Modern Sculpture, Primitive Roots
Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor
THEY were born within a very few years of each other.
The first, Leon Underwood, in Shepherd's Bush, London, at the end of 1890.
The second, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, just outside Orleans, France, 1891.
The third, Henry Moore, in the Yorkshire town of Castleford, 1898.
Their careers could scarcely have taken more different routes. Yet all three were sculptors who worked in England, and who made outstanding contributions to what amounts to an English naissance (rather than a renaissance) in sculpture in the 20th century. They had this in common: a determination to instill sculpture with a vitality and power based on primitivism; a recognition that sculpture had in the previous centuries been increasingly stifled and emasculated by its academic devotion to the Hellenistic ideal. When Moore talked of the need to take Greek spectacles from the eyes of modern sculptors, he was far from being a lone voice. He was part of a change, but not a full-scale movement. Nevertheless, what Gaudier, Underwood, and Moore had in common did not mean that the way in which they made their separate marks on "the story of art" wasn't as individual as it could be.
There has been no doubt in the art world's mind which sculptor is the "greatest." Henry Moore's sculpture, produced in an unstoppable stream of creativity, has encircled the globe from Italy to Mexico, from New York to Athens, from Tokyo back to Yorkshire - commissioned, exhibited, admired, written about. His was an astonishing career of persistent imaginativeness and ambition, his art full of complex challenges to convention, his imagination as strange, disturbing, and experimental as his personal demeanor was matter-of-fact and uncomplicated.
In his early days, Moore's work had prompted outrage from the art establishment and simple incomprehension and ridicule from the man in the street. Later he was thought of as "great."
He made no concessions to popular taste. Even if some of his works are more sympathetic than others - those for instance on such accessibly identifiable themes as mother and child or strong landscape forms - there is often a tension between the tender and the aggressive, between the animal and the human in his works, which seems to have no connection at all with the ordinary Yorkshire chap who conceived it.
But if Moore is set in context as a 20th-century artist - set for example against Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, or Salvador Dali on the one hand, or such pure Abstractionists as Piet Mondrian or Naum Gabo on the other - he can be seen as an integrator rather than an instigator. Synthesis looks to be his achievement - the ability to bring into one work disparate elements so that they balance rather than explode.
And if Moore is compared with Gaudier-Brzeska and Underwood, who by his own admission as well as by the evidence of actual sculptures had an effect on his primary development in the 1920s, then it is possible to define with more sensitivity the character and historical place of Moore's art.
The art world sees both the artists as lesser figures - Gaudier because of his career, which had the energy of a box of fireworks, was startlingly brief. He was killed in battle, in the French lines, in 1915. It has been pointed out that if Moore had lost his life at the age Gaudier did, there would have been virtually no work to hint what he might have become. Gaudier's energy was not just prodigious, it was the very essence of his art. The cut-short promise of his oeuvre - which consists of a comparatively few sculptures and a host of drawings - is particularly tantalizing. His art was an extraordinary mixture of mature certainty and youthful indecisiveness.
Gaudier threw himself vigorously into an espousal of the "Vorticist" campaign for modernism, recognizing the machine is a symbol of the new century. This meant a dichotomy in his work: on one side a fluent naturalism, on the other a cubistic geometry of planes. …