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The Woman Problem & other prose

The Sculpture of Henry Moore

page 179

The Sculpture of Henry Moore

Whatever else it does, the British Council exhibition of sculptures by Henry Moore, which began its New Zealand tour at the Auckland Art Gallery on September 17, will arouse a large number of people from their normal state of indifference towards the arts. As early as July a thin trickle of rustic wit at the expense of Moore had begun to appear in the correspondence columns of the press. Before long, no doubt, there will be a torrent of jocosity. On the other hand, voices will be raised in passionate defence and adulation.

Whether public controversy at this level assists towards an understanding of art is extremely questionable. In truth, the present show is likely to do more harm than good if those who see it do not keep reasonably cool, and try to make a calm assessment of Henry Moore's positive qualities and his limitations. Those people who in the past have taken little or no interest in sculpture may perhaps be warned against the folly of reacting in the way a New Guinea native might react when taken to the ballet.

It is difficult to discuss Moore critically without appearing to give hope and encouragement to those simple souls who imagine Mr Munnings and the late C. F. Goldie to be 'masters'; and who, if one is to make a logical inference from what they say about 'realism', would no doubt be best pleased if sculptors simply took plaster casts of their models. Nothing contained in this review must be taken to imply in any way an endorsement of bar-parlour art.

The situation has been made the more difficult by the fact that Moore's reputation has got itself involved with certain secular processes that have little or nothing to do page 180with art. For one thing, it is tied up with the post-war British Export Drive (Department of National Prestige). The official culture-organisations of Britain are well aware that, as Sir Bernard Heinze put it the other day, in the times in which we are living 'a country is measured as much by its cultural achievement as by its foreign policy', and have set about blowing up certain reputations close to bursting point. Christopher Fry provides an example. It is possible that the exigencies of public policy may have caused some slight distortion of judgement to creep in regarding Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and various other practitioners of the arts.

Again, as a sculptor who has not hesitated to experiment widely, Moore has inevitably been placed in an invidious position vis-a-vis the Modern Art racket. Beyond doubt there is such a thing. Even Mr Wyndham Lewis, once a militant member of the avant-garde, has been inveighing against it in a little book, The Demon of Progress in the Arts—although he specifically excludes Moore, Sutherland and a number of others from his immediate frame of reference. Like the racket in women's fashions its centres of operations is in Paris; and its organisers have similar aims in view—rapid turnover, a rate of change that induces a sort of vertigo, and the exploitation of novelty as a fetish—the encouragement of every possible mode of the exotic and the unusual. An artistic 'smart set' has been created among the public, which regards art as being, metaphorically speaking, a sort of non-stop cocktail party. These people are always excited by new cocktail mixtures. The habit of living on savouries, nuts, and fragments of exotic cheese has rendered them incapable of appreciating a square meal. At best, they never get past the hors d'œuvre and demand that everything shall have the quality of 'originality' their jaded palates cry out for. Since this group constitutes a large proportion of the art public (the other large group comprising the Munnings devotees and those who think of landscape as 'scenic attractions'), the lot of the critic who chooses to wander in the no-man's-land of tradition is not a happy one.

Fundamental styles in art, as in dress, change slowly. On page 181top of this normal process of development there has grown up a surface activity, instigated by dealers, critics, impresarios, journalists, and artist-adventurers, which produces a froth of fake 'modernism'. No artist today can hope to remain completely unaffected by this situation, and to go on painting or sculpting as the spirit moves him, following his own development. However strong his natural integrity, he will find himself under pressure to become self-consciously either a member of the avant-garde (commanded by critics), or a 'reactionary'. If he is not very careful indeed, he will be pushed off balance. Has this happened, in any degree, to Henry Moore? Let us leave this question for the moment.

The very least that can be said in favour of Moore—and it is a great deal—is that he is a sculptor. His work is sculptural in character. It is not sculpture trying to produce effects more proper to some other art. Even when he is at his most 'literary', sculpture is still, for him, the formal arrangements of masses in space, and not an art of illusionistic effects. And even when he is creating interior as well as exterior form, by perforation or hollowing, he shows at all times a high regard for the definiteness, the three-dimensional actuality, that is characteristic of pure sculpture. Beyond doubt, he has a superb plastic imagination, expressing itself sometimes in sheer richness and complexity of form, at other times in subtly expressive gradations, as in the early head the Auckland Gallery has recently acquired.

His relationship to the tradition of sculpture is a complex one. In the main development of European art during the last five centuries we see a classical strain (appearing first in Greece, and re-emerging at the Renaissance), which has been broken into, cross-fertilised by, sometimes smothered by, other, non-classical elements—chiefly the Gothic strain deriving from Northern Europe. Like a great deal of the notable art of our period, the work of Moore is hybrid, or eclectic. Sometimes he is concerned with creating powerful rhythms that move in wavelike motion through his forms, with strong expressionistic effects gained through a measure of distortion, or with other characteristically Gothic aims.

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In much of his more satisfying work we see the influence of African and Mexican art. On the whole he is unhappy when responding too directly to the influence of classical sculpture. In the Battersea Park 'Three Standing Figures', for instance, he has tried to create simple formal harmony, poise and balance, and a feeling of calm and relaxation. This is a disappointing work—monumental at the expense of dullness, and a little vulgar in some of its detail. (An English critic has compared these figures to petrol pumps.) In his series of reclining figures—which owes something to the Greek (to the 'Theseus' of the Parthenon, for instance)—he has developed the theme very fully, with noble results in some cases, although he ends in somewhat overstrained abstraction. Apart from these traditional influences, some critics have found in certain of his work (especially some of the 'inner and outer forms') an instinctual and 'embryonic' awareness that echoes contemporary psychology.

In one important respect he belongs most definitely to the Gothic tradition, and that is in his constant attempts to fuse art forms and natural forms in the language of a sort of natural mystique. I would say, in fact, that the most important generalisation to be made about Moore is that he is deeply rooted in that particular aspect of the Gothic ethos which produced English nature-romanticism. When he creates sculpture metaphors involving mountains and female figures, or produces a 'Leaf Figure', or vaguely human shapes that call up associations with bones, driftwood, animal and insect forms, boulders, or tree trunks—when, in any one of a number of other ways, he tries to create generalised images from the forms of nature, and to fuse man into them—he evokes the same sort of feeling we get when we read Words-worth's poetry. Although his best work is probably that done under African and Mexican influence, by temperament he is perhaps, more than anything else, at bottom an English nature-romantic.

It is this very nature-romanticism that gives rise to doubts about a large proportion of his work. Beyond question it is attractive—provided one does not come to it with ridiculous preconceptions about sculpture. But does not page 183the generalised 'poetic' quality prevent this work from containing anything like those intense concentrations of meaning which, in the greatest works of the past, have resulted from the combining of the stylistic precision imposed by realism with the abstract harmonies of classical form? Is not the impact of this work somewhat analogous to that of the late Corot, after he abandoned painting those finely-structured early landscapes, and took to creating generalised effects of 'mistiness', 'willowness' and 'riveriness'?

Moore has described sculpture as 'an art of the open air'— and, indeed, his larger pieces need to be seen in parks, or on hilltops, to be fairly judged. A great deal of the finest sculpture of the past has, in fact, been placed in the open— but almost always in conjunction with buildings. Architecture supplies a measure for classically-conceived sculpture. The tension of this situation is lacking when the environment is trees, and the sculpture leans away from the classical. To put it in another way, sculpture is essentially a classical art, and much of what Moore is trying to say might be more potently expressed in poetry. (This is not to be taken to contradict what I said earlier about the truly sculptural quality of Moore's work, but simply to question whether, in the circumstances, that quality can be produced in high concentration. If you like, the greatest of Egyptian and Greek sculpture is brandy, where a good deal of Henry Moore is just vin ordinaire.)

We live in a chaotic period, when art has been bedevilled by ideological warfare. Because Moore has been made a battleground by the critics, he has been led at times, I feel, into a certain intellectual pretentiousness. It is doubtful whether he has escaped altogether from the general decadence of English (and, for that matter, European) art in this century. The root of this decadence lies in isolating the aesthetic, removing it from its necessary and traditional involvement with other modes of experience, and making it a pure end in itself. The work of art thus ceases to have any relationship with anything outside itself—it ceases to have a 'subject'. It becomes, in fact, its own subject. At a low level, this leads to an obsession with effects of texture, and to page 184the production of those rootless abstractions which have become so modish in our time. Looking at some of the more abstract works of Moore's middle period, we may be forgiven for wondering whether their real 'subject' is not merely Moore's own style, hypostatised, conceived as end-in-itself. One notes, indeed, in these works a sort of narcissism—a tendency for the sculptor to imitate himself.

There is much debate in England at the present time as to whether Henry Moore is 'the beginning of something' or 'the end of something'. One needs a crystal ball to arrive at any firm opinions on this point. Only the unborn sculptor— the man who may, or may not, find his imagination truly fertilised, and not merely infected, by the sculptural images Moore has created—will know that. For the moment, we can only submit ourselves to these works, if possible with unclouded minds, and note what effects they have on us. The fact that they differ somewhat from the work of monumental masons, and from the statues we see in New Zealand parks, should not be allowed to influence us unduly.

One of the chief benefits to be gained from this exhibition is the experience of seeing actual sculpture, in a number of very different materials, and on widely differing scales. Even the best photography tends to make works of sculpture look to be all of the same material, and all of the same size, as well as producing other limitations and distortions.

An interesting thought intrudes suddenly: How is it that Moore, who has such a fine colour sense (as can be seen from the drawings in this show), has never reintroduced the Greek practice of polychromy? Much of his work would seem to be admirably suited to colour-treatment.

Finally—there is one thing that might well be kept in mind by those who (like myself) are tempted to make conjectures about Moore's ultimate status. T. S. Eliot once remarked that it is not the task of the contemporary critic to decide whether Mr X is a great poet. That is the business of posterity. The contemporary critic should confine himself to investigating whether or not Mr X is a genuine poet. I repeat that the very least that can be said of Henry Moore is that he is a genuine sculptor.