By Christine Lindey in England:
Tate Britain, London
Tuesday 27 April 2010
Henry Moore‘s name conjures up public sculpture – stolid family groups or reclining figures with holes in their middle placed in parks and town centres.
Moderately boring, with subjects easily recognisable despite the simplifications, they have come to signify the acceptable face of Modernism.
Tate Britain’s exhibition reassesses this common perception by asserting that Moore’s work has darker, more complex and more unsettling aspects.
The son of a committed socialist miner, Moore grew up in an enlightened environment which valued progressive thought and education. A scholarship to the local secondary school freed him from the pit and in 1916, aged 18, he became a school teacher. The following year saw him in the trenches of the first world war where he was gassed at Cambrai, one of 52 survivors from his battalion of 400.
When he went to art college after the war it was not as a fresh-faced innocent, but as one already steeped in the extremes of human experience. In this context his distorted figures – truncated, punched through their core, their faces blinded or blank with shock – evoke the horrifying sights of the dismembered dead and mutilated survivors which he had witnessed in his formative years.
Moore became a political and aesthetic radical. Challenging the dominant canons of taste, he turned to Assyrian, Egyptian, Cycladic, European Medieval, African, Inuit, Oceanic and above all pre-Colombian Mexican art for inspiration.
There he found a vitality and truth to human experience which eschewed the sentimentality and over-detailed fussiness of the Academicism which still dominated the Western art world. By the mid-1920s he was a leading British avant-garde sculptor.
Carving directly into stone or wood rather than modelling in soft clay, he conveyed the essence of his subjects via simplified forms and uncompromising expressions in stance and gaze. Anxious faces glare from masks. Bald- headed women stare far away avoiding eye contact with their offspring as they nurse grim-faced infants. In Mother And Child (1924) an angry child straddles his mother’s shoulders, her expression severe. Ridden with conflicted and understated emotion these works defy the cliche of contented motherhood.
During the war in Spain in the 1930s Moore supported the Republican cause and exhibited with the anti-fascist Artists International Association. The political and social tensions of the period were reflected in works which became ever more disquieting.
Influenced by Picasso, Moore’s figures became more distorted and angst-ridden, sprouting protuberances or cavities in unexpected places, or falling apart into separate elements reminiscent of disjointed body parts.
But his exploration of materials and of form also led to sculptures which bordered on pure abstraction.
The looming threat of yet another war, particularly horrific to first world war survivors such as himself, led Moore back to expressions of foreboding and anxiety. The Helmet (1939-40) imparts ideas of entrapment inside a warrior’s headdress but it also doubles as a truncated head – aggression and vulnerability co-exist in disquieting ambiguity.
By the outbreak of the second world war Moore’s British reputation was assured and he became an official war artist. Turning to the more accessible and easily reproduced medium of drawing he made his famous images of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in East End Tube stations. Disgusted at the poverty he witnessed there, Moore sought to convey their inhumane conditions.
Yet contemporary Marxist critics objected to his generalised and depersonalised depictions, feeling that they conveyed a heroic stoicism far removed from the harsh reality and uncertainty of his subjects’ actual situation.
The War Artists Advisory Committee also commissioned his drawings of miners. Drawn in the colliery where his father had worked, they depict the claustrophobic and inhumane working conditions endured by miners wedged into narrow seams, crouching, kneeling or lying down as they hack at the rock or push wagons along.
His second world war drawings enhanced Moore’s reputation from the national to the international. In the ensuing cold war he became an international symbol of the modernist humanism championed by Western governments and institutions to counter-act Soviet Socialist Realism.
Commissions for public monuments flooded in and, blessed with a long working life, Moore produced the monumental public sculptures for which he is now best known. By the 1960s this form of Modernism had become the new Academicism, its ubiquity rendering it inoffensive and bland.
Yet Moore continued to create less tame sculptures. His 1950s fallen warriors stumble or balance precariously on severed limbs, their scarred surfaces recalling Hiroshima victims.
In the inter-war decades Moore had his finger on the pulse of his age, expressing its anxieties but also pioneering its drives towards aesthetic and political progress.
His post-war status as the grand old man of Modernism obscured his innovatory and experimental role. The Tate’s exhibition redresses this balance by stressing the first part of his long career.
Yet it does not question his later conformism.
Runs until August 8. £12.50, concessions £11. Telephone (020) 7887-8888.