Magazine article The Spectator

Shape Shifter

Magazine article The Spectator

Shape Shifter

Article excerpt

Henry Moore

Tate Britain, until 8 August

Even some of the greatest artists go in and out of fashion, though market forces are grimly determined (in the short term) that this should not be so. Death often brings a lull in interest, or conversely a revival. An artist who has been overrated may be for a time forgotten, until someone starts the process of reassessment and perhaps a more balanced appraisal is reached. The reputation of Henry Moore (1898-1986) has had its ups and downs - he was first displaced from critical pre-eminence by his one-time assistants Anthony Caro and Phillip King and the revolution in abstract, coloured sculpture in the 1960s - but now his standing is deemed in need of revision. The current Tate exhibition is designed to show people that Henry Moore OM was not only one of Britain's greatest artists, but also radical, avant-garde and yes - you guessed it - sexy.

The press release alludes to this new and challenging interpretation of Moore which will reveal 'a dark and erotically charged dimension' to his work. Is it this that has led the eximious critic Brian Sewell to identify an almost malevolent quality to Moore's imagery? Certainly he finds much of the work wilfully ugly, an attitude I find it hard to share. This large exhibition (at more than 150 items it extends throughout the underground Linbury Galleries) opens impressively with a group of early sculptures and drawings including an extraordinary 'Mother and Child' in Moore's favourite Hornton stone (a building stone no one before him had thought to carve), dating from 1924-5.

Massive, blocky, the forms are simplified to the point of crudity, yet they are imbued with a human significance that can take such treatment. Compare 'Figure' (1923), carved from Verde di Prato, a yearning, aspiring head and torso offering a very different emotional component. Both are tough pieces, uncomfortable in their expressiveness, but both are powerfully imagined and constructed.

There is enough work in the first three rooms to occupy any serious student of sculpture for an hour or two, which makes an exhibition of this size difficult if not impossible to take in at a single visit. A rollcall of the materials Moore used is enough to whet the appetite: marble, alabaster, Green Gneiss stone, cast (or carved) concrete, ironstone, ebony. I was particularly interested to see a couple of works formerly owned by the artist Eileen Agar and her husband Joseph Bard (who knew Moore in the early years when he was still called Harry), a striking carving in Cumberland alabaster called 'Girl with Clasped Hands', now in the British Council collection, and a montage of mother and child studies.

Moore called the mother and child his 'fundamental obsession', and it recurs with some inevitability throughout this extensive show. His other great theme is the seated or reclining figure, and it soon becomes apparent how little Moore was drawn to the subject of work or movement in any form.

His sculptures are generally still and solidly grounded, even the fascinating stringed figures. The wartime drawings of miners are the great exception, but even these figures are often imprisoned behind the props supporting their tunnels, in which they lie as if pupate. And the Underground shelterers are mostly sleeping or quietly enduring.

Not a lot of action there, despite the oceanic flow of their draperies.

The exhibition brings together the familiar - such as the great 'Recumbent Figure' (1938, Tate Collection) and the shelter drawings, a number of which now appear to have been based on press photos rather than direct observation - and the less well-known, such as 'Carving' (1936), one of the more abstracted pieces, shown here with the famous 'Square Forms', which hasn't been on public view for 50 years or more. …

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