HEALTH WARNING This is an article from the Guardian, Friday 26 Aug 1988 (very slightly corrected) published as part of an archive of essays on Henry Moore, including from Art Monthly in 1986 and the Times Literary Supplement in 1988. They are all introduced by a short OurKingdom post published to mark a Henry Moore restrospective at Tate Britain.
Anthony Barnett has made a film England's Henry Moore on the man once called 'the greatest living Englishman' and accuses the British of miscasting their cultural ambassador.
When an artist is selected as an ambassador it is not just a matter of art. In 1945, Henry Moore was out standing among English artists both for the inventiveness of his sculpture and for his shelter drawings of civilian endur ance during the blitz. By the 1950s Moore had become an institution. It was not only his work feted and exhibited around the world, he was projected quite explicitly as an ambassador for post-war Britain. Indeed, at the Westminster Abbey memorial service for Moore in 1986, Sir Stephen Spender began his address by relating a comment of Lord Clark's that went even further. If we had to send one person to another planet to represent the human race, Clark had speculated, then no one could better personify our species than Henry Moore,
Perhaps this exercise in the choice of an inter-planetary ambassador tells us more about Kenneth Clark than Henry Moore. After all, it would make him the arbiter of a singularly important appointment. And in the case of postwar England his influence was more than a game. Clark had been Moore's most important patron and he had made him an official war artist in 1940. But let's stay with the galactic proposal. Earthling Moore arrives to represent us. The Saturnians (for it is they) ask him what he does. "I am a sculptor, often of reclining figures," he informs them. Curious, they ask him to make them an example. He complies, and, being unable to deceive them, for he is all that is best and dignified, he makes a typical Henry Moore. It has a hole and blank, staring face. "What," ask the good-willed if puzzled citizens of Saturn, "does it mean?"
How should the terrestrial respond? We already know his usual earthbound answers: "I don't do work on commission"; "the artist should not explain himself'; "it is for others to interpret," But in these circumstances such replies would be inappropriate, for the question is neither malicious nor Philistine but genuinely curious.
All science fiction is projection: it was this question that I asked myself as I got interested in the work of Henry Moore. Perhaps it helped to start on another planet because coarseness is so close an accomplice of English sophistication. It is difficult to ask "what does it mean?" about modern art in this country without an accompanying ho-ho-elbow-in-the-ribs-its-all-arty-farty snort. But I was drawn to Moore because, compared to his contemporaries, his work seemed to last. Some of his pieces had a stillness and a power that gave them an exceptional modern dignity, an authority that seems original and strange. Quite exceptionally for a major artist he came from a working class background - the fifth child of a Yorkshire mining family. Also, Moore seemed to have opened the way for sculpture in this country, as a pioneer he helped change the cultural possibilities of Englishness.
My curiosity about Moore was also increased by the pompous, inflated, ambassado rial aspect, by the quasi-official exploitation of his artistic merit. Since May 1940 England has had a problem with its national identity. The Battle of Britain, Churchill declared would be the country's finest hour. Perhaps it was, which is fine for those who were alive at the time. But what future does a community have whose finest moment lies behind it? A great power, a small country, a European nation, America's special relation, head of the Commonwealth, these phrases are all part of a struggle by a society that had, in Dean Ascheson's memorable phrase, lost an Empire but had yet to find a role. Such uncertainties are also lived. "Englishness" may be a "construct," to use the latest jargon, a notion invented in opposition to others — the un-English. Arguments about whether Mrs. Thatcher is truly English or not, take the form of whether it is "un-English" to be socialist or to love making money, or "more English" to be reasonable than to be intolerant. These are arguments about who we are. Yet the fact that we can have such disagreements also means that there is no simple, singular criterion: no unchanging essence of the nation. Like many others who grew up in the shadow of the finest hour, I have been interested in exploring these multi ple, shifting meanings of Englishness. Being pliable they resist frontal assault. An exploration into the meaning of Henry Moore, not just his work but also his life, not just as an artist but also as "the greatest living Englishman," seemed like a promising tangent that might illuminate how Englishness was put together.
Moore always resisted suggestions that his working class background was expressed in his work. He was right to reject any simplistic reduction. After he completed the sequence of shelter drawings, Moore went, at Herbert Read's suggestion, to Castleford to draw miners at work in his father's pit. It was the first time he had returned to Yorskhire since his family had left the north in the early twenties and the first time he had ever gone down a mine. Moore's father had been an agricultural worker. Penury forced him to the coal-face. He was an active trade unionist and. was on strike for over a year when Moore was a small boy. But he trained himself for management (injury frustrated him) and insisted that his children qualified to be school teachers. Moore grew up in the world of Arthur Mee's Children Encyclopaedia, with the values of a loosely Christian socialism and self-improvement — values that didn't leave him.
The experience, at once national and working class, that had the deepest impact on Moore was the First World War. He was gassed at Cambrai then became a bayonet instructor. He enjoyed his war, Moore said, and wanted only a medal. As a young man his pleasure in survival gave him energy and confidence. But it also affected the sculpture that he began at art school in Leeds on a soldier's scholarship. The bayonet instructor opened out the human figure with holes. The figures were female, an earth mother whose hollows had sheltered the infantry, often closing round them altogether.
In the 1930s Moore became increasingly radical in his art and politics. An active anti-facist, he was close to the Communists during the Spanish civil war and may actually have joined the Party for a time. Sir Stephen Spender told us that if it had not been for Stalin and the socialist realism, Moore's art in the thirties might have been recognised as truly proletarian, because it made a claim to a universal experience.
By the time war came again, Moore was recognized as outstanding in the small world of the London avant garde. Then he was inspired by the sight of ordinary Londoners sheltering in the tube stations to avoid the bombs. His two painted sketchbooks, with their surreal colours and expressions, were his response, at once abstract and figurative. They made real, so to speak, the transformation drawings he had privately experimented with since the beginning of the thirties — that are so called because they transform bones into bodies. The often desolate rendering of the shelterers raised some hackles when the pictures were shown. It is not hard to see in them a transformation into civilian life of the trenches Moore himself had slept in just over 20 years before.
With the entry of Russia and then America into the war, British defiance in the face of defeat turned into the assurance of victory. Moore returned to sculpture and completed the Northampton Madonna, a classical, figurative work that confirmed his popularity. It was at this point that he became officially accepted and embraced. Not all the work that followed abandoned the inventiveness of his early development. But from now on there was a sentimental and sedentary aspect to his work, in the family groups especially.
Moore became the sculptor of what is today known as "consensus politics." His cross-class alliance with Lord Clark reproduced in the world of art the bi-partisan agreement about such fundamentals as Britain's role and its special relationship with the United States that dominated politics proper. The peculiar alliance of labour and capital under the sway of the Oxbridge establishment and topped off by the Crown originated with the grand coalition of wartime. Dedicated to "building a better Britain" in which all had the right to work, health and education, consensus politics was also about the preser vation of the old imperial order, one that could not deliver these goals without stifling initiative. The failure of the "consensus" brand of socialism was almost certainly inscribed in its pretension from the start.
The consensus presented itself as naturally British. Part of its pretension was a denial that anything peculiar was going on. What could be better than an art that was both naturalistic and universal? Moore's modernism had precisely this power. In 1948 the fledgling Institute for Contemporary Arts mounted an exhibition called 40,000 years of Modern Art. It tried to demonstrate that the modern was rooted in the epochal character of humankind, in an arc that stretched from the Cycladic to Henry Moore himself, just as the Coronation supposedly joined the British people to millennia of anointing.
Slowly and painfully the alliances of consensus politics collapsed. But as England shrunk Moore's works, multiplied by foundries and marble work shops, expanded in size — enlarged and re-enlarged thanks to the advent of polystyrene. Yet, tucked away in his maquette studio in Hertfordshire, the pieces Moore himself worked on were sometimes barely more than diminutive playthings. From Tokyo to Caracas, from Hong Kong to Bonn, from New York to Jerusalem, not to speak of the Mall, their vast bronze enlargements glitter: perhaps the sun never sets on Henry Moores.
I am not of the opinion that his only work of quality are the hand-carved pieces from the thirties. Sometimes, some of his huge, abstract pieces are genuine sculptural innovations that need their size. But many of the late pieces are a function of the dollar-financed Moore industry that generated an artificial and unconvincing "greatness."
Naturally, this has found a place in today's No 10. Moore was not totally ignored by the labour movement in this country. In our film, England's Henry Moore, there is a spectacular contribution from James Callaghan who met him when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and, implicitly at least, discussed Moore's tax problems with him. Nonetheless, Labour never offered its endorsement to its supreme artistic supporter, nor did it place one of his pieces in Downing Street. That was left to Mrs. Thatcher. There is now a Moore reclining figure and a (regularly changed) drawing that hangs over it in the down stairs corridor of the Prime Minister's London residence.
However, while his works are in Thatcher's domain they are not really of it.
The idea was to make a film about England. Moore's history and the testimony of those who knew him does indeed say a lot about how this country has come to be what it is. But today this is a story of a time that is over. For all its pretensions, the world of Lord Clark and Henry Moore, of Jill Craigie and Margaret Gardiner, of Gin and Raymond Coxon, Moore's oldest friends, was a world that believed in the importance of art rather than money. Even if they were patricians, they stood for society and not just the possessive individualism of Mrs. Thatcher.
Their sense of propriety, which marked Moore's life especially — its repression can be felt in his work — set one limit to what our film could do. Another aspect of the Moore story that nearly escaped it was the influence of Europe. Our theme, nothing less than a stroll through the history of the English class system and its North/South divide, kept us on these shores. But Moore was part of the modern movement, one greatly influenced by Picasso. However English he was also — yet so unlike the English ruling class —international in his formation and perspective.
We were saved by Helmut Schmidt who had had a large Moore situated outside the Bonn chancellory in the 1970s. After we had filmed him, one of the crew commented that of the many politicians he's seen in action Schmidt was the first who seemed not to be mad. Schmidt criticised the Prime Minister for her insularity, and the contrast with Labour leaders, could hardly have been greater. Perhaps we can look forward to one of Mrs. Thatcher's successors insisting that a sculptor by a contemporary foreign artist be given prominence in Parliament Square. On the other hand Schmidt regarded Moore's work as international rather than English, although he was very English in Schmidt's view, and the Ex-Chancellor described to us how Moore had prepared himself to meet the Queen. Would the Saturnians also have been more curious about the man than about his work?