Archive: 18 May, 2004
ART: Size mattered
Henry Moore at the Dulwich Picture Gallery
What ever became of Henry Moore? In the days before 1986, when death called round for a private view at Moore’s Hertfordshire enclave, to note that Moore was the most famous living artist in the world was simply a reflexive journalistic regurgitation of the unarguable. When it came to prestige British marques with a high suitability for export, Moore was, simply, without parallel. Awards, honours, positions on committees and boards, retrospectives here and abroad, inclusions in collections private and corporate and public, honorary degrees by the dozen, famous and influential friends, generous patrons, tame critics and avid apologists, legions of boundlessly loyal assistants, a Foundation to conserve his legacy, a summer place in the shadow of Michelangelo’s old stone-quarries and a tidy little fortune of his own — all these were Moore’s, and much else besides. Few indeed were the countries of the free world that did not boast at least a major Moore or two or three, lumpy large sculptures all lending their own eminently recognisable if tactfully vague gravitas to public spaces and official buildings; few were the visually literate individuals anywhere who could not identify the man behind those massive undulating forms, those curved and excavated hillocks of patinated bronze, that distinctive version of modernism that pulled off the neat trick of looking modern without looking — so skilfully intercut was it with primitivism, surrealism, neo-romanticism and even a sort of regretful classicism — upsettingly modern. Even the intermittent volleys of sniping around the foothills of Moore’s reputation — the claims that his was a small talent blown up to heroic size by assistants, that he only had two or three ideas and that the best of these had been stolen from Picasso — only served to validate his place as a real artist, since it’s a well-known fact that modern art is never really a success until it has been sprinkled with the holy water of philistine ignorance, stupidity and misunderstanding. In short, you might like Moore, you might not, but it hardly mattered. He was simply there, like the weather or the fact of human moral frailty. For a long time it was hard to imagine our visual surroundings without him.
That, however, was twenty years ago. A lot has happened since then. The notion of a ‘free world’ now solicits scare-quotes rather than actual nail-biting anxiety. When cartoonists or sketch-writers seek to invoke the wilder shores of contemporary art, they look not to Moore but to men and women young enough to be Moore’s great-grandchildren, but at the same time alien enough in both their intentions and output to seem like creatures from another world altogether. Most of Moore’s obvious exegetes have now died of old age. No, there’s a sort of shadowy hinterland separating yesterday’s gilt-edged contemporary reputation from tomorrow’s blue-chip Old Master stature, and that is where Moore drifts today, ruffling no feathers, attracting few if any conscious followers, largely buried beneath the heavy accretions of a lifetime of honours and fame and familiarity. The artist, it would seem, or at any rate his one inflated and now devalued reputation, blocks our view of his actual art.
So is it even remotely possible to separate legend from reputation, geo-political exploitation from art-historical achievement, the myth from the actual stuff of stone and clay and cast metal — to get back to where Moore’s early admirers were when they first saw and handled the student sculptor’s work, decades before the Arts Council even existed? The answer is, of course, a resounding ‘no’. Like Yeats in Auden’s poem, the dead Moore is now scattered over a hundred cities, wholly given over to unfamiliar affections. He has, in Auden’s phrase, become his admirers — or at least his viewers. Nor is this surprising. Given the nature of his later life, its almost institutional quality, any other conclusion would have been almost unthinkable. No, the real challenge — the interesting one — is to stop and gauge how we feel about Moore now, at a moment when we are probably at our most cynical about all the causes and commitments with which his post-war work was most closely associated. Never mind who Moore was in 1944 or even 1984 — who is he today? And is there still any reason to bother to think about him at all?
Moore in retrospect
Fortunately, one now need venture no further than suburban London to seek some sort of answer to this question. Not that this is exactly the sacrifice that some of you might imagine. The Dulwich Picture Gallery is, without question, Britain’s most perfect small gallery — and a strong contender for the title of most perfect small gallery anywhere in the world. With its Soane-build mausoleum, its subtle natural light, its faintly eccentric collection of masterpieces, its elegant concision and its peaceful gardens, its decorous new glass-and-bronze café-cum-quandrangle and its blissful happy marriage of old and new, its whole effortlessly arcadian ambience — well, how much of an excuse does one need to take what is admittedly a wretchedly crowded and amazingly slow commuter train out from Victoria to this demi-paradise of luxe, calm et volupté? Not much, really. It’s early summer, after all. The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, the nights are growing long and Dulwich’s paths are full of young and frankly elderly couples strolling hand-in-hand through the sweet green dusk — untroubled, of course, by the odd art critic, alone with her unrecoverable reveries. You should probably have planned to go to Dulwich this summer even had there been no special reason to do so. But now that there is a special reason, staying away would be, to state it no more strongly, foolishness. Go at once.
The special reason is, as sharper readers may by now have suspected, a new Henry Moore retrospective. As with so much at Dulwich, its origins lie in the personal and the private as much as in the public and declamatory. Put briefly, Lisa, Lady Sainsbury — widow of the late Sir Robert Sainsbury and co-founder of the Lisa and Robert Sainsbury Collection at the University of East Anglia — had been, like her husband, both a friend of Moore’s and a collector of his work from the 1920s onwards. Thus when the idea for a Moore retrospective at Dulwich was put to her, she not only offered to sponsor the exhibition — a gesture of considerable generosity — but also to put the Sainsbury Collection at the disposal of the show’s curators. At the same time, the Henry Moore Foundation — repository of the great bulk of Moore’s drawings, maquettes and Moore-related expertise — agreed to take part, including participation from Moore’s niece, Ann Garrould, who has contributed a pleasingly intimate essay to the useful catalogue.
The retrospective, mostly drawn from these two major collections, focuses on pre-1960s work, with a particular emphasis on Moore’s earlier experimental sculpture and a good selection of drawings. It is not, it must be said, the sort of 10-room bigger-is-better behemoth that a larger museum might have assumed to be necessary. At the same time, one might well argue that a more encyclopaedic show would have raised issues about repetitiveness, fatigue and boredom. As it is, Dulwich is now the scene of an elegantly concise exhibition, attractively displayed and competently curated, and certainly none the worse for its implicit and relaxed assumption not only of Moore’s importance, but of his actual greatness. Framed by Moore’s friends and family, it puts this particular case charmingly and effectively, if perhaps not entirely persuasively. Still, it is hard to see how Moore’s memory could have been much better served — or how Sir Robert Sainsbury, a lifelong champion and benefactor of contemporary art, could have been accorded a more fitting and handsome memorial. This is, in short, a first-rate account of one of the past century’s most important sculptors. It should not be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in the recent history of British art.
If you cling, as I do, to the touchingly old-fashioned notion that an artist’s life leaves its particular scars and rubbed patches on the corpus of his art, then Moore’s personal history matters. Alternatively, if you simply believe that we can’t escape the facts of an artist’s life and hence might as well get them right, one ends up in a very similar place. In either event the curators of the present retrospective give Moore’s biography — his family, friends and colleagues and appointments — plenty of attention. And yet in some ways, Moore’s story is not an easy one to tell. It’s conventional enough to try to fit artists’ lives into a series of templates — a fairly limited series, it must be said, since the British idea of the artist stills owes a surprising amount, even now, to sub-Byronic Romantic stereotypes transmitted through everything from tabloid newspapers to melodramatic biopics part-sponsored by an Arts Council that ought, even now, to know better. But Moore does not fit neatly into any of the ready-made templates. Indeed, in some ways his career, enshrined in successive haigiographies — that written by Lucian Freud’s eventual acolyte William Packer is only the most embarrassing of a bad lot — reads more like that of a self-made business magnate or politician than that of an artist. But perhaps that, in itself, tells us something about what made Moore’s career so different from those of his contemporaries.
Moore was born in the little mining village of Castleford, Yorkshire in 1898. His father was a serious-minded, literate, hard-working, not particularly devout Anglican who would have made the journey from the pit to the manager’s office, had only an eye injury not prevented him from completing the necessary exams; he was an active member of his local Miners’ Union and close friend of the organisation’s first president, Herbert Smith; he quoted Shakespeare, taught himself how to play the violin, and in an old-fashioned blend of socialism and compulsive self-improvement clearly expected his eight children to make something of their lives. Moore’s mother Mary, on the other hand, was an affectionate, warm, good-humoured woman who worked herself to death taking care of her large family. At school, Moore decided, for reasons now too encrusted in myth to be worth the effort of repetition, that he wanted to be a sculptor. His father, however, insisted that he qualify first as a schoolteacher — better than being a miner, perhaps, but still an uncongenial occupation that Moore only escaped through the agency of the Great War. Serving on the Western Front with the Civil Service Rifles, 15th London Regiment, he was eventually gassed and sent home. When the war ended, Moore applied successfully for an ex-serviceman’s grant from the local education authority, and found himself a place at the Leeds School of Art. There he made friends with the Vice Chancellor, Sir Michael Sadler, a prescient collector who owned works by Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin as well as a great deal of African tribal art, and who followed the contemporary art scene very closely. At last, Moore and mainstream modernism had connected. They were never to part company again.
In a way, Moore’s relationship with Sadler set the pattern for the rest of the artist’s life. Moore undoubtedly owed a measure of his ultimate success to the fruitful combination of an eye for the main chance coupled with an unfailing ability to attract and retain high-quality patrons. By 1921 he had received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, and decamped for London — the last time this official Yorkshireman would ever live in his allegedly beloved North. And as Moore’s taste developed through the formative years that followed, the prejudices and priorities he acquired were, with one or two exceptions, entirely mainstream. He internalised Roger Fry’s influential dismissal of the Classical Greek tradition and his preference for the Primitive; he haunted the British Museum and the V&A; he was an habitual user of the phrase ‘truth to material’; he learned to admire Giotto and Cezanne but not Donatello or Raphael; he preferred ‘found’ pebbles to Bernini; he was careful to travel more or less in the footsteps of the late Gaudier-Brezska and the very much current Jacob Epstein (who, encouragingly enough, acquired some of the young sculptor’s work) and to build up a body of helpful friends without, somehow, acquiring the traditionally corresponding cohort of unhelpful enemies. At the RCA he soon became a protégé of his fellow Yorkshireman Sir William Rothenstein, who secured for him both a teaching position and generous exposure to the great and the good, the latter of which survived his later departure for another teaching post at the Chelsea School of Art. Here, not much enjoying teaching and just beginning to earn a proper income from sales, Moore began to make a serious name for himself.
He also continued to make friends — high-quality, useful friends. Having married Irina Radetzky, a pretty, shy, self-effacing colleague who was content to give up her career to further his own, Moore moved to Hampstead, where his new circle of friends included Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Paul Nash, John Piper and the critic Herbert Read — the latter too little remembered today, but in those times a highly influential maker of modernist reputations, and the eventual author of one of the first serious full-length accounts of Moore’s work. Over at MoMA, Alfred Barr had become a fan, paving the way for the growth of a phenomenal international reputation. By 1930 Moore made his first showing at the Venice Biennale; his work also appeared in Berlin, Stockholm, Paris and Zurich, among other places. Also around this time, Moore was taken under the wing of the director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark. Moore’s close friendship both with the urbane young director and with his wife brought further rewards, expected and unexpected. These included a War Artist’s commission, a gilt-edged entré into the world of the British Council and the Arts Council, exposure to what a certain sort of sloppy journalism would call ‘the finer things in life’, and — perhaps most importantly — an ongoing apologia for his work which was at once impeccably modern and reassuringly conservative. Moore was the atheist who could safely be asked to create statues of the Virgin Mary — the communist party member who would happily accept official honours — the sort of man whose nude figures have doubtless never stirred an erection in anyone, ever. By the time that Moore had set himself up as the sculpture-generating squire of Perry Green, he had internalised all of this and made it his own. At the same time, he continued to nurture the D. H. Lawrencian mystique of his poor-but-proud coal-mining origins, which the Clarks of this world appear to have regarded with a sort of talismanic reverence — as long as Moore’s art retained its chaste universalising distance from the sweat and discontent and politics of the actual coalface.
This latter point was an important one — perhaps more obviously so in the 1940s than it is today. For Moore, the end of the Second World War saw not only modest revisions in practice, but fairly major revisions of exegesis. Out went Surrealism, the whimsical grotesqueries of which had not aged very well in the wake of Buchenwald and Hiroshima — and out, too, went the super-aestheticised dogma of Roger Fry. The trick now was to produce art that was engageé without coming across as too political, strident or functional. This, in turn, meant sustaining a difficult balancing act between expressive content and antiseptic formalism. And however you parse it — as the effect of making those shelter drawings, or the birth of his daughter, or careerism, or whatever — Moore was strikingly good at delivering something that seemed to tackle big issues without doing anything very alarming or controversial with any of them.
Not least, Moore was experienced in the art of ‘referencing’ earlier work while stripping out all its original meaning. Under his chisel, the Toltec chacmol altar, its sleek dark surfaces once bathed in the still-warm blood of propitiatory human sacrifice, was transformed into a soothing, if strangely sexless, reclining mother-figure. The Gothic Madonnas of northern England and northern Italy, recipients of so many devout and heartfelt prayers over the centuries, were distilled into wholesome yet wholly secularised mother-and-child sculpture fit to ornament public spaces in ugly new towns. Even the mysterious legacy of Stonehenge and Avebury, the age-old standing stones erected with such effort to some unrecoverable purpose, became the inspiration for those sheep-encircled, over-photographed, mostly abstract enterprises erected on windswept hills to the greater glory of Henry Moore, OM, CH. What did it all mean? Well, as much or as little as the viewer wanted, really. In those famous shelter drawings which stirred up so much sympathy in wartime America, amongst other places, London’s men and (mostly) women became as timeless and lapidary as Etruscan tomb-statuary — no longer coarse, irreverent Cockneys, passing the time amidst a fog of Woodbine smoke and profanity and the smell of unwashed bodies, drunkenly sneaking a surreptitious grope or worse, immediate and individual, full of opinions and priorities entirely their own. (You’d also never know from these drawings that London’s working class homeless had quite literally invaded the underground in the face of minimal state provision of proper shelters, forcing the government to accept, with bad grace, as fait accompli what many saw as the first stirrings of authentic proletarian revolution.) Similarly, Moore’s stolid miners, looking more like well-behaved golems than real men, were the rare sort that never swore or slacked off or came out on strike at inconvenient moments. At one level, of course, this made the images more accessible, more manageable — much more suitable for an international audience — even raising the possibility that the work possessed some sort of immaculately secular yet discernable ‘spirituality’. But at another level, the irony by which such images came to be seen as icons of liberal democratic individualism was not lost even on critics less irritable and sharp-witted than, say, John Berger. And the further such images moved from being hand-created by Moore, the more industrial and impersonal the means and methods of production, the stickier and more rancid those ironies became.
All the glittering prizes
Nevertheless, the free world lapped it all up. Moore’s honorary doctorate from Leeds University in 1945 was followed by honorary degrees from the Universities of London, Reading, Oxford, Hull, York, Durham, Yale, Harvard, Cambridge, St. Andrew’s, Sheffield, Toronto, Manchester, Sussex, Warwick, Leicester, York (Toronto), Columbia (New York), Bradford and Berlin. Moore served as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1941-56, the National Gallery (1955-63 and 1964-74), the Arts Council (1963-67) and the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1947-71), as well as a member of plenty of other committees, delegations, juries and groups who wrote querulous letters to The Times. The list of his international honours — academies of art of various sorts — is simply too long to reproduce. Meanwhile, he was also given prizes: the international prizes for sculpture at the biennales of Venice (1948), Sao Paulo (1953), and Tokyo (1959); at the Carnegie International (1957); the Antonio Feltrinelli Prize from the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome (1963); the Ibico Reggino Prize for Figurative Arts and Sculpture, Reggio (1972); the Umberto Biancamano Prize, Milan (1972); the Stefan Locher Medal of the City of Cologne (1957); the Gold Medal of the Society of the Friends of Art, Cracow (1959); the Fine Arts Medal of the Institute of Architects of America (1964); the Erasmus Prize of the Netherlands (1968); the Einstein Prize of Yeshiva University, New York (1968); the Medal of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1972); the Kaissering der Stadt Goslar, West Germany (1975); the Grosse Goldene Ehrenzeichen of the City of Vienna and the Austrian Medal for Science and Art (1978); and the Grosse Verdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband from the fair hand of Helmut Schmidt, no less (1980). He was appointed to the West German Order of Merit in 1968, as a foreign member to the Orden pour le Merite fur Wissenschaften und Kunste in 1972, when he was also made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. In 1984 President Mitterand presented him with the Legion d’Honneur. And indeed, one could go on in this vein, but what would be the point? As official court artist to the Cold War era West, Henry Moore was simply without equal. To try to forget this would be a nonsense. It can no more be separated from Moore’s work than can, say, Picasso’s relationships with women, Pollock’s drinking habits, Guttuso’s politics, Warhol’s love of celebrity, Twombly’s holiday habits or, in our own time, Emin’s graceful pas-de-deux with the British print media.
But before abandoning the subject of Moore’s life in favour of the not unrelated subject of Moore’s art, it is perhaps worth pausing just long enough to compare his career with that of one of his relatively successful contemporaries — to pause, if for no other reason than to shock ourselves into a realisation of what was, and wasn’t, peculiar about Moore’s history. And here the alternative path is obvious. Francis Bacon was in many ways Moore’s only real parallel. The two men were born and died within a few years of each other — paradoxically, badly-behaved Bacon actually lasted a bit longer than did the clean-living Moore — gained strong international reputations, ended up wealthy and at the top of their respective professions. But what a contrast! Moore, very much in the mould of his father, learned his trade the patient, steady way — taking classes, studying real art, reading real criticism, acquiring appropriate mentors and fellow-students — before, in due course, garnering the rewards that hard work and application apparently bring. Bacon, meanwhile, would have done pretty much anything to have escaped his appalling family, spent years designing rugs and furniture, never seems to have taken a proper art course in his life, hated the idea of mentors, hated drawing, preferred photographs of art to the actual art itself, quoted Aeschylus while denying any interest in critics, cultivated some of the least desirable friends possible while enthusiastically alienating anyone in a position to help him, voted Tory but never received any honours at all — before entrusting the bulk of his own priceless collection not to a well-organised Foundation, but rather to a good-looking boy with no particular interest in art. And while Moore’s oeuvre ended up gracing the UNESCO Building and the lawn in front of the Palace of Westminster, it is somehow hard — if entertaining — to imagine one of Bacon’s smeary, lurid, ‘are they having sex or trying to kill each other?’ canvases placed in similar proximity to bureaucrats and politicians. All of which is a long way of saying that Bacon is, I think, still closer to our idea of what an artist should be — the rivers of champagne, the missing teeth, the sexual violence, the Pringle cashmere jumpers used to smear wet pigment, the haptic spontaneity — than is earnest, decent, hard-working Henry Moore. And that, too, has become part of what we know about Moore, and how we feel about him now.
Et in arcadia ego …
All of which takes us, by degrees, back to the leafy glades and luminous rooms of lovely Dulwich. The simple idea of showing Moore at Dulwich makes, in itself, one sort of point about his work, but it does so at the price of introducing a sort of critique of it as well. At the private view the other night, in order to reach the part of the Gallery in which the Moore retrospective was being held, visitors had to pass an arresting series of paintings — major works by Velasquez, Reni, Tiepolo, Poussin, Claude, Watteau, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Van Dyck, and Rubens, as well as perfectly delightful paintings by marginally less famous artists such as Swanevelt and Lely. At the end of this rather dream-like progress one eventually reached several rooms’ worth of Henry Moore. The clear message? That Moore is a very major master indeed, worthy to be seen alongside the greatest artists in the Western tradition — part of their lineage, a member of their club, sharing as an equal in their collective fund of glory. But the critique can be just as clear, and potentially as unforgiving. Is Moore really as versatile as Rubens? As technically proficient as Van Dyck or Claude? Is his development really as interesting as that of Rembrandt or Poussin? Is his ability to grab a handful of the eternal out of the ordinary stuff of everyday life as astounding as that of, say, Watteau? Is there any sense at all in which Moore, in this company, makes the grade?
Well, I’d be lying — one of the few unforgiveable vices in a critic — if I claimed that he did. This really is the danger at Dulwich. Who doesn’t end up looking culpably second-rate? On the evening of the private view, I was immensely conscious of spending as much time with Swanevelt as I did with Moore — possibly more enjoyable time, too. I love Swanvelt’s gentle melancholy, his impossible love for the vanished glories of classical civilisation, all that foreground incident totally overwhelmed by the eternal quality of what stands behind it. The longer one looks, the more there is to see, whether one is there to find narrative or formal or expressionistic qualities. And then of course Swanevelt is hardly a major painter. No visit to Dulwich would be complete without recourse to Poussin’s A Roman Road, where what is gentle and melancholy and nostalgic in Swanevelt becomes absolutely timeless, ideal and at the same time gut-wrenchingly elegiac. A Roman Road is as good a painting as Poussin ever painted, which is to say as good a painting as exists anywhere. But then a few feet away are several examples of Poussin working in very different modes, with different subject-matter, achieving radically different ends. For more than three centuries now people have been looking at Poussin’s work, yet it still retains an air of keeping far more secrets than it will ever divulge. And for me, anyway, this is simply one of the signal qualities of really great visual art. Whatever the contingencies amidst which it was painted, whomever the audience, whatever they read into it and out of it that would now never cross our minds — it somehow has the versatility, the resilience and the charisma to find itself new contexts, new audiences, new meanings. Although entirely of its own time, it connects as directly with us as a sharp look from someone we’ve loved and known for years — and with as powerful and undeniable an effect.
Of course it would be nonsense to say that Moore’s work will never achieve this stature. Perhaps it will. To attempt to speak for future generations is as pointless, if sometimes as satisfying, as attempting to speak for the dead. We simply don’t know. What we can do, though, is keep up some basic standard of honesty regarding our own responses to it.
At Dulwich, Moore in some sense benefits from the cheap yet perennially effective frisson bought by juxtaposing ‘primitive’ objects with the more rarefied fruits of High Culture. It worked when the Royal Academy recently showed off Aztec artefacts in rooms topped off by coffered ceilings and gilt cornices; it used to work at the old Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly, before all the masks and fetishes were replaced with Vivienne Westwood frocks; frankly, indeed, I suspect that part of the logic of moving the Saatchi Collection to the Edwardian proprieties of County Hall relies on this same effect. And of course half of the jolt of this effect comes from the reliability with which proximity to High Culture helps to categorise simple-looking objects as Art, full of all the careful workmanship and implied meaning and numinous effects that we attribute to that category. So it would be foolish to say that showing Henry Moore at Dulwich somehow shows him at an unfair disadvantage, particularly as opposed to showing him alongside the work of sculptors like Arp, Giacometti, Hepworth and Calder. What it does do, however, is to flag up some of the limitations of his work. And here, in a way, the cumulative effect really does come across as slightly damning. Put simply, and particularly so in the context of better art, Moore’s work just isn’t all that interesting.
Form and function
You all, I suspect, know in at least a rough sense what Henry Moore’s sculptures look like. They tend — whatever the scale — to have a massive, heavy, motionless quality. Almost all have at least a figurative basis, although some verge on the abstract. Reclining women constitute a major theme, as do mothers and babies, or sometimes seated couples; rarely does anyone stand up or move. Moore’s materials were stone, bronze — and of course charcoal and paper, in part because he believed that drawing and sculpture were necessary concomitants of each other. He was also a great exponent of piercing through the block of material to expose its inner surfaces. Ultimately, formal considerations were always part of the story with Moore, although never the sole point. It appears that he believed in a sort of innate human ability to read form, texture, contour and shadow as somehow expressive and meaningful in themselves. And certainly, at least by the 1950s, he had come to believe that the proper place for sculpture was, quite simply, outside of man-made structures:
Sculpture is an art of the open air. Daylight, sunlight, is necessary to it, and for me its best setting and complement is nature. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know. (Moore, 1951, Catalogue of first Tate retrospective)
Moore’s dimmer or more determined acolytes came to associate this entirely arbitrary stance with the ‘English Landscape Tradition’ — something that seems to have got off the ground in about 1927, as opposed to its more elderly German or indeed French equivalents — but more probably it was the last gasp of the late nineteenth century vogue for public monuments of improving and accessible character. Whatever the truth of it, though, Moore stood by it until his dying day. It is perhaps less well known that Moore was also intensely interested in photography, and cared passionately about how his sculptural work was presented photographically for the many, many viewers who would never see a particular piece in its actual setting. So perhaps being outside didn’t actually matter quite so much as the appearance of being outside?
At Dulwich, four very characteristic sculptures are placed in the fresh air of the Gallery’s gardens; inside Moore is given four rooms’ worth of maquettes, drawings and smaller sculptures. The organisation is a diplomatic compromise between the demands of a thematic and a chronological hang. Thus in the first room Moore develops his skills amid plenty of visits to the British Museum and the V&A; in the second room the Reclining Figure emerges; Room 3 is given over to mothers, families and small groups, while Room 4 sees Moore’s apotheosis as a war artist, official representative of his nation’s sufferings abroad and at home, and the consolidation of his reputation. What happened afterwards is skimmed over lightly — perhaps an oblique comment of sorts on the limits of Moore’s development.
For anyone who has spent time reading about Moore, pondering his stature and the nature of his achievement, it is a wonderful experience to see so many significant works from the Moore canon all in one place. The Northampton Madonna remains keeping watch over Northampton, but with that one exception, there are plenty of other highly recognisable works on view. These include Moore’s copy of Domenico Rosselli’s Head of the Virgin (a college assignment that assumed greater importance in retrospect), the very Aztec but also very Gaudier-Brezska-inflected Dog, several helmet-type heads, and a very fine run of shelter drawings and coalmine sketches. To spend time amongst these works is, inevitably, to gain a firmer understanding of Moore’s practice — the relationship between drawing and carving, the role of evolution and experimentation, even the gulf that separates the fetish-like intimacy of the hand-sized maquette from the easy-to-overlook civic sculpture. And in doing so, strangely, it also reveals some of what Moore’s public reputation added, by the end of his life, to his work. The result is not always what one might have anticipated.
There is, ultimately, a lot to be said for intimacy. In Dulwich’s human-sized rooms, those tiny figures of families or resting women could equally well be archaeological specimens or the product of some highly personal, post-Christian personal compulsion. They do, somehow, look as if they are there to do something, rather than simply to express some arid notion of ‘truth to materials’. And of course the way in which the exhibition has been organised — the lingering awareness one has of the role of Lady Sainsbury and her late husband, and of Moore’s niece, in making this exhibition possible — adds to the intimacy, the personal quality. Amid the drawings, one is reminded less of the figures depicted than of Moore himself making nightly visits to the shelters, becoming a little obsessed by the confined uterine spaces and the opportunities to enjoy, if only voyeuristically, the domesticity of others suddenly thrown open to collective view — making personal compulsion into public art, transcribing the hard male world of war into a language of dark passages, intimate spaces and sleeping families. The Moore one finds in these rooms is a surprisingly private, haunted, slightly twisted individual, seeking phantom guiding fathers while making indestructible mothers and the occasional accompanying baby. (His only child, a daughter, was born after seventeen years of marriage, apparently after the family had more or less given up hope.) Prizes don’t seem to matter much here, in this private world, nor do honorary degrees and international decorations, except as a way to live up to a standard set by those long dead in an age seemingly centuries removed from the present. The Moore one finds is strangely, almost engagingly strange and needy. He seems, in a word, as nutty in his own personal way as Bacon ever was. And there is something obscurely pleasing, somehow, about this discovery. Certainly, it made me warm to Moore more powerfully than I’d ever done hitherto.
But then one went out to the gardens, where the smartly-dressed gallery-goers air-kissed and drank their wine and spared the odd fleeting glance in the direction of those larger, more public, more declamatory pieces. The sculptures looked sleek, competent — reassuringly official under one last gold barrage from the disappearing dusk, nested in their setting of manicured grass and general approbation. And so one had to wonder, fleetingly, how much Moore courted that blandness, that antiseptic quality, the sheer impersonality of the assistant’s hand and the fabricator’s burnishing touch, if only to cleanse these works of whatever had been real or painful in them at the handmade stage, preparing for public life something that had grown, however surreptitiously, out of the ache of private woundedness? It was hard, moving from the galleries out onto the lawn, not to imagine that the inflation of his work into so-general-as-to-be-meaningless geopolitical metaphor really just provided a license to move away from the formal and intellectual to the personal and visceral, safe in the knowledge that institutional approbation could wash clean any amount of an old man’s self-indulgence. Size mattered, perhaps, because it is so much easier to hide things in the open. And if this is true, one is left with a strangely poignant respect for, as much as anything, Moore’s old-fashioned disinclination to speak about his parents, his siblings, his wife and his daughter only in veiled and indirect language. One thinks, unavoidably here, of Tracy Emin or Richard Billingham — and can only end up respecting Moore all the more profoundly.
Not, of course, that this makes Moore’s work any more interesting to look at. The large public sculptures are still, it must be said, pretty dull. The maquettes are repetitive and hence as boring as anyone else’s secret obsession inevitably must be to those who are not party to it. Ditto the drawings. Moore was clever enough to choose a sharply limited set of themes and approaches, working them until he finally could work no longer. But his technical skills, both with regard to drawing and carving, were even more sharply limited. Where his work isn’t simply derivative, it lacks variety; where it attempts to transcend ‘classic’ Moore, it often simply fails. To say that Moore was even a competent draughtsman, let alone a great one, is tantamount to blindness. His drawing is worse than Freud’s. Meanwhile to say that Moore was a great sculptor is to show ignorance of what could be done by literally hundreds of sculptors of greater ability — the great stone-cutters of classical Greece and Rome, Donatello, Bernini, Roubillac — even Picasso, for heaven’s sake, who in addition had the sense of humour that even some of Moore’s keenest advocates (David Sylvester comes to mind) had to admit he totally lacked. The truth is that Moore had to cling to ‘truth to materials’ because he would have been incapable of making stone look like silk or hair or skin even had he wished to do so; he had to place his sculpture in the open air because doing so gave it a shimmering succession of hieratic significances it would otherwise have all too obviously lacked — as well as courting comparisons that would have done him no favours. If Moore has left behind a visual legacy which has become so much a part of our world that we no longer even really notice it, this had less to do with skill than with the ability to persuade the world that his limitations were in themselves a form of indisputable genius. Here theory came to his aid, along with some of the deeper currents of modernism and a lot of geopolitical necessity. Moore had the good sense not to fight against those currents but instead to go gladly where they carried him and to make the best of what he found there.
But none of this, of course, means that Moore’s sculpture is irrelevant. Nor does it mean that the work is simply an obsolete relic of a vanished era, its greatness as dated now as that era’s fears and follies and blind-spots — or that this identification with the circumstances of its making necessarily depletes in some ways its value as art. All of which brings us back, really, to the point I was making at the beginning of this essay. The importance conferred on Moore’s work by the culture that surrounded it, the burden it was made to bear, the weaknesses as well as the strengths that made it somehow suitable for those times — these things are now inseparable from the work, from how we understand the work, and hence from who Moore is today. In other words Moore, for all his awkward silences, speaks recognisably for the age that in a very real sense created him. This is not, incidentally, to imply that Moore provides some sort of key to the age, some gauge of its decadence of otherwise — although bad historians will doubtless act as if it could. But it does mean that Moore’s work will always carry with it some of whatever one feels about the Cold War years, as surely as, say, Swanevelt’s work carries something of what his own age felt about the classical past. This is the sense in which Moore’s limitations, his weaknesses, his sheer relative incompetence ends up mattering as much as whatever hot little spark of passion drove his career from the start. Moore, then, was by no means a great artist, but he may yet prove to be an artist who will speak in some way to the future — whatever the future makes of his slightly cumbersome, inarticulate cadences, in which the high formality of public language seems so often simply the artist’s way of humming reassuringly to himself — or indeed, whatever the future makes of the whole business of sculpture in our time, the oddity and indirection of its stated purposes as much as the haziness its actual impact.
These are complicated issues, obviously, raising a lot of points about the whole category of art per se. What’s it for? To what extent can we ever understand an artist’s intentions? To what extent do they matter? To what extent is public discourse simply the incidental by-product of private preoccupation? And how much can we know about our own relationship with the visual world — why we like what we like — let alone about the sensory universes of even our closest friends? Yet it is hard to imagine a more agreeable environment in which to contemplate such puzzles than at the current Moore retrospective, as memorable as it is much-needed and as attractive as it is revealing. Meanwhile the grass is green, the petals of the flowers unfold hour by hour under the hot May sun, and inside the Gallery itself the rooms are airy, cool and quiet. The long afternoons, where they do not invite sleepy conversation in the soft damp grass, invite contemplation. Go to Dulwich, walk amongst Moore’s work, and ponder these things for yourself. For whatever has become of Moore — wherever he has ended up amid the clamour of all that international approbation, whoever he is today — surely, this summer, Dulwich is the place to find him.
Henry Moore will be at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from 12 May – 12 September 2004. Tickets cost £7; concessions apply.