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April 20, 2010

Great Art, Terrible Commentary: Christie Davies on Henry Moore at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

Henry Moore
Tate Britain, London
24 February - 8 August 2010
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

The Henry Moore exhibition is good on Moore but bad on commentary. The organisers have made statements that are either obvious or utterly speculative and just plain wrong. This they call insight? Moore did not like interpretation and did not agree with those who over-interpreted his shapes while he was alive. Why peddle this kind of stuff after he is dead? You would think they would have the good sense and taste to recruit a Yorkshireman with a mild accent to do the audio commentary but they have a porcelain-vowelled woman. We asked for bread but they have given us a Sloane.

The earliest examples of Moore's sculptures in the exhibition are a tribute to the immeasurable value of the British Museum with its fine collection of primitive art. Such artefacts must be held in the British Museum for ever, for there alone can they inspire the artists of the world. Moore has proved this beyond any doubt. It is our moral destiny and duty to hold them. If they had stayed in or were returned to their countries of origin, they would either sit unseen and covered in mould in some provincial hut, which it is unsafe to visit without an armed escort, be destroyed by a Muslim iconoclast as with the Afghan Buddhas, or else be sold off illicitly to a wealthy and secretive private collector.

If the Elgin Marbles were to be returned to an always utterly corrupt and now utterly bankrupt Greece, they would soon end up in some secret basement of a Shanghai mansion of les nouveaux riches chinois, along with a store of bones from a Bengal tiger and the horn of the last rhinoceros. I am not saying that ancient Greek art, the basis of the classical tradition, is primitive, merely that modern Greece has truly become a third-world country, one that can not be trusted with anything.

Likewise illicitly exported art is as likely to be shanghaied to a hideaway in Huddersfield or a garret in Glasgow, it is merely that the Chinese are richer and have a far more ancient and sophisticated civilization than Greece.

Moore was particularly attracted by the art of the various ancient civilisations located in the area that today constitutes Mexico. Moore liked the way their sculptures were true to the materials from which they were made, rather than striving to imitate the natural surface texture of the people or animals who were being carved. Likewise, West African artists have understood that there are many ways of being callipygian. Female bottoms do not have to be made of cold stone or plaster of the kind, according to Joyce, scribbled on by the youth of Dublin. Female bottoms are sex objects. African sculptors and French painters understand this. Of Pierre-Auguste Renoir it may truly be said that his arrière pensée was derrière pincée.

Moore appreciated and understood Mexican masks. His own Mask, 1928, is carved in gneiss, a metamorphic rock that must have been hard to work. The eyes and mouth are mere empty holes indicating that importance of emptiness that was to be so much a part of his work. Moore's Maternity, 1924, is a cube with a hard square mother suckling a hard square baby but this may well not be Mayan influence but a reflection of his Yorkshire origins. It's grim up North.

The erudite Taters speaks of the "turn to the primitive" as an attempt to find an alternative to the brutality of modern civilisation, particularly as seen by artists after the war of 1914-18 in which Moore served. Yet that war was no more brutal than the ancient wars between tribes and states in Africa or Latin America, it was merely more technically advanced. In relation to population, the deaths and wounds of World War I were not a new horror but a return to the old familiar ones after nearly a hundred years of relative calm in Europe. I doubt if the African victims of the assegai wielding Zulus under Shaka would have seen World War I as especially brutal nor would those conquered by the Aztecs. It is a myth, indeed a racist myth, that modern Europeans are more brutal than other peoples. In what sense did artists in the 1920s truly believe in the peaceableness of primitive peoples as distinct from the genius of their art?

The curators make much of Moore being the victim of a gas attack in World War I, but he himself, though he was to become a pacifist, does not seem to have seen it as a horrific influence. My grandmother's brother experienced a gas attack in that same war but soon took charge of retaliatory British gas attacks. He would tell us as children not of the horrors of a gas attack but of the chemical properties of chlorine and mustard gas, which inspired us to devote ourselves to the study of chemistry. Human responses are much more varied and unpredictable than the curators seem to understand.

Perhaps Moore's masterpiece in this tradition is Girl with Clasped Hand, 1930, made after he had admired the Sumerian art in the British Museum, where it was safe from the hands of Iraqi looters. In Moore's artefact the hands are as important as the head, perhaps an appropriate view for a sculptor to take. Moore adopted the fidelity of these ancient artists to their local stone and applied it to forms of English stone such as Cumberland alabaster and brown Hornton stone (his favourite); in this way he expressed his English identity.

He worked directly on the stone rather than making plaster models as others did. It is a riskier procedure since you cannot repair or rectify an error and besides large slabs of suitable stone can be very expensive. Moore had to think and plan very carefully. I suspect some of the bumps in his work are a product of his carefully following the grain of the sedimentary rocks he was using, both as an aesthetic principle and because if you are not careful the rock will split and crumble. As a youth I used to collect fossils with a hammer and chisel so I have a lot of sympathy with the problems Moore faced.

You will find little mention of geology or the qualities of rocks in the commentary on the exhibition, for the curators prefer to prattle about psychoanalysis than to deal with the real material world. Yet we know from the Moore collection in Toronto that he was interested in geomorphology, in the way rocks are carved by the weather and the rivers, the ice and its freezing and flowing to form landscape. The holes and hollows, the convexities and concavities, the smoothing of a stone so that the banding is emphasised that are so central to Moore's work, are all to be found in our rocks.

A substantial part of Moore's work consisted of portrayals of mother and child, which has elicited, indeed illicited, much absurd psychoanalytic comment. The amateur shrinkos even pushed Moore into a corner and forced from him the comment: "perhaps I do have a mother complex?" Complete nonsense. The mother and child theme and the Madonna and the baby Jesus have always been popular in western art. We were created mammals and children are dependent on their mothers for far longer than animals are. The son of God, fully human and fully divine, was a human baby and his loving human mother did not die but ascended into heaven; it is this aspect of our religion that renders us better and kinder people than those lesser breeds who see God as an unapproachable abstraction to be feared like a tyrant.

It must also not be forgotten that there were seventeen years between Moore's marriage and the birth of his first and only child and that his wife had several miscarriages. Who would not be focused on the image of mother and child after such repeated disappointments? Moore had been deprived of what he and his wife wanted most, for her to become a mother.

His own experience of a family had been a happy childhood. Yet it is striking that in his sculptures the gaze of the mother and child often do not meet, as we can see from looking at his Mother and Child, 1934. Moore continued to go with the flow of the stone and the mother twists her limbs to look away from her smiling child. But in 1934 the Moores' child did not exist and it seemed as if it never would.

In Suckling Child, 1930, the mother is nothing but her breasts and the infant is in a state of greedy desperation to suck at one of them while clinging on to the other. The curators claim this image is erotic. One wonders if they have ever seen a seriously hungry baby in action or indeed a bunch of piglets. This isn't sex; it is the necessary guzzling of a little fresser who wants to survive. No doubt the curators and their pals have been reading up on Freud's "oral stage". Oral schmoral!

There is further speculation by the Taters that Moore's concentration on "universal shapes" shows that he was influenced by Aryan Jung and his occult "archetypes". Why do the curators prefer to refer to Jung, that weird fraud, rather than to the profounder truths of geomorphology? The same comment may be made concerning the curators reducing Moore's fascination with pebbles and bones to images of erosion and decay. Rocks do erode and some are full of bones. Who is not fascinated by pebbles? Who has not taken one home for its smoothness, its colour or its veining?

Moore's Recumbent Figure, 1938, was deliberately made to resemble the landscape of the South Downs, so as to fit into a Sussex garden with the Downs as its backdrop; the figure's large central hole enabled those in the garden where it was placed to look through and see the hills behind. The hole makes up the sum of the parts. It is not an emptiness but a link. Between the knees is a hollow; it is like one carved in a rocky river bed by a whirlpool armed with tiny pebbles.

During World War II Moore drew figures sleeping in the stations of the underground to escape the blitz. They are not a poor underclass as suggested by the curators but respectable working class people tired out by the day's work and the night's bombings. In Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941, we see just such an exhausted man, so tired that he is able to sleep on through his mouth-open wife's heavy snoring.

Miners at Work on Coalface, 1942, was done at the very mine in Castleford where Moore's father had worked. They work hard with pick and shovel in cramped conditions, carrying lamps and pushing tubs, just as my own grandfather did. Much is made of Moore's father being a miner but was the father not promoted to become a manager or an engineer? That is what high intelligence in a miner can lead to and this same intelligence led to the father educating all seven of his children that they might not end up underground.

This is not as the curators suggest a wide-spread pattern, for most miners, like most people in other occupations, are not as bright as Moore's father. Many miners later accepted Scargill's feudal edict that their sons had an inalienable right to become miners in their turn. That is why the NUM refused Mr MacGregor's generous carrot of no redundancies and stayed on strike in 1984-5. In both the underground and the Underground Moore is able wonderfully to capture the confinements of space but then as a sculptor of holes he already knew a lot about it.

After the war Moore made Reclining Figure for the absurd Festival of Britain of 1951 with its silly Skylon, which like Britain itself had no visible means of support, and its Dome of Discovery, later refurbished as the Millennium Dome by Herbert Morrison's heir Mr Blair-Mandelson. In 1851 Prince Albert's Great Exhibition had truly celebrated the genius and achievements of the greatest, wealthiest and most productive nation the world had ever seen. What was there to celebrate in 1951 in a country wrecked and bankrupted by war and socialism?

Yet looking back on 1951 we are taken by the moral lives led by ordinary people, compared to our own degenerate, indeed Dalrymplean, times, but no one knew at the time that within four years all morality would begin to collapse. Moore's Reclining Figure is built of white plaster decorated by inset string. The feet are missing, the ankles mere hoofs and the face, mouth up, screams into the sky. We can also clearly see the influence on it of Picasso's Guernica, the Luftwaffe's trial run for the London blitz.

Atom Piece, a working model for Nuclear Energy, 1964-5, has often been seen as a blurring of the outlines of smooth skull and a mushroom cloud, a death-threat reflecting Moore's membership of CND. Yet it is on three struts not a stalk and there are no smooth surfaces to a cloud. Also why was the full version of this work placed in Chicago at the very place where Enrico Fermi produced the nuclear chain reaction that made the atomic bomb possible?

The last room is filled with Moore's work in elm 1935-78. It is another tribute to Moore's understanding of how to use the colour, grain and texture of a material. The natural hollows in the wood enable him to make holes that become long tunnels and runnels right through. Holes and tunnels are not emptiness - they go somewhere, as any badger can tell you.

Moore was a consistent innovator who moved far from the academic realistic sculpture that prevailed when he was young. But he is not really an abstract artist, except in the sense that he abstracted from nature, from the rocks and wood, the landscapes and human beings that were all around him. They were English rocks, English wood, English landscapes and English people. He did not invent an abstract world; he recreated England through abstract forms. Every true-born Englishman should go and see this exhibition.

Christie Davies, who was born in Surrey, is the author of Dewi the Dragon, Talybont, Y Lolfa, 2006.


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Maybe I'm wrong, but didn't Heseltine first come up with the idea for the Millennium Dome?

   In Xanadê did Chairman Hê
   A useless pleasure-dome decree:
   Where Thames, the muddy river, ran
   Through channels measured out by man
   Down to the sludgy sea.

Though it does seem, since, to have been put to some use.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 28, 2010 10:40 AM
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