ArtWay

Beauty is a gift that we discover, receive, and steward. Makoto Fujimura

Henry Moore: Reclining Figure

ArtWay Visual Meditation 13 August 2023

www.artway.eu

Henry Moore: Reclining Figure

 Henry Moore Tate Britain Exhibition (2010)

by Nigel Halliday

The curators of the Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain (2010) had an overt agenda. They presented a narrative which holds that the huge popularity of Moore after the Second World War had the effect of domesticating his work and blinding us to his dark side. They wanted to re-establish the idea that Moore’s oeuvre was, in the words of Bryan Robertson, ‘anything but gentle’.

It took me a while to be convinced of the argument, partly because it depends on the commentary rather than the works. The exhibition itself contains many of the familiar, warmly human images of mothers and children, and ends with a glorious room of four huge reclining figures in elm wood.

Even the wartime drawings of figures sheltering from the Blitz in the underground, adduced here as an example of the artist’s edginess, seem to me perfectly sympathetic. The drawing of two sleeping figures, one with a hand innocently placed on the chest of the other in what is obviously a long and habitual closeness, seems engaging and comforting.

Nevertheless, the curators have got a point. With Moore’s success he came to be seen as the avuncular supplier of comforting human forms set in a landscape, or attractively tactile bronzes set in almost every urban space in the Western world. And in some people familiarity certainly bred contempt.

Moore, however, remained a deeply serious artist who claimed that a good work of art is ‘the expression of the significance of life’ and ‘a stimulation to greater effort in living’. On the bright side is the modernist thrill of freedom from old meanings and old forms, the optimism of creating a new humanity. Set against that are the darker implications of Darwin and Freud for what it means to be human, coupled with memories of the First World War as proof of what human beings are capable of. Moore himself served in the trenches, being gassed in 1917, and finding himself one of only 52 survivors from the original 400 men in his battalion.

Like many of his contemporaries Moore found a vocabulary for these sensibilities in non-Western art, from African, North and South American, Oceanic and palaeolithic sculpture. These meshed well with a Surrealist-inspired creation of forms that resisted rational explanation. He created sculptures, particularly in the early 1930s, that were at times with their distorted, hornlike heads and inscribed markings unsettling and threatening, and at other times defiantly hermetic.

What is odd about the argument of the exhibition, however, is that it invites us to look at the works more naturalistically than we have been taught to. In previous generations we had been encouraged to engage with sculptural form as an end in itself, divorced from naturalism and narrative. As Moore himself wrote in 1930 the sculpture that moved him most ‘has a life of its own, independent of the object it represents’. This exhibition invites us to look at the works much more literally as representations: these body parts are direct metaphors for a broken humanity, and these holes are all Freudian.

Of course, there is nothing funnier than watching art historians who are sure they have scented sexual references: no hole and no vertical line, however innocent, is allowed to go unnoticed – and of course, there are a lot of holes in a Henry Moore.

Nevertheless, even if at times the interpretation seems a little strained, it is interesting to see scholars rediscovering what they term the ‘abject’ in Moore’s depiction of the human, the brokenness, the mourning, and the focus on non-rational emotion. The search for meaning in a modernist world was neither triumphant nor triumphalist.

And yet, undercutting the argument of the exhibition, Moore has a redemptive side. While the Continental Surrealists created a closed world of sexual fantasy and hopeless anxiety, English Surrealists such as Moore and Paul Nash had a more romantic, almost pantheistic side to them, and tended to point outwards, towards a hope located in nature or in the humanity of the figure.

For all the edginess that this exhibition seeks to underline, it is still very life-affirming. Human beings are treated with nobility. The sculptor glories in the beauty of natural materials, which become a force in determining the final form. And the overt connections of figure and landscape create an atmosphere that is at least open and hopeful.

*******

Henry Moore: Reclining Figure, 1939; elmwood; 94 x 200.7 x 76.2 cm; Detroit Institute of Arts

This reflection was first published in Third Way, April 2010.

Henry Moore was born in Castleford, a small mining town in Yorkshire, in 1898. After training to be a teacher and serving in the British Army he studied at Leeds School of Art and then the Royal College of Art, London. By the 1950s Moore had begun to receive a number of international commissions. He continued working in sculpture, drawing, printmaking and textile design until his death in 1986. Moore was a pioneer and the first British artist to become a global star in his own lifetime. His work came to symbolise post-war modernism and can be said to have caused a British sculptural renaissance. https://henry-moore.org/

The Henry Moore Exhibition at Tate Britain ran from 24 February until 8 August, 2010. The exhibition presented more than 150 stone sculptures, wood carvings, bronzes and drawings. Highlights of the show included a group of key reclining figures carved in elm, which illustrate the development of this key image over his career. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/henry-moore

Nigel Halliday is a British freelance art historian, lecturer and teacher. He studied History of Art at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute, London. He teaches the whole canon of Western art from Giotto onwards, but his main interests have been nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. He also has particular interest in Michelangelo and Rembrandt and the influence of Protestant belief on their work. He is a Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Public Theology in Cambridge, England.  www.nigelhalliday.org

*******

ART NEWS INTERNATIONAL

ARTWAY – We just posted the blog Ethnoarts Scripture Engagement by Scott Rayl. Ethnoarts are artistic ‘languages’ that are unique to a particular community. They can help strengthen a community´s cultural and Christian identity. Read more

PODACST WITH CANADIAN ARTIST BETTY SPACKMAN – In this interview in Radix, Betty shares with us some of her thoughts on the importance of art in general, common misconceptions that are held about it, what it means to be creative (and she thinks we all are), as well as some ideas on how Christians can meaningfully assist in helping the arts to flourish. Also—and this is important—Betty believes in the power of kindness and hospitality, and you’ll hear it come through in the interview. Read more

NEW BOOK BY JEREMY BEGBIE – Just out is a new book from Baker Academic by theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie entitled Abundantly More: The Theological Promise of the Arts in a Reductionist World. Late-modern culture has been marred by reductionism, which shrinks and flattens our vision of ourselves and the world. Renowned theologian Jeremy Begbie believes that the arts by their nature push against reductionism, helping us understand and experience more deeply the infinite richness of God's love and of the world God has made. In Abundantly More Begbie analyzes and critiques reductionism and its effects. He shows how the arts can resist reductive impulses by opening us up to an unlimited abundance of meaning. And he demonstrates how engaging the arts in light of a trinitarian imagination (which itself cuts against reductionism) generates a unique way of sharing in the life and purposes of God. Theologians, artists, and any who are interested in how these fields intersect will find rich resources here and discover the crucial role the arts can play in keeping our culture open to the possibility of God. Read more

ESSAY –  “The Hospitality of Abraham in the Work of Julia Stankova, Painter of Bulgarian Icons” by François Bœspflug: The first half of this peer-reviewed article introduces readers to the Bulgarian artist Julia Stankova, rehearsing her biography and examining her relationship to the icons tradition. The second half explores twelve of her paintings on the subject of the three angelic visitors to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, whom the narrator suggests are a manifestation of God (“The LORD appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre . . .”); because of the number of visitors, many Christians interpret this passage as revealing something of God’s triune nature, and for this reason traditional icons of the story are often titled The Trinity.

ARTICLE –  “Waking Ancient Seeds: Why the Middle Ages Matter” by Matthew J. Milliner, Comment, May 10, 2023: “For the medievals, Jesus is the Rosetta stone of cosmic meaning, with whom all things are aglow in the polyphonic resonance of truth, and without whom the world hurdles into centrifugal disconnection,” writes Matt Milliner, a theologically trained professor of art history at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois. “It is our world that has been flattened, lacking the full-orbed splendour of medieval significance and depth.” In this article he contrasts the symbolism and sense of wonder and reverence of the Middle Ages with the deficits of the present, identifying several, sometimes unlikely places in which these “ancient seeds” are sprouting again.

ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.

ARTWAY: OPENING EYES, HEARTS AND MINDS


Other recent meditations:
- September 2023: Banksy: Flying Balloon Girl
- September 2023: François Peltier: The Apocalypse of Saint-Émilion
- August 2023: Marinus van Reymerswaele: The Unjust Steward

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists