Henry Moore at the Tate Britain
(24 February – 8 August 2010)
Ship of state. In his long lifetime, which spanned the buggy whip and the atom bomb, Henry Moore’s sculptures were never derided for being “lumpy, swollen, etiolated, hunched, extruded, squashed, and dismembered” by anyone who championed modern art. Such disdain has been saved for our time. The quote is from a London daily’s art critic on the opening of Tate Britain’s large Moore exhibit, and she has no patience for the artist’s repetitiveness, lack of originality, overproduction (the museum culled over a hundred sculptures and drawings from a possible 11,000), endless borrowing from his betters (particularly Picasso), ubiquity as a favorite of corporations and colleges that need to art up the place (my college boasts a large, expensive Moore outside my old dorm), and so on. Such are the whines of twerpdom, which every iconic artist endures as the generations change. The only exception I can think of is the Teflon-coated reputation of Cezanne.
Moore’s massive bronze figures fit so well into the English landscape that they are the landscape: green, smooth, undulating, and still. I can see how they could pile up so high as to block the view of anything else. His marbles are a one-man Stonehenge Throughout half a century of work Moore remained fascinated by themes that he made his own. His detractors drop a single catch phrase – mother and child, reclining woman with a hole in the middle, king and queen – as if it tells the whole story. Of course, that’s like saying “mobile” and claiming to say everything about Calder. The same critics who disdain Moore would never besmirch Giacometti, than whom no artist could hope to be more repetitive. Yet our ability to identify Moore’s sculptures as instantly as Rodin’s caused the Tate to bend over backwards to make him more anxious, anguished, unpredictable, edgy, and _______ (insert adjective appealing to someone under 25). The result is rather pointless, because Moore was great from his first sculptures in the 1920s onward. He took to modernism with arms wide open and never loosened his embrace, proceeding with the assurance of a genius navigating every possibility of the human figure the way Turner navigated every possibility of landscape.
I suspect that besides envy and the slavishness of fads, the dissing of Moore reflects the way he made modernism so English, ready for export and mass consumption no matter what port it called in. For him, Englishness was mature, settled, pacific, reflective, and restrained. But comparisons to a gentleman’s bespoke suit would be premature. In a short film about his mother and child motif, he points out that sometimes the child gets too close to the breast and might be devouring the mother. You’d never guess at such Freudian angst except at rare moments – there is a disturbing example where the baby has been abstracted into a hammer with claw-like mouth while the mother’s head is a concave spoon bristling with fangs. Moore was too civilized to go there very often. He is most human during the war years when he made drawings he called “sleepers in the shelter,” rows of figures lined up like cordwood already burned to ashes. Very little from the blitz is so shattering. In 1942 he went down into Welsh coal mines and produced drawings of miners pushing carts bent over in the dark like demiurges in a Blakean hell. If all of Moore’s sculptures vanished overnight, his drawings alone would have made him a great modern artist.
Moore was exemplary in his goodness and his belief in common humanity. His values were incredibly reassuring and necessary when civilization itself was under threat, as it was from World War I through the Cold War. Those decades were Moore’s epoch. He stood for the continuity of the human spirit – we heard those words a lot in the Fifties. They are United Nations values of the kind that no young artist today would dream of using – or exemplifying. In a side gallery upstairs at the Tate we have Damien Hirst’s infamous sheep preserved in formaldehyde, along with a photo of Hirst at sixteen toothily grinning beside a severed head in the local morgue. He is as timely as Moore, and for that similarity the two became extremely rich – it’s a mark of their differences that Hirst lavished his wealth on yachts and restaurants while Moore lived frugally, planted a tree garden, and left everything to a foundation in his native Yorkshire.
The fact that Henry Moore was a universalist also has added to the undermining of his reputation. He shaped his style out of elements he never bothered to conceal. From the earliest Cycladic stone figures he picked up spindly arms, tiny geometric heads, pinpoint breasts, and empty eyes that are dots, slits or just holes. From the Olmecs he gleaned flat faces wearing enigmatic expressions that seem like aliens waiting to be rescued to their home planet. His reclining figures ape Greek river gods, flavored with the uncanny calmness of Etruscan funeral portraits. But if you consider this merely a ragbag of influences (did Picasso borrow any less omnivorously?), in his heyday Moore’s classical sources spoke of the human spirit enduring beyond time and catastrophe. The real question is not whether he made good use of such mythic totems but whether he is too tied to the anxiety of the twentieth century, the way Otto Dix and Egon Schiele are tied to German anxiety before the rise of Hitlerism. For me, the answer is just as obvious as if somebody accused Guernica of being dated. Moore is that rare bird, an artist at the level of genius who was also a complete human being. It’s not incidental to him, either. In shattering times, completeness is a kind of salvation. Moore put holes in his figures not to dismember them but to give us a new way to look at the sky.