England's Henry Moore: The sculptures of "the greatest Englishman"

A new major exhibition of the man who was England's greatest sculpture ignores, yet borrows from, the controversial re-assessment on the 1980s that Moore was the artist of a labour movement at once mighty but defeated and will be seen as the most awesome witness of human carnage of the First World War.

After 1945, for a long post-war generation through to the 80s, the sculptor, Henry Moore, who was born 1898 and died in 1986, was Britain’s most famous artist. Massive versions of his works were acquired around the world so that you could say that ‘the sun never set on Henry Moores’. He was referred to as “The Greatest Living Englishman”. His sponsor, the influential art patron and TV presenter Kenneth Clark, even suggested that so exemplary was his character that were we to send a member of the human species to another planet to show them what we could do at our best, it would have to be Henry.

The son of a miner, he became immensely wealthy, and because he refused to move, paid tax at well over the top 90 percent rate and reflected that he was probably the highest earning tax-payer in the country. He created, and his legacy has funded, a foundation that went on to play an important role in the support of British sculpture.

In this country Moore pioneered the monetarisation of aesthetic success and also opened up British art. There is now a flourishing range of contemporary sculptors from this country - Henry Moore was their pioneer.

But he had a greater significance.

His defiantly unfashionable early works rejected official Victorian-realism and heroic, monumental narrative. He participated in a modernism that claimed to tap into the universal. Its emancipating humanism sought to escape from mere art of one’s time.

His reclining figure with a hole was to become a much mocked stereotype for ‘modern art’ and the ‘what does it all mean?’ response, encouraged by a public school mentality threatened by any metaphors or intelligence that might escape their control.

 

Moore’s extraordinary presence after 1945 and the ultimate conformism of the man and his work, as well as the power of the early sculpture, are brilliantly set out by Hilary Spurling in her Guardian essay on the exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, that opened this February and continues through to August. But the exhibition left me fuming at the constricted vision of what seems to be the new art establishment. It has taken me a couple of months to cool down and write about it, and I am doing so now to mark a wide-ranging day seminar at Tate Britain on the filming of Moore.

And I’m doing so because, partly thanks to a grant from the Moore Foundation, in 1988 I conceived and developed an 80 minute film for Channel 4:  England’s Henry Moore which Hugh Brody directed. Someone (thank you) has posted it on You Tube in seven parts.

In the mid-1980s I was thinking about the nature of the UK and its constituent nations while what we now term “old” Labour headed towards the chute. It seemed to me that studying the country’s greatest artist might be a way of getting a feel for my society. But I only decided to embark on this when I learnt that Moore had been a machine-gunner in the First World War. Indeed, he had been trapped behind enemy lines at one point in the battle of Cambrai and had been gassed. When he recovered he became a bayonet instructor. Were his deeply wounded bodies in any way related to this appalling experience?

Moore himself said "No". I say "Yes". The argument was first set out at length in Art Monthly in 1986 in an article I wrote for Art Monthly called 'The Shape of Labour'. It was well illustrated. I argued that the staring heads were those of shock and distress. There are also the broken bodies, the wounded figures and even falling warriors. Moore always wanted his works to be placed in idyllic, peaceful environments. But following this line of research I found one drawing which places them in a shallow trench that had unmistakable echoes of a battlefield.

His transformation of a battlefield into a dying zone of women's bodies, however, was an expression by Moore of the need to survive: it was a claim on life not a memorial to the dead. But it was his starting point and in an important way the bodily starting point for what it meant to be English, or at least working-class English. We filmed an interview with Douglas Houghton who had met Moore on the train when they both went to London as volunteers. They signed up to the same regiment. Extraordinarily, Houghton whose father was a Nottingham lacemaker, ended up in the Labour Cabinet. He tells us how he lost his faith as he witnessed the slaughter and how the war was “fought on class lines”.

War re-entered our history with self-conscious force in 1939. Moore famously created strange images of Londoners huddled together, sleeping in the tunnels of the underground when they became shelters against the Blitz. Hugh made a powerful sequence when he filmed the shelter drawings in a long continuous tracking shot (it is in part three – the video format is slightly jumpy).

England’s Henry Moore encompasses a brief history of 20th century England up to the late 80s. We discovered a startling range of characters from Helmut Schmidt, one-time Chancellor of Germany, who knew what he was talking about, to Jim Callaghan one-time Prime Minister of the UK who didn’t (the former was an architect, the latter an operator); to Jill Craigie, Michael Foot’s wife, who filmed Moore in the tube shelters, to David Sylvester the formidable art-critic and exhibition curator. The story follows Moore’s journey from his Yorkshire mining village to the pro-Communist left in the 1930s to a place of honour in the Establishment.

When we made the documentary Moore was still a figure held in awe and in need of demystification. Bernard Meadows, who had been his first assistants in the 1930s, was running the Moore Foundation and I am sure he gave us the finance because he wanted it to be know (as he says in the film) that Moore talked about Lenin while admiring the Establishment. Meadows wanted Moore’s untouchability to be touched.

Two of the three themes that the Tate exhibition has been built around, the influence of the war and the radicalism of his early politics, were directly addressed, argued and filmed, two decades ago.

But the exhibition presents these connections as its own original discovery. Its curator spun his exploration of the ‘dark, edgy’ side of Moore as novel. The exhibition puff says:

The works are situated in the turbulent ebb and flow of twentieth-century history, sometimes uncovering a dark and erotically charged dimension that makes us look at them in a new light. The trauma of war, the advent of psychoanalysis, new ideas of sexuality, primitive art and surrealism all had an influence on Moore's work.

In many pages of notes and credits in the exhibition catalogue there is no mention of the research I did or the film so many invested their efforts in. A film whose making I described in the Guardian and which was denounced at length in two long letters in The Times on 24 September 1988, by Sir Stephen Spender (interviewed in the film) and Sir Robert Sainsbury, and even attacked in a leader in the Independent. I had also set out the case at some length in the Times Literary Supplement earlier in the year.

I have no problem with people building on the work of others. But when their ideas are used and not acknowledged I think the appropriate word is plagiarism. (As this is quite a charge I am grateful to my colleagues for permitting me to abuse the space in openDemocracy to reprint the three articles from the 1980s mentioned above none of which are on the web.)

But it puzzled me as to why any mention of England’s Henry Moore and its associated public argument should be suppressed. Thus Chris Stephens, the show’s curator, having highlighted the intense impact the battlefield must have had on Moore, rightly queries the artist’s dry dismissal of its significance by pointing out that he was one of only 52 survivors from a unit of 400 men. He then footnotes a study by Jeremy Lewison as being “a recent exception of an author writing on Moore who places his wartime experience at the heart of his project”.  In this sly way Stephens claims his own insight as exceptional (Not that I would call Moores work a “project”).

I think the difference between us is this. Stephens is attempting to tune Moore into our current official zeitgeist of authentic experience and artistic fashion. While I take Moore’s battlefield as the sculptural starting point for a man hugely aware of his class and his allegiance to the working class movement (his father was a trade unionist who had known a year long strike, his art teacher in Yorkshire was a socialist) as well as his country. 

Moore was part of something much larger than his military experience however deeply traumatic. His great reclining figures are also metaphors for the immense power of perhaps the best-organised working class in the world. A movement that nonetheless knew its place and submitted to orders.  Moore’s figures are emblems of this, I argue in the Art Monthly essay which I called 'The Shape of Labour': they have the strength but not the will to rise.

There are many reclining sculptures full of energy and movement. Moore’s are shattered, often literally, the later ones with the backs broken; they look inwards rather than focusing on the world; they don’t have the capacity or even desire to move forward. This passivity also lends them their old-fashioned monumentalism and a hovering sense of allegory, despite their modernistic claim to break from this inheritance. As allegories, naturally, they take the shape of women. Today, I would add, thanks to Paul Gilroy, that they can be seen as suffering from post-imperial melancholia.

They can't be reduced to this. They are a human force. The stubborn, human character of Moore’s work is the reason why they attract vandalism. You may not like their meanings - but they mean something; their distorted humanity creates a relationship to living history.

The modern art world is obsessed with, when it is not absorbed by, the media torrent. For 'the torrent', history not a matter of human agency – it itself is the only agency that matters. Its driver, as Todd Gitlin set out, is narcissim that lives off experience. 'Meaning' is yesterday's story. True to this spirit of sensation, Chris Stephens does not see Moore's work as being in a dialogue with the history of its time. It merely expresses his sexy obsessions, wartime horrors, and dabbling in political and artistic extremism. His sculpture isn’t part of anything significantly larger than itself and the art world in which it existed - and into which it now needs to be reborn, which is the role of the exhibition. 

His presentation of Moore reinforces the new orthodoxy overseen by our very own open-shirted Ayatollahs such as Simon Cowell, in which the public is orchestrated to celebrate the voyeurism of ourselves, our new form of servitude.

 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy