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The Shape of Labour (Art Monthly 1986)

An archive article published in Art Monthly in November 1986)

HEALTH WARNING: This is an essay originally published in Art Monthly. It is part of an archive of essays on Henry Moore, including from the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. They are all introduced by a short OurKingdom post published to mark a Henry Moore restrospective at Tate Britain.

This article is a birthday present for John Berger who will be 60 in November
So far in this century there has been only one indisputably great master within the plastic arts in Britain, Henry Moore. In the UK especially it is difficult to deny the power and importance of his achievement. A superb carver with wonderful fluency and control over shapes and material; hugely ambitious not just in terms of scale but also in his chosen themes; recognisably distinct in his use of form, not only to those who know his work but also to a larger public for whom, often, his work was modern sculpture; Moore’s place can hardly be questioned. This makes him important not only for art but also for the country that produced him. What does he tell us about ourselves?
The moment of his death, then, is a time to ask some serious questions about the meaning of Moore’s extraordinary position and vision. For me it marks the passing of a period of British history to which Moore gave an unrivalled yet so far unrecognised expression. A period when millions gave themselves to build a new form of urban and industrial life.
The eulogies that honoured Henry Moore in England are not the only index of his standing.   Lampooned in Punch, honoured by the establishment, his work is widely acknowledged internationally as well as in Britain. As can be seen from the multi-volume Lund Humphries edition of his works, over thirty nations have acquired pieces by Moore for their public collections; from Japan to Australia to Hong Kong, in the Middle East and even Bulgaria, throughout Europe and North America, and from Venezuela to Argentina. Often they are in the open air, and so it is tempting to say, just as it was once said about the British Empire, that ‘the sun never sets on Henry Moores’.
He was a world sculptor, and this is especially remarkable for two reasons. First he was English. He was born and formed in a country without any sculptural tradition. A major painter of Moore’s generation might have looked back to Constable and Turner and Hogarth, as well as across to France. But in terms of sculpture there were no equivalent reference points. The hitherto ‘un-British’ nature of its medium is especially interesting in view of the felt and proclaimed ‘Britishness’ of Moore’s work. For such a major artist Moore was also unusual in that he came from a genuinely working class background. He was the seventh child of a miner’s family in West Yorkshire. His enduring sense of human effort and, just as important, his knowledge that women’s life is harder than men’s, was almost certainly rooted in his proletarian experience.(1) But how were his art, his class and his nation joined in his work?
The obvious point of departure is to take a look at the reclining figures for which Moore is best known. These are his most famous and distinctive pieces, his signature almost, and his major sculptural imprint upon the world. Often critics do not know how to judge them because of the irritating balance they seem to keep between abstraction and traditional figurative work. Is he a modernist, or not? And if he is – or isn’t – does this make him good or bad? One of the signs of ‘modern sculpture’ is that it breaks from statues – from public art of the nineteenth century variety. Moore did this, yet also, very obviously did not: his pieces are deliberately monumental and exterior. On the other hand he wanted them put in the countryside rather than the city. This does seem a radical break from tradition. Which previous century sought to establish solitary statues in the middle of a field? But maybe we should see this as an artistic aspect of the urbanisation of the countryside, of the incorporation of nature into a man made – a sculpted – zone.  In which case Moore’s romanticism would be at least as modern as romanticism itself. His English identification with landscape was a continuation of a national tradition that seeks to make nature safe – to civilise the wilderness.
What Moore sought to address can be termed abstract characteristics of humanity. At one point he referred to ‘universal shapes to which everybody is subconsciously conditioned’.(2) In a psychological sense I think he was attempting to tame as well as to extol human nature. He did this by trying to get under the skin of our feelings. Thus he refused to render figures whose particular characteristics would personify universal values in an external fashion. He did not sculpt a mother and child to stand as an emblem of ‘maternity’, or a ‘thinker’ who would personify the process of thought. Rather he tried to capture directly in stone the physical sense of mother and child. One way he did this was by seeking to be ‘true to the material’. He had the ability to turn rock into plastic, but sought instead to expose its very qualities of stone, and through this to give perennial form to his human themes.
Thus Moore sought to make allegory redundant. His universalism did not even proclaim that his society was one whose figures could stand with those of the ‘high’ points of the past. Instead, his ambition was to join all ‘universal values’(3).  He sought a sculpture that would encompass the artistic history not only of his own civilisation but that of others, and not only human experience but also the very outcrops of the earth. No previous age would have had such an aim, and only abstraction had the capacity to make such an ambition plausible – hence Moore’s modernity.
Nonetheless, the reclining figures are figures. Art theory can be put on one side while we approach them as human representations. If we wish to know somebody this side of their actions - of what they do - we look at the way they themselves look, at their expressions, at their faces. The eyes especially, but also the laugh, the intelligence expressed by the movement of the neck, the energy contained and shaped by the muscles around the mouth, the way hands, arms and head move in relation to each other, all this cranially centred activity is the most concentrated and revealing aspect of a person's posture. With this in mind, look upon the faces of Henry Moore’s reclining figures.
Apart from the rare exception (such as the quizzical expression on Reclining Woman, stone, 1930 (4) ) they seem to share a peculiar type of expression. Many are virtually and some literally faceless. The eyes are often tiny dots and usually stare into middle distances or just look nowhere at all. Mouths are empty of words, something that is very notable and so in its own way rather telling. Zombie-like to the point where all personality is decapitated, these heads are a terrible denial of the individual. Nothing in nature would produce faces like this. A world, or even a street, inhabited by people who had the facial expression of Henry Moore’s would be horrific.
If we draw back from the faces, to the head and shoulders, we can see, however, that Moore's reclining figures have a recognisable and much less frightening human attitude. It is expressed in their posture and in the way they hold their heads. Reclining figures can be full of energy, sensuality, even combativity. Moore’s seem to have surrendered all prospect of getting up. They are not completely crushed, for they raise themselves on an elbow. Yet they seem hardly able to do more than this, and it gives them their characteristic ‘look’, a peculiar self-knowledge, as if aware of their profound plight. A fatalism, an almost heroic resignation pervades Moore’s reclining figures.
Their faces are moronic and their postures excruciating, and they have holes in them. Now the holes often have a superb, sensuous beauty, and a vital energy to  their spatial arrangement. But there is something perverse about seeing these spaces as purely positive and organic, as if  this is their only characteristic. Alan Bowness has shown that around 1960 Moore began a ‘late period’ in which his figures internalise and heighten the artistic energy and experience of the artist, as they become radically abstract.(5) Moore unfolds two-and three-piece works, in which the dynamic interrelationship of the separated parts accelerate changes in shape and shadow with extraordinary drama. The metaphor of the body as a landscape and the reality of bodies as material stuff are accentuated by the pushing apart of the figures. At the same time they pull towards each other sculpturally and a breathtaking strength of line insists that we see them as parts of a single body. But we cannot be blind to the literally catastrophic intervention that has been made into these gently ‘reclining figures’. Their backbone totally severed, they could never get off their butts.
What is going on in these sculptures? The fact that we can ask such a question points to another aspect of Moore’s work – its repetitiveness. Moore’s major weakness was his abbreviated range. An artist who remained deeply faithful to ideas of nature and to the human form, and above all to their relationship with each other, he carved and shaped almost no animals and few adults who walk – two traditional relationships  of muscle to  earth. The obsessive, almost alarming, quality of theworks was belied by the good humoured understatement of the artist himself. Any account of his achievement should try to   situate and comprehend his limitations. I am aware of the sea-changes that took place within the framework of his oeuvre and also that he was capable of breaking right out of it, as the photographs of his models based on Cezanne’s bathers demonstrate. All the same, figures with holes need not be so insistently reclining, reclining figures need not always have such similar expressions. And why almost always women? ‘In my work, women must  outnumber men by at least fifty to one.  Men get brought in when they are essential to the subject, for example in a family group’.(6)
We should not take Moore’s matter-of-factness at face value. It is not only that  Moore prefers women, he returns insistently to one figure, worked and reworked in many ways though it is. Suppose: suppose, for a moment, that this figure does stand for something, that it is in some way allegorical. Marina Warner has argued that ‘the body is still the map on which we mark our meanings’. She has demonstrated how a symbolised female body may represent masculine activities and values. The naked female  breast being ‘a most frequent sign that we are being pressed to accept an ulterior significance (and are) not being introduced to the body as person’.(7) Could something similar be going on with Henry Moore? A  simple way to answer this question is by imagining that Moore’s reclining females are standing in for, or perhaps I should say sitting in for, men.
If the idea sounds like a flagrant violation of Moore’s work, then it may help to point out that there is at least one recorded instance where he himself reversed the gender of one of his own sculptures. Falling Warrior (1956-57) was made from the maquette Seated Woman (1957) placed on its back.(8)
Moore did three single male warriors: The Arnhem or Seated Warrior (1953-4) and the Goslar Warrior (1973) as well as the Falling Warrior. The first two are amputated and desolate figures. The last (of which Moore said, ‘It represents the dramatic moment that precedes death’(9)) is among the finest pieces of tragic sculpture ever made. Both have shields which gives them a classical notation; a device that is completely exceptional for Moore, whose women are not given a historical period however general. But in the case of the ‘warriors’ perhaps the shields, like the archaic term itself, veils Moore’s own considerable experience of fallen soldiers.
He joined the army aged eighteen, in 1916. In November 1917 he was sent into action as a Lewis gunner at Cambrai. His battalion received and inflicted horrendous losses. At an age when most British art critics are waiting for their A-level results, Moore rode the first modern horse of the Apocalypse, the machine gun.(10) Hospitalised for three months he returned to his training unit where he – the sculptor who discovered the hole – became a specialist in bayonet drill. He has recounted how he had to train a refined public-school boy who only tickled the dummy ‘Hun’. ‘Stick it right in and shout “take this thee bugger!”,’ was Moore’s order.(11)
Should this be put down to mere coincidence? Suppose we scattered our Henry Moore reclining men across a landscape, not as in a sculpture park but at random, some in clusters, others more isolated, but all within a single compass. We would be at the site of a massacre. We have to be careful here. A Moore drawing of Four Figures in a Hollow (1942) may be seen as victims in a shell crater, and gives us a direct sense of the catastrophe in no-man’s land. But it is not my purpose to argue that Moore’s work should be projected as ‘just’ a battlefield from the Great War, this would be to caricature its meaning through a far too crude reversal of its appearance. Yet it is difficult to shake off the possibility that this is a part of what Moore shows us in his work. Not least because it so vividly explains, and is expressed by, the terrible stare and the crippled posture shared by the reclining figures.
While Moore’s work must be seen as in some way incorporating this experience, how it does so is less clear. There are two obvious reasons why his pieces should not be reduced to a response to war. First, they are  not straightforward lamentations. Indeed, the Observer's art critic William Feaver praised Moore because, ‘Sculpture to him was reassurance; not memorial figures, implying life after death, but comfy maternal bulk, totem, shield and shelter. This optimism, or sense of security, made him seem something of a Pangloss ...’(12) Feaver’s ‘totems’ (Moore’s ‘Upright Motives’) could equally well be seen as the handles of gigantic daggers plunged up to their hilt into the earth. A David Finn photograph of the Upright Motive 1 at Glenkiln Cross illustrates this graphically.(13) Nuclear Energy, a giant, skull-like piece, done as a monument for the site of the first controlled splitting of the atom in Chicago; the huge interlocking Three Piece Vertebrae; and other bone type pieces, resemble massive mementi mori strewn across the planet. Such images are hardly comforting. Yet Moore did say, ‘I would like my work to be thought of as a celebration of life and nature’.
The second way in which Moore’s figures are not bound by the Great War is that they are the antithesis of the memorials that stand as the official response to its losses. Moore did not share the middle-class response of horror at the life and death of the trenches. The statues over the names of those who fell, which clutter the byways of Britain, with their mock-heroics and theatrical mourning perpetuated in black stone, are very much what Moore is not. For a start they hold the war to be an exception, a tragic eruption into an otherwise pleasant society.
1914-18 was obviously a time of special grief. For the working class, however, this meant an intensification rather than an interruption of their experience. So many miners volunteered for the front when the war began that strategic coal production suffered, and they had to be excluded from conscription. It was not just patriotism that drew them to the flag, it was also the conditions in the mines. Moore’s father, an active trade unionist, made sure that his son did not follow him down underground. Instead, he went to the trenches in a mobilisation itself made possible by the long mobilisation into industry that had already taken place. The trenches were made possible by the mines, the explosives by coal, the bayonets by the steel factories. The war amplified what had gone before – the decades which had taken already a fearful toll of victims. Moore’s own response, like that of most of his class, was ‘practical’, and this can be seen in his work. It is not a war-protest but a witness to a way of life that at one moment found expression in mass warfare . Its symbol is the earth-mother – a far more terrible metaphor for the trenches than the poppy. Blood soaked into Flanders and brought forth flowers. But bodies too entered and transformed the landscape. In Moore’s reclining figures space invades the forms and the forms themselves fold around to incorporate the environment. The distortions shift away from the anatomical and undulate like hills rather than thighs so that the figures return to the stuff of which they are made.
Yet this is rendered with love and care, however ambivalent. The earth-mother is entered into – she is death – but she also gives forth – she is the source of life. Social and geographic factors contributed to Moore’s experience. Mining is highly industrial yet it takes place outside the great cities, at sites where men work the earth along its deep veins. The mine-shaft and the bayonet wound fuse in Moore’s work like the birth-passage and the site of rape. The rocks that consumed a multitude of men, some crushed, most carbonised from within, gave light, warmth and power for a better life. This direct, industrial experience of nature was reinforced by Moore’s native culture. Not only the upper classes of England place rural values above urban ones. In part because of the conditions of its early, pioneering creation, the British working class has an intense nostalgia for the outdoors and for the land.
Can one claim to interpret the ‘meaning’ of an artist’s work which he himself did not ‘mean’ to be explicit? It should be clear that I am not seeking to deny the sculptural qualities of Moore or his interpretations of such themes as the mother and child. He himself felt there could be meanings to his work that he was unaware of, and it seems to me that by displacing this into questions of universal archetypes a false argument over ‘what does it really mean?’ was set up, that displaced the question from Moore’s own history and experience. In another sense deliberate blindness (also known as faith), so evident in his figures, is characteristic of the British worker (and in a different way British culture as a whole).
Moore himself objected to being termed ‘a miner's son’ and this is echoed by John Russell at the beginning of his story of the artist: “His father was not ‘a miner’ in the conventional sense of the word, but a thoughtful and tenacious individual who would have gone quickly to the top [sic] if he had had the chance of formal education. Nearer to H. G. Wells than to D. H. Lawrence in his orientation, he set great store by brains ... Both parents set, in fact, an example of sustained conscientious exertion: his father in the grinding disciplines of self-help, and his mother in the continuous hard labour of raising eight children.”(14)
This is an argument only against romanticising Moore’s mining background. It was not one from which he rebelled (how many of the English proletariat became Lawrentian in their fire?), Wells was the more representative. According to Packer, Moore’s father was a well connected trade union official; ‘Convinced alike of the dignity of labour and of his own intrinsic worth, Raymond Moore was a socialist very much of his time’.(15) His son remained loyal to progressive attitudes, he drew the cover for an issue for Arms for Spain and was briefly a Communist during the period of the popular front(16) and declined a knighthood. There is a politics to Henry Moore and inevitably to his art. This is not to judge his art in its terms, or to suggest he propagandised. To be political is a compliment and also, for him inevitable – the idea that such a public figure had no politics will only be entertained by those whose real motive is to expropriate the politics that matter to themselves.
Henry Moore was not an oppositionist, however. He belonged to the cultural wing of a trade unionist and anti-fascist left in Britain that sought to be, and perceived itself as having every right to be, part of the country’s ruling coalition. His famous wartime drawings of the sleepers using the London tube as bomb shelters project this patriotic, collectivist atmosphere which he felt peculiarly his. Here, in the tunnels, were his reclining figures, now truly massed in the very holes themselves. Herbert Read, who had the intelligence to suggest that Moore be commissioned to draw miners at work on ‘the home front’, wrote about the underground sketches: “He saw the pathetic crowds of homeless people in their underground shelters, huddled in casual but monumental groups, abandoned to their misery, and he felt impelled to record what he had seen. The result was a series of ‘shelter drawings’ which constitute the most authentic expression of the special tragedy of this war – its direct impact on the ordinary mass of humanity, the women, children, and old men of our cities.”(17)
The language reveals a patronising and Olympian perspective that was never Moore’s. But the description has a truth in it that applies to the reclining figures. They are an authentic expression of the special tragedy of the civilian population in the long war that began as Moore’s father was taken from the fields to the mines, and which still continues as it hurtles us towards unknown destinations.
Not all of Moore’s sculptures have this quality. One notable exception is of a seated couple looking outwards with a relatively confident visage and posture. Placed in a landscape they look upon the countryside as their own, with a wilfulness quite lacking in most other Moore sculptures including his seated families. This couple is called, The King and Queen ... In Britain, for well known reasons, the industrial working class was relatively unified and conscious of its separate fate. It felt itself to be holding up society, and as representing its best qualities of loyalty and straightness, yet of being subordinate to it. Similarly, in a fashion that seems to have been completely without irony, Moore went along with the British order, but perhaps despite himself left an implacable expression of its cost.
Around the world his work stands as a powerful statement. In its simplicity, its grandeur, its monumental strength, its great shoulders, its truth to materials, its skill and craft, Moore’s work embodies the world’s first massed working class. Above all its suffering and passivity. For along with the strength of an ox went a similar inclination to obey. His figures do not rebel, they accept their sacrifice, they know but do not like their condition, they have the strength but not the will to rise. Moore’s figures come from a collective experience in which women toil the harder. They are the shape of industrial labour as a lifetime.

1 Moore is quoted as saying: ‘I’ve never been impervious to a pretty girl, but I’ve never wanted to draw the glamorous type, the beauty contest woman. I think the life that most women have, with babies and husbands and household work, is tougher than men's. They have to be capable and physically strong. Perhaps that is why my sculptures of women look monumental, like big men.’ Well, yes, but notice: ‘Perhaps ... like big men.’ John Hedgecoe, Henry Moore: My Ideas, Inspiration and Life as an Artist, London 1986.
2  The Lund Humphries Henry Moore (now being updated and completed, henceforth H.M.), Vol 1, in Herbert Read's introduction, p.xxvi.
3  As Peter Fuller argues, New Society, 5 September 1986.
4   H.M., Vol 1, p.47.
5  See Bowness’s introduction to H.M., Vol 4.
6  Henry Moore, Sculpture, ed. David Mitchinson, London 1981, p.52.
7  Monuments and Maidens; the Allegory of the Female Form, London 1985, pp.331, 277. Moore's figures can also be discussed in terms of Warner's discussion of ‘The Sieve of Tuccia’. In his case, however, his nudes were never ‘inhabited by a real individual’, p.323, he never sculpted from life.
8  David Finn, Henry Moore, Sculpture and Environment, London 1977, p.272.
9  Mitchinson, as cited, p. 138.
10 There is a vivid and helpful discussion of this episode in William Packer, Henry Moore, an illustrated biography, London 1985, Chap 2. Packer notes Moore’s suppression of the experience. Commenting on his shelter drawings of the Second World War, Moore said: ‘The only thing at all like those shelters that I could think of was the hold of a slave-ship on its way from Africa ....’ Packer suggests that this is ‘oddly historical or literary and somehow removed, as though it were necessary to keep his own more recent and direct experiences in the trenches of the other war at a certain distance.’ pp. 116-7.
11 Sunday Times, 9 February 1986.
12  Observer, 1 September 1986.
13  Finn, as cited, p.307.
14  John Russell, Henry Moore, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 13.
15  Packer, as cited, p. 10.
16  See Margaret Gardiner, Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir, Edinburgh 1982, p.50.
17  Introduction to H.M., Vol 1, p.xxvii.

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Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy 


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