British Council Collection includes sculptures, paintings, prints and sketches by the artist, and for many years his bronze sculpture Large Spindle Piece (1974) sat on a plinth outside their headquarters on The Mall in London.
The sculptures featured in this exhibition were all made in the 1930s at a time when Moore was living in Hampstead with his wife, Irina Radetsky. The North London suburb was a playground of the bohemian set and many artists had settled there, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, all of whom had an influence on the young Moore. Each of the three sculptures plays a vital role in revealing Moore’s move towards abstraction. He had already rejected tradition, preferring non-Western art over classical figures of the Renaissance and the Graeco-Romans, and Girl with Clasped Hands, made the year after his marriage, is clearly inspired by an ancient Sumerian sculpture he had written about after visiting the British Museum. At the time, Moore had been very influenced by the critic Roger Fry, and in particular Fry’s book Vision and Design (1920), which propounded the theory of significant form. The eyes, hands and breasts of Girl with Clasped Hands evoke primitive sculpture, especially through the positive/negative switch Moore made by drilling holes into the breasts where the nipples should have been.
The 1930s were also characterised by Moore’s admiration for Epstein and Brancusi, artists who insisted on direct carving and truth to materials. Moore was fascinated with Surrealism, too, and he even signed the manifesto in 1936. Composition, made in 1933, is an undulating concrete form that appears intent on stretching beyond the capabilities of its rigid medium. Its emerging breasts and nipple, and the yawning cavities, are suggestive of a human form struggling to break free. Moore’s love of Surrealism, coupled with his move towards abstraction, can be seen in this work as a friction between the two opposing forces.
In 1934, he visited Spain, and as a consequence was very much affected by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936. He petitioned Parliament on their non-intervention and even tried to travel to the country as part of a delegation of artists and writers that included Auden and Spender, but he was refused a travel permit by the British government. One of the sculptures to emerge out of this time is Mother and Child, a strange, amorphous form in which two figures appear to be melting into, or emerging out of, one another. Naturally, the work continues to embody Moore’s conflict between the opposing forces of Surrealism and abstraction, but more significantly it is highly charged emotionally, as a response to the outbreak of war in Spain. It was an early indication that this sculptor would become a powerful critic of the Second World War and a sensitive recorder of the plight of the common man caught in the crossfire.
(C) Jessica Lack 2009