Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Affirmative Action: British Sculptors and Sculpture and the Monographic Form in Twentieth-Century Sculpture Studies

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Affirmative Action: British Sculptors and Sculpture and the Monographic Form in Twentieth-Century Sculpture Studies

Article excerpt

In 1967 a row erupted in the correspondence columns of The Times about Henry Moore's proposed giftof 26 major pieces of sculpture and other objects to the Tate Gallery.1 Concern centred on the artist's rumoured stipulation that the sculpture must be permanently displayed. A letter from Sir Charles Wheeler, the former President of the Royal Academy, warned against the Tate tying itself to an irrevocable commitment. This might strain its financial resources and harness the institution to a singular, potentially unsustainable aesthetic position, or as Wheeler put it, 'the "Great works" of today may become the "bronze oddities" of tomorrow'.2 While much of the ensuing correspondence from other writers was flippant or uninformed, the debate on the Moore giftbecame more heated with the publication of a joint letter of protest co-signed by several of Moore's former assistants, students and acquaintances. The signatories included Anthony Caro, Garth Evans, Elisabeth Frink, Phillip King, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Tucker and William Turnbull among the 41 painters and sculptors. Viewed retrospectively, their arguments traversed similar ground to Wheeler's letter, but the show of artistic solidarity and the text's political slant meant it was perceived by Moore and the Tate's Trustees as a more serious attack:

Whoever is picked out for this exceptional place [the Tate Gallery] will necessarily seem to represent the triumph of modern art in our society. The radical nature of art in the twentieth century is inconsistent with the notion of an heroic and monumental role for the artist and any attempt to predetermine greatness for an individual in a publicly financed form of permanent enshrinement is a move we as artists repudiate. 3

Soon afterwards Caro and King rushed down to Much Hadham to offer assurances of continuing loyalty, motivated by a blend of concern that Moore had taken the criticism personally, and a wish to keep in good standing with their former employer.4

This episode makes a fitting start for an assessment of the Henry Moore Foundation and Lund Humphries British Sculpture and Sculptors (BSS) series,5 because both the dispute and the books arise from Henry Moore's extraordinary position in twentieth-century British art and the complex responses this has generated. Since reputations and resources lie at the heart of the 1967 dispute, there is a certain poetic irony in Moore's largesse twenty-five years later being used, via the agency of the Henry Moore Foundation (HMF), to fund BSS monographs on several of the protagonists: King, Tucker, Turnbull and Wheeler. The description of the furore given above, fully acknowledging Wheeler's intervention, comes from the recent BSS volume on Wheeler, which counters past versions of the story that have either overlooked his role or misrepresented it as a reactionary establishment outburst (fig. 1).6 This more balanced account is a brief but telling illustration of the series' wider objective of revisiting twentieth-century art from a new perspective.

With the final title in the BSS series on Francis Derwent Wood due to appear in 2014-15, this is an appropriate moment to evaluate the investment embodied in the series and weigh up its scholarly returns. What does looking in detail at the BSS and its relationship to sculpture studies tell us about the role of the monograph in shaping reputations? Are general criticisms of the 'life in art' model, which have been directed at the BSS and cast it as a lacklustre, outmoded canonical form, themselves becoming outmoded when considered in the light of recent directions in historical studies?

The first contribution to the series bearing the now familiar title The Sculpture of... was devoted to Phillip King and was published in 1992 (fig. 2). It established the format for the series, namely a generously illustrated and beautifully produced book containing a 25,000-word essay, a catalogue of the work, a lists of exhibitions, works in public collections and a bibliography. …

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