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Henry Moore and the Price of Fame (1988)

This is a review article published in the Time Literary Supplement of 5-11 August 1988

HEALTH WARNING: Please note - this is a long review article republished from the Times Literary Supplement of 1988 as part of an archive of three articles on Henry Moore by Anthony Barnett from that period including from Art Monthly (1986) and the Guardian (1988). They are all introduced by a short OurKingdom post published to mark a Henry Moore restrospective at Tate Britain.

 

Books Reviewed:

 ROGER BERTHOUD  The Life of Henry Moore  465pp Faber £14 95    ALAN BOWNESS, editor  Henry Moorc Complete sculpture  Volume Two 1949-54 , 208pp   Volume Three 1955-64,  212pp   Volume Four 1964-73 , 280pp   Volume Five 1974-80 , 240pp   Volume Six 1980-86 , 240pp   Lund Humphries £30 each   HENRY MOORE  A Shelter Sketch Book Facsimile edition  Edited by Frances Carey , 67pp British Museum £25    GERALD CRAMER, ALISTAIR GRANT and  DAVID MITCHINSON, editors  Henry Moore The graphic work  Volume One 1931-1972  265Swfr  Volume Two 1973-1975  280Swfr  PATRICK CRAMER, ALISTAIR GRANT and  DAVID MITCHINSON, editors  Henry Moore The graphic work  Volume Three 197&-1979  195Swfr  Volume Four 1980-1984  225Swfr  Geneva Cramer


In the two years since his death, in August 1986, Henry Moore has been well served The memoirs, monographs and exhibition catalogues are now joined by Roger Berthoud's semi official biography, the final, sixth volume of the Complete Sculpture has appeared from Lund Humphries and his Graphic Work is also available in its entirety Next month a major retrospective will open at the Royal Academy, and the British Museum will show a special exhibition of his drawings, including many from his "Shelter Sketchbooks" So, for the first time, it is possible to stand back and begin to see Moore's life and work as a whole There are, though, two important lacunae lus drawings have yet to be published systematically, so their apparently very uneven character is hard to assess, and his personal life remains diplomatically shrouded.

Moore's biography is significant because he beat a path right through the twentieth century social history of England The private life of any major artist has a special interest because his public one draws on his creative drive and imagination In the case of Moore, some critics have suggested that there is an important erotic aspect to his carvings, with their holes and interior spaces, and to his later bronzes, with their apparently phallic extrusions Indeed, from one angle, "Hill Arches" (1973) looks like a pair of huge coupling insects Others, though, regard Moore s work as repressed or even asexual and neutered Inevitably, and not merely from prurience, one turns to a detailed biography for some enlightenment about the artist's actual passions His character too is of interest because of the part it seems to have played in his selection as Britain's ambassador in the fine arts Berthoud teases his readers he writes that Moore's "apparent normality as a human being helped people to accept the apparent abnormality of his sculpture"-implying that Moore was not so "normal' after all Un fortunately, he leaves it at that Did (he sculptor cultivate his "ordinariness ' to extend his influence? Or did England need an artist whose work was sufficiently odd to be "modern", yet who was himself sufficiently reliable to be a "good chap''.

Born in 1898, the son of a Yorkshire miner, Moore volunteered for the First World War Even before he was old enough to fight, he had begun a career of self improvement, one which was to make him one of his country's most honoured and wealthy subjects Had he wailed to be conscripted, he would have had to serve alongside other miners' sons By going south to London he could find a better regiment and, at his father's insistence, he did He fought at Cambrai, where he was gassed According to Moore it was his experience as a soldier which subsequently gave him the confidence to defy his father and insist on going to Leeds School of Art to study sculpture, a singular ambition for the time His determination and his gift for form gained him a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1921 Seven years later he held his first one man show, and in 1931, Epstein, in the tiny catalogue to Moore's second show, declared him to be 'vitally important' to the "future of sculpture in Eng land" By then Moore had married Irene Radetzky, was teaching sculpture at Chelsea and had a studio in Hampstead Inventive and self confident he produced work that seemed accomplished rather than experimental, yet, for England, it was dramatically new In 1933 Herbert Read wrote the first book on Moore Among the internationally oriented London avant garde, Moore's position was especially confirmed by the authoritative and modern elmwood masterpieces, yet these proved hard to sell The pre war world of modern art in London remained precarious and much scorned In retaliation Moore was contemptuous of the Royal Academy establishment.

It seems strange that a young man from a small north country mining town was able to adhere to the modern movement in the 1930s Indeed, Castleford’s Secondary School, when Moore went to it in 1910, had only 230 pupils of both sexes But its half French art teacher, Miss Gostick, was an active member of the progressive Art Teachers Guild and the head master had studied in Bonn and Paris and took parties of pupils to the Continent When Moore went to Leeds School of Art its Vice-Chancellor Michael Sadler's collection of modern art including paintings by Cezanne, Gauguin and Kandinsky, was accessible to talented students A constellation of Europhiles thus dominated Moore's supposedly provincial Yorkshire formation It would be interesting to know if in fact the North of England generally identified more with the Continent than did Edwardian London It is the quality of Berthoud's book that it provides us with the information to ask such questions Its limitation is that lie fails to consider them himself 

Moore's intellectual radicalism and innate traditionalism came together in his art in the Second World War His earlier experience of the trenches was never addressed directly in his work, but it is hard to deny the echo of 1914-18 in the shelter pictures of 1940-41, which also allowed Moore to become an official war artist under the patronage of Kenneth Clark In 1948, the British Council displayed Moore's work at (he Venice Biennale He not only won the prize for sculpture, he was acclaimed across Europe The idea seemed astonishing: Britain was not merely a land of philistines where the talk was of horses rather than of humans Suddenly, it was also seen as a society that could produce great art for our time 

Moore was fifty when he was thus celebrated. The immense production of his last decades makes it easy to forget how late success came to him The system he established at Perry Green in Hertfordshire, where he had moved during the war, was such that three quarters of his thousand or so sculptures were made after the 1948 Biennale What is generally perceived as (he oeuvre of Henry Moore is overwhelmingly the product of the studios, assistants, foundries and marble workshops, whose output he oversaw during his late mid die and old age The breathless celebration of his "great monuments has been encouraged by the veritable industry of illustrated books and encomia to Moore This itself has a special place in the history of English art Perhaps the first inexpensive art book with colour reproductions to appear in Britain was Geoffrey Grigson's wartime study of Moore Jill Craigie's Out of Chaos, in which Moore played a star part, was the first documentary film about art to be made in Britain The first BBC television film to be devoted to a living artist was John Read's on Moore - and Read went on to make another five films about him sufficiently traditional to be acceptable to the progressive wing of the establishment, Moore was one of the first artists to benefit from fame bestowed by the mass media

In his maquette studio at Perry Green, Moore created the figures that were (o make his global reputation The often diminutive size of his maquettes, and the almost monastic sparseness of his primary workspace, still seem surprising given the scale of his official output Rarely can so much have come of so little The 'Large Arch (1963-9), a travertine marble version of which stands on the Serpentine m Hyde Park, was executed as a plaster that can be held upright between forefinger and thumb The final version was conceived with the architect I. M. Pel, who requested an enlargement that two people could pass through side by side, and according to Berthoud, when Moore saw a twenty foot high polystyrene blow up he declared it "jolly good ' 

Berthoud justifies his biography with the observation that previous accounts "seemed to assume that once Moore had become successful and famous, his life had ceased to he interesting' And certainly, there is a need for a critical study of Moore after he was acclaimed Berthoud covers m great detail and often along already established lines, much that is already known For specialists concerned to follow the artist's career, the openings of his major exhibitions and his chief commissions, The Life of Henry Moore provides a valuable source of reference Berthoud has done his footwork, trudging through a mass of clippings and interviewing dozens of Moore's acquaintances.

But, perhaps because his study is not governed by any overall argu­ment - whether on the nature of the sculptor's work, on the relevance of his life to British society, or on the character of Moore's astounding success - his sense of obligation often invades his prose. In his "Prelude", he expresses the hope that his book will leave Moore's "stature undiminished". Bui, at the end, his duly as a chronicler over, Berthoud offers the reader his own brief balance sheet on Moore's art. It was at its best in the 1930s, he feels. The breakthrough to a wider public, which came with the shelter drawings, marks Moore's "first falling-off in quality", and this was due to the same self-conscious and prett­ified moralism that made the later pieces more popular. Much of the sculpture that followed was crude and gargantuan, although some of it is outstanding. 

Such a description of Moore's output is plausible. But, to put it mildly, it must diminish his stature and his reputation. For this assess­ment can only mean that his later years, while without doubt a time of colossal financial achievement, were a period mainly of artistic failure; that his fame grew in inverse propor­tion to the quality of his work. A study based on this thesis would indeed command atten­tion. Unfortunately, though, Berthoud makes little effort to integrate his artistic opinion into the life. His conclusion that "it was no small feat to have been called the greatest living Englishman" is droll. After 421 pages one wants to know of what this greatness consisted, what were its mechanisms and motives, to what extent was it deserved? But Berthoud provides no satisfactory answer. At one point he asserts that Moore was "never" the type of artist for whom "insecurity is a spur.... As sculptor and man he was always confident of his value. It was one of his attractions." Later, though, he says that "Few artists can have been quite so concerned about how their work would ulti­mately be judged", then quotes a dealer who told him that he "had never met an artist so preoccupied with his position after his death" - by this he meant Moore's obsession with being ranked on a par with Michelangelo and Rodin. This is not merely evidence of a lack of self-confidence towards the end of his life; it seems only too likely that such insecurity was indeed a "spur" to the over-production of Henry Moores. 

Since he is a family friend of long standing, it is understandable that Berthoud has not attempted to probe the sexual (or luck of sex­ual) drive in Moore's life, although he suggests (hat his relations with his only child, Mary, were often fraught. There is less justification for The gentle treatment of other processes that influenced Moore's work: from above, in terms of the judgment of significant others, especially Kenneth Clark; and from below, in terms of the role of assistants, especially as the artist's own physical powers failed. 

 Any future study of Moore's years of fame will need to consider with greater attention the central role played by Clark. Was he in­strumental in the inflation of Moore's ambi­tion, or was he simply the servant of the artist's desire? According to Berthoud, "Some of Moore's friends believe that Clark was al least partly responsible for Henry's habit of impli­citly equaling himself with such masters as Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo . . .".  Or, in other words, the sort of flattery that can generate insecurity and encourage dependency in an ambitious and patriotic miner's son. 

 Among anecdotes such as a presentation by Prince Philip, a meeting with Nehru, a show at Knoedler's in New York, Berthoud discusses briefly the "forty-odd" assistants who "served Moore for a significant length of time". And he also mentions an amusing incident when the sculptor commissioned (the year is not given) single Travertine copies of two of his-works. Instead, the Italian craftsman made two copies of each one. (Berthoud describes this as "naughty".) Subsequently, when Moore learnt that the duplicates were logo on sale in Rome, he "hurried" there and disfigured one of them with a hammer. This was the first time he had touched any of the pieces.

Of course, it is absurd to object to the use of assistants in sculpture. But Moore was a lead­ing advocate of "truth to materials" in his early years, and if the enlargement and reproduction of his work by others was irresistible when he was older, it is not unreasonable to expect some honesty with respect to methods. A con­ception by a single artist that is executed by others remains essentially his or hers. But if execution is wholly carried out by others, then the craftsman who has actually carved a piece in marble from a maquette should be given due credit. This Moore did not do. Instead, he projected himself as the sole creator. Inform­ally, he justified his practice by comparison with that of architects. Volume Three of the Complete Sculpture has a full-page frontispiece photograph of Moore at work on The Unesco marble reclining figure. The razor-sharp crease in his trousers suggests, to my eye, that the picture is posed. Berthoud mentions Moore's final elmwood, and notes, in passing, that it "was carved entirely by his assistants". Yet the title sequence of John Read's 'film Moore at Eighty shows the great man carving the neck of this same elmwood - an exercise undertaken solely for the camera. 


 The Lund Humphries Complete Sculpture provides an essential aid for the assessment of the originality and quality of Moore's work. Five of the six volumes are now in print, two in recently revised editions, and work is in pro­gress on a new revised edition of Volume One. David Mitchinson, curator at the Moore Foundation, has helped to ensure the effective­ness of the numbering and identifying of the sculptures. The primary value of the set is its comprehensive record of the works made. Together with bibliographies and lists of ex­hibitions, the first part of each volume records the complete sculptural oeuvre of the relevant period; every piece has a small companion pic­ture; specially selected works are then given extensive, full-page photographs in the second part of the volumes. As catalogues, they are efficient and informative, although they now need an overall title-index of the works. But as a visual record they disappoint. The complete illustrations are often too small to give a satis­factory idea of a piece. The large photographs are unimaginatively laid out, and the decision to use only black-and-white ensures a mono­lithic uniformity. It is difficult to take lively photographs of bronzes, but even the late Moores can have a sharper impact than is re­vealed here. The original Volume One, published in 1944, used colour plates and had a fine energy to its presentation. But then, the early works themselves had an inventiveness which ebbed in the later decades.

 

Very early on, Moore created his own authoritative and original spatial language of form. Other artists had been modern and Eng­lish but not very successful (Hepworth), or modern and successful but not very English (Epstein). Moore was the first to be all three, He ensured that sculpture would be taken seriously as a fine art in the United Kingdom, We are indebted to him for a significant expan­sion of British society's imaginative possibility, The price that he paid for this, though, can be found in the later work. Much of it is embar­rassingly poor and pretentious. Some of it, "Sheep Piece", for instance, or "Standing Figure Knife Edge", perhaps the 1945 elmwood (to judge from photographs), stays in the mind;-and it is perhaps by these outstanding examples that he wilt finally be judged. But in the immediate future, any assessment of his work needs to comprehend its remarkable in­consistency as a whole. Nowhere is the banality and originality of Moore's art more closely juxtaposed than in the Shelter Sketchbooks. Berthoud is right to point to the shelter drawings as a turning-point in the artist's career. Moore filled two small sketchbooks with pictures based in the main on people in the London Underground, sheltering from the Blitz. These sketches are not only a witness to the suffering and endurance of Londoners at a great crisis in English history, the country's "finest hour" the ambition and frustration of all post-war British art may well he inscribed in their fantastic images. In some sketches, the classic symptoms of English endurance are sentimentalized in a way that prefigures the lumpiness and passivity of many of his later sculp­tures. Others show Moore to have been in­spired by a new if terrible dimension of human experience. He may have contemplated a ma­jor work on a scale equal to the epic scenes that he witnessed. One notebook sketch shows a seated woman sleeping against a wall that is gashed by a violent fracture. Three more sketches follow, in two of which there are variant portraits of a seated woman. These are followed by one in which the brick wall has entered the woman's face and the same gash becomes a terrible, staring eye. The way in which he combined these elements suggests that he was searching for a larger unity. On one page, below a small picture of blitzed build­ings, he notes, "Possible War Subjects", among them, "Composite picture of devas­tated buildings and shelterers and London sky line", and also "Contrast of peaceful, normal, with sudden devastation (burning cows)". Some of the sketches experiment with combin­ing scenes above and below ground. One shows, in the same colour field, burning build­ings and rubble with shelterers below ground. In another the ground almost opens up to re­veal a sleeping mother and child. If Moore was preparing to attempt a large work, its theme would have made it a successor to Guernica, the first pictorial response to bombing; the sculptor had gone to see it while Picasso was painting it.

 

But if Moore harboured this ambition, it was not lo be. In a 1941 radio discussion with two of his war artists, Sir Kenneth Clark told Them: 

Of course, Sutherland, your pictures of war damage and Moore's shelter drawings are rather peculiar in modern art in that you had a really moving tragic subject which is within the range of almost anyone's experience. It hasn't been common in painting for the last fifty years or so for an artist to treat such subjects, and he had to express his feelings about life less directly - in landscape, shall we say, or in still life. I suppose Delacroix was almost the last painter who could deal successfully with a great! dramatic subject - except perhaps Rouault. One can't go into the reasons for this without telling the whole story of nineteenth- century painting; but there it is. And I suppose Picasso's great tragic symbolic picture of Guernica marks pretty clearly and appropriately the end of the nineteenth-century tradition. 

 

So there it was. Even though, unlike Picasso, Moore was an actual witness of civilian bombing, enough was enough, especially of Delacroix - he had missed the nineteenth cen­tury by four years. Clark continued by telling The two men, whose art he had commissioned, that part of the problem with the modern artist was that he was "more and more cut off from his patrons" and had thus become too interested "in the realizing of his own inner vision".

 

To mark its exhibition, the British Museum has published a facsimile edition of the sketch­book in its possession. The sharpness of the inking Moore used to emphasize some of (he figures is often lost and the reds and greens of (lie originals are more vivid. But the reproduc­tion is compelling enough, and publication of the complete notebook in its original pagina­tion and size allows one to enter precisely the world of Moore's extraordinary vision.

 

It is to be hoped that the Moore Foundation, which owns the other sketchbook, will now publish it as a companion volume. Moore's subsequent work rarely went beyond isolated groups of figures. The four volumes of the The Graphic Work provide an ample record of the consequence. The first contains some quite striking pictures, including the series of the elephant skull with their strange interiors and passages. Completed in 1972, they stand out from the mass of Moore's graphics for being drawn from life - if one can call a skull life. The three volumes after 1974, the product of an ageing man, are often hardly more than colourful doodles by Henry Moore of "Henry Moores". Apart from the quality of the printing, the bulk of the pictures lack in­trinsic interest or merit. But they have value. To lift these volumes is to feel the weight of the Henry Moore industry.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness

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