Friday, 26 March 2010

Henry Moore at the Tate

Henry Moore at Tate Britain
The sculptor returned again and again to the same subjects but the results are timeless
Rating: * * * *

By Richard Dorment
Published: 11:33AM GMT 23 Feb 2010

The “five-to-10 good years” phenomenon, first articulated by former Tate director Alan Bowness, suggests that virtually all artists do their best work in a relatively short period, whether it was the 10 years Delacroix had between 1824 and 1834, Courbet’s six (1849 -1855) or Munch’s three (1892-95).

After a major artist makes his breakthrough, he will typically turn out work of very high quality for a certain period, but no artist can maintain that kind of creative intensity forever. Eventually their energy flags, ideas dry up and they begin to repeat themselves.

The career of Henry Moore seems to fit this pattern. After the golden years that began in 1928 and continued until the war, came the post-war bronzes he made by handing over small plaster maquettes to be enlarged by studio assistants and cast by his founder – often in generous editions. But what Tate Britain’s important retrospective reveals is that there is an unexpected twist to Moore’s career pattern. He is unusual in that even when his best work was behind him, in every decade he continued to make individual pieces of sculpture as original and powerful as any he had done.

Because the show is being staged in the Linbury galleries, which have no natural light, the selectors have tended to choose pieces conceived on a smaller scale and intended to be shown indoors. The result is a different Henry Moore from the one most of us know through the public sculptures of the 1960s and ’70s.

In the first gallery, we encounter the mystery and violence of the hand-carved stone figures from the 1920s and ’30s – pieces like Mother and Child (1924) and Mask (1930), where the young artist didn’t bother to disguise his enormous debt to pre-Columbian art. Elsewhere he is just as open about finding inspiration in Japanese Netsuke and European Futurism. We become as aware as the young Moore was of the textures and colours of different stones, from the raw vitality of brown Horton to the art-deco elegance of verde di prato and the cool irradiance of alabaster. The emotional range of these early works is remarkable, from the clenched fists of a frightening mother and child to the tender intimacy of a suckling infant.

As he moves into mainstream modernism in the 1930s, the work turns dream-like and surrealistic as human figures break up and separate under the influence of Giacometti and Picasso. By the time of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1937 Sculpture made of Hopton Wood stone, surrealism gives way to almost total abstraction. We sense that Moore can go no further in this direction.

Whether his subject is the mother and child, the reclining nude, or the armoured head, he returns again and again to the same themes – the relationship between exterior and interior, flesh and membrane, strength and vulnerability.

One of the revelations of the show is that Moore’s famous shelter drawings were not drawn from life but are actually closely related to memories of his experiences in the trenches during the First World War. This doesn’t surprise me – I never for a moment thought the British people wrapped themselves up like mummies and then lay down in rows like many larvae waiting to hatch. In the post-war period Moore continued to make astonishing works. In Reclining Figure from 1951, an emaciated figure made of plaster and string looks like an oversized piece of scrimshaw. It lies on its back, propped up on its elbows, head tilted upwards as though soaking in the sun or scanning the sky for danger. In general, the more you prune the later work, the better for Moore’s reputation. Whereas his monumental Reclining Figure carved in elm between 1959-64 bears comparison with Michelangelo’s figures of Night and Day from the Medici Chapel, beside them the Rocking Chair series looks trivial.

Moore was unlucky in that the years after his death in 1986 were a period of tremendous innovation in British sculpture. As the careers of Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, and Anish Kapoor hit their stride, it was hard to look at Moore’s work with a sense of discovery and excitement. Almost a quarter of a century on, we are far enough away to see it in perspective. It no longer looks passé, but eternal.

Henry Moore is At Tate Britain until Aug 8

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