Henry Moore
Biography of English Sculptor Famous for Reclining Figures.
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Henry Moore (1898-1986)

Contents

Biography
Early Days
1920s
1930s
1940s
1950s
Late Period

 



Locking Piece (1963-4)
Millbank, London.
Henry Moore Foundation.

Biography

Henry Moore, long considered England's greatest sculptor, was largely responsible for the gradual emergence of British sculpture from provincialism into the mainstream of modern art. Ironically it was during the 1930s, when Moore's work was so violently attacked in the press, that he and his contemporaries Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) were laying the foundations of abstract sculpture in England - the new Modernism - after the earlier innovations of the bohemian Jacob Epstein (1880–1959).

By 1946, with his first major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the school of modern British sculpture was firmly established, and Moore had become one of the most admired and influential abstract sculptors in the world.

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Early Days and Training

Born in Castleford, Yorkshire, the seventh child of a miner, Henry Moore by the age of 10 or 11 had decided that he wanted to become a sculptor. He received his first lessons in drawing at the Castleford Grammar School from the art mistress, Alice Gostick, whose support and encouragement meant a great deal to him. After serving two years in the Army, Moore was awarded an ex-serviceman's grant to the Leeds School of Art, and enrolled in the two-year course in September 1919. He was joined there in 1920 by Barbara Hepworth who became a friend and close associate during the next 20 years.

While at Leeds he met Sir Michael Sadler, whose remarkable collection included paintings by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the first examples of modern art that Moore saw. At the time he read Roger Fry's Vision and Design and was particularly influenced by the chapters on "Ancient American Art" and "Negro Sculpture".

 

 

1920s

In 1921 Moore began the three-year diploma course at the Royal College of Art in London. A conflict soon developed between the academic course-work and his desire to follow his own direction in sculpture, based on knowledge gained from numerous visits to the British Museum. There he studied sculpture of many periods: prehistoric, Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Archaic Greek, as well as African art, and Oceanic; but he was most attracted to Mexican art, which was to become the major influence on his work during the 1920s. He managed a compromise, drawing and modeling from life during term time, with evenings and holidays free to pursue his own interests.

In 1922, on the first of many trips to Paris, he saw the Pellerin Collection, which included Grandes Baigneuses by Paul Cezanne (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). He has written: "Seeing that picture, for me, was like seeing Chartres Cathedral. It was one of the big impacts." In 1924 he was awarded a traveling scholarship, and was also appointed instructor in sculpture at the Royal College of Art for a period of seven years. He left for France and Italy in January 1925. He greatly admired the monumentality of Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel frescoes in Florence. On his return to London in the summer of 1925, he completed the Hornton stone Mother and Child of 1924-5 (City of Manchester Art Gallery).

Almost all his sculptures between 1921 and 1939 were carvings. Like Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Moore was interested in direct carving; he believed in the doctrine of truth to materials, of understanding and being in sympathy with the qualities of wood or stone. In the Manchester carving, the forms have not been freed from the material, and remain somewhat buried in the blockiness of the stone. The carving is, like the kind of sculpture Moore most admires, "not perfectly symmetrical, it is static and it is strong and vital, giving off something of the energy and power of great mountains." Unlike Hepworth, for example, Moore is not concerned with an ideal, classical beauty and purity. He aims at the power of expression, giving his sculpture a pent-up energy, a life of its own.

 

Moore's first one-man exhibition was held at Warren Gallery, London, in 1928. That same year he received his first public commission, a relief entitled North Wind for the new London Passenger Transport Board headquarters. Reclining Figure of 1929 (Leeds City Art Gallery), undoubtedly Moore's most important sculpture of the 1920s, was the first work to reflect the tremendous influence of the Mexican Chac Mool reclining figure. Although the Leeds carving has the same massiveness and weight that he admired in the Mexican prototype and the alert, mask-like head turned at right angles to the body, the reclining pose is quite different. The figure rests on its side, with the left arm raised behind the head, and the left leg looming above the right one.

In the reclining figure Moore had found a subject that allowed him to experiment with new formal ideas, to explore infinite variations on a single theme. By the late 1920s the mother-and-child theme and the reclining figure had become the two principal obsessions in Moore's work. In 1929 Moore married Irina Radetsky, a student at the Royal College of Art School of Painting. They moved to Parkhill Road, Hampstead, London, where they lived until 1940. The first of two country cottages in Kent, for use during vacations, was bought in 1931. The enigmatic abstract work Composition of 1931, marked a radical new departure that allied Moore's work to the biomorphic abstractions current in the work of Arp, Mira, Tanguy, and above all Picasso.

 

1930s

The sculpture and drawings created by Picasso (1881-1973) during the late 1920s exerted a direct influence on Moore's sculpture and drawings of the early 1930s. Like Hepworth and Nicholson, Moore visited Picasso's workshop as well as the Paris studios of Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Brancusi. Composition illustrates how quickly and intuitively Moore had assimilated the visual imagery of Picasso's work.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist organic-abstraction sculptors like Henry Moore, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

In 1932 he established the Department of Sculpture at the Chelsea School of Art. The following year he was elected a member of "Unit One". The first of his two, three, and four-piece compositions appeared in 1934 and are related to the work of Jean Arp (1886-1966) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). He often used the Surrealist idiom of the found object, and made several carvings using ironstone pebbles. In 1932, he did a series of drawings of bones and shells, transforming shapes in nature into human forms. In the multipart sculptures of 1934 the human body was divided into fragments and reassembled. It was not until the late 1950S and 1960s that he returned to the two and three-piece figure theme.

Moore's square-form carvings of 1935 and 1937, among his most abstract works, reflect the influence of Ben Nicholson's reliefs of the period. During these years, when he was living in Hampstead near Hepworth, Nicholson, and the critic Herbert Read, there was a fruitful exchange of ideas among these artists with broadly similar aims. Moore's work never became totally abstract; there is always some reference to human or organic forms. Indeed, he is probably best known for the biomorphic abstraction of his 'reclining figures'.

He participated in the "International Surrealist Exhibition" in London in 1936, and in the following year contributed to Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art. The idea of the reclining female figure as a metaphor for landscape first appeared in the Reclining Figure of 1929 (City Art Gallery, Leeds) and then in the Reclining Woman of 1930 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). The landscape idiom, in which breast and knees are like hills or mountains, and holes like caves in a hill-side, is beautifully resolved in Recumbent Figure of 1938 (Tate Gallery, London). The gently rising and falling rhythms echo the South Downs, where the sculpture was originally sited.

From 1937 to 1939 Moore executed a series of stringed figure-drawings and sculptures, a brief interlude in his work. His first "helmet sculpture" appeared in 1939-40. Between 1921 and the mid 1950s the genesis for almost all Moore's sculptures is to be found in the sketchbooks and larger drawings. The drawings for sculpture were a means of generating ideas for sculpture, of recording the overflow of ideas too numerous to explore directly in wood or stone.

1940s

In September 1940 Moore began work on his shelter drawings, scenes of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground stations. The following month his Hampstead studio was badly damaged by a bomb, and the Moores moved to a 17th-century farmhouse at Much Hadham, 30 miles north of London. As a war artist, he spent the next year working on the shelter drawings. He visited the shelters once or twice a week, and did the drawings from memory on his return home. In 1942 he did a series of drawings of miners at work at the coalface. The Madonna and Child of 1943-4, commissioned for the Church of St Matthew, Northampton, reflects the influence of the shelter drawings in the use of drapery and in the humanist emphasis.

 

The Mediterranean tradition, which on his Italian trip in 1925 had been in conflict with his interest in primitive art, had come once more to the surface. In 1946, the year of his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, his daughter Mary was born. Two years later he won the International Sculpture Prize at the 24th Venice Biennale. His first retrospective at the Tate Gallery was held in 1951. Moore's worldwide reputation as a sculptor and as a leading exponent of Organic Abstraction was now firmly established.

1950s

During the 1950s the two most important commissions were for a screen for the facade and the bronze Draped Reclining Figure (1952-3) for the new Time-Life Building in London, and the large Roman travertine marble Reclining Figure (1957-8) for UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Although Moore's interest in carving continued throughout his life, many of his best-known postwar sculptures - such as Family Group (1948-9; Museum of Modern Art, New York), King and Queen (1952-3; Joseph Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC), Warrior with Shield (1953-4; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), Reclining Figure (1963-5; Lincoln Center, New York), and Nuclear Energy (1964-6; University of Chicago) - were made in plaster and cast in bronze. A fine collection of the plasters can be seen in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

Among the most impressive sculptures of the past two decades are the two and three-piece reclining figures of 1959-62 (examples can be seen in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; etc). The landscape metaphor, a source of Moore's inspiration since the late 1920S, is reversed: the sculptures are more landscape than human. Fragmentary elements of a rugged landscape of rocks, cliffs, and caves become the female figure.

By the mid 1950s, as his plastic art was becoming more three-dimensional, having an organic completeness from every point of view, drawing no longer served as a way of developing ideas for sculpture. The point of departure for most of his subsequent sculpture has been the bones, shells, and flint stones that abound in the maquette studio at Much Hadham.

Late Period

After 1968 Moore showed a renewed interest in drawing as an activity independent of sculpture, and in printmaking, producing more than 260 lithographs and etchings, including the Elephant Skull, Auden, Stonehenge, and Sheep portfolios.

The major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1968 was followed in 1972 by the magnificent exhibition at the Forte di Belvedere in Florence. Many large bronzes and fiberglass casts were placed on the terraces; the architecture of Florence and the hills beyond made this one of the most splendid sites in the world to exhibit sculpture on the enormous scale of Moore's late work. October 1974 saw the opening of the Henry Moore Sculpture Center in Toronto; the Center houses Moore's gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario of more than 500 original plasters, bronzes, drawings, and prints.

Moore continued to work for most of the year in Much Hadham, and spent a month or two each summer in Italy, carving at the Querceta marble works of Messrs Henraux. From his small house nearby at Forte dei Marmi he could see the Carrara Mountains where Michelangelo (1475-1564) is said to have selected large blocks of marble for his carvings. The essential humanism of Moore's art has been nourished by sources as disparate as Paleolithic sculpture and the work of Picasso. With the human figure as the central subject of his work, he used elements of landscape, the shapes of bones, shells, and pebbles to enlarge the three-dimensional language of sculpture. Henry Moore now ranks among the greatest 20th century sculptors in Europe, having built on and extended the tradition to which his work belongs.

Source: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material in the above article from "A Biographical Dictionary of Artists" (1983), edited by Sir Lawrence Gowling.

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