Full body of little and big works

Celebrating Moore
December 4, 1998

For me this book falls uncomfortably between what it claims not to be - a catalogue of the Henry Moore Foundation Collection - and what it sets out to be - a celebration of the centenary of the birth of "Harry" Moore, as he was known in the 1930s. That said, it is an interesting book with contributions from many well-informed and influential guest writers.

As an artist who looks for security, I headed first for comments by other artists and the contributions of Bernard Meadows, Philip King and Anthony Caro. All three managed to find their way through Henry Moore, placing him in a much bigger cultural context than does the collection at Much Hadham. While writing on Large Reclining Figure, Caro says: "When we were students we looked up to local artists, people like Augustus John; we simply weren't aware of what was going on in Paris. We were looking at Epstein's portraits, not his wonderful early carvings, not Gaudier-Brzeska, let alone Picasso and Lipchitz. Then along comes Henry Moore and he is in there talking the same language as Picasso or Mir" and he asks to be judged alongside them."

Celebrating Moore starts with a rather unusual page headed "Using the book", which turns out to be less interesting than I hoped for. All we get is a warning that the book is not intended as a catalogue and that it is a personal selection chosen from the collection by its curator, David Mitchinson. What it does not say is that this is the biggest single volume to have been produced on the artist. The book gets into its stride with an essay titled "The Henry Moore Foundation's collection".

Mitchinson writes at a brisk walking pace, describing Much Hadham, Perry Green, the house, studios and lie of the land generally. Any sculptures referred to or chanced on during the "walk" are dropped into the text in bold type, creating an atmosphere mid-way between a guide book and an inventory. This makes for a jerky read. In the curator's essay "Forming the foundation", Mitchinson turns up a detail worth thinking about, which is that Moore did not want to have computers at the foundation because they gave the impression of it all being too much like a business.

Ironically, the chapter "Art and diplomacy", which deals mostly with Moore's involvement with the British Council, suggests that if Moore had not been in business, the council's art department might well have been left standing around in Portland Place kicking its heels for the past 50 years. "Art and diplomacy" is a thorough essay on the early days of the Henry Moore Foundation. However, for me, it slows down the front end of an otherwise lively book.

As we make our way through the selection, each work is presented in the form of a catalogue entry producing, in the end, an "exhibition", which includes 8 works. These are set out in chronological order with a theme that tracks the artist's development from 1921 to 1984. This story is told with very high-quality colour reproductions of drawings and sculptures and in the words of a star-studded cast of contributors. Anita Feldman Bennet starts with a drawing of a seated male nude made in 1921 and tells how, at the age of 23, Moore won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art.

She is followed by Richard Cork, who takes on a 1921 boxwood carving and introduces Gaudier-Brzeska and vorticism as early influences. Julian Stallabrass, one of the younger contributors, is responsible for a set of thoughtful entries that carefully connects certain of Moore's sculptures and drawings to Greek sculptures in the British Museum, Renoir, Picasso's neo-classicism, the surrealism of Ernst and Tanguy and cubism. Julian Andrews explores the artist's method of creating the Shelter drawings with the surprising revelation that Moore worked from photographic source material.

But for me, some of the most interesting works are the least familiar, in particular a group of drawings made in the 1940s written about by Frances Carey, who observes that they are an active version of the Shelter drawings. These are the drawings made of working coal miners, which Andrews also writes about and, in doing so, reminds us that these are indeed unusual works for Moore. It appears he seldom drew men and even less often worked with forms that were not static.

Interestingly, although much is said in this book of Moore and nature and Moore and the landscape, it is Moore and the maquette and Moore and the interior that interest me. There is a clarity and intensity in his small-scale activity that is found in the sketchbooks and the maquette studio that slowly dissolves as the work moves from hand to foundry and then onto the plinth and the often close-cut grass surround. So small became big and big became the word that most people learned to couple with his success. Moore took on big themes, made big sculptures in big editions and big money.

The sad side of this success may be that in the end, unlike Picasso, Moore missed the value of little things. The seemingly unassailable heights of his sculpture and his relationship with nature were first thrown into question for me about eight years ago when I visited the foundation at Much Hadham, something I would recommend doing. As I remember it, in a field of sheep there was a very large bronze sculpture called Sheep Piece 1971-72, set on a ridge just beyond the more domestic enclave of his home studio and garden. The field was well-grazed, and at the foot of the sculptures the grass had turned to mud. The bronze emerged from this mud, not black and patinated like the rest of the lump above, but highly polished and yellow to the height of a tide-mark about two feet above the ground.

It was only when I saw the sheep push their sides up against his bronze, probably hoping for the kind of roughness that they would normally get from rocks in the landscape, that I realised the greenish black colouration on their wool reminded me of a can of Duraglit in the cupboard under the sink, and that however powerful his sculpture looks from a distance, close-up nature is so much stronger.

This book offers an opportunity to reflect on an exceptionally successful artist's work and to get the feel of how a broad range of critics, artists and historians try to make sense of it. What results from this close look at Moore is, I think, a lesson in blending the challenging with the already accepted on a big scale. If this is true, then this book's value is as a part of the chapter in the bigger story of art that deals with professionalism.

Stephen Farthing is an artist and Ruskin master of drawing, University of Oxford.

Celebrating Moore

Author - David Mitchinson
ISBN - 0 85331 726 7
Publisher - Lund Humphries
Price - £35.00
Pages - 360

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