Henry Moore was born during a time of conquest and an era of war. Working independently, but alongside Picasso and the Cubists, Dali and the Surrealists; Primitivism held an untold prominence and influence in the early decades of twentieth Century Europe. Emerging with a distinct, but incongruous view of the horrors of both world wars and their aftermath, Moore began creating soft, vulnerable, feminine distortions of humanity. This exhibition demonstrates Moore’s process of reducing and abstracting his two most prominent subjects, the mother and child and the reclining female form, in terms of style, content and form.
Drawing was always an essential part of Moore’s art making, in his early years as a sculptor he would draw an idea before molding it. Only later in his life was he able to divorce his graphic work from his sculpture and draw simply to draw. In his sketches he maintained working on sculptural studies and other themes that intrigued him, creating inexhaustible variations of objects. With the opening of World War II and the London air raids, Moore became an official war artist salaried by the British government, documenting the thousands of Londoners packed into the Underground, used at the time as a shelter. Here he was able to intimately study his most distinguished subject, the figure in repose. Perhaps it was Moore’s experiences like these that fueled his preoccupation with creating vulnerable, passive figures, as he and the rest of Europe were splayed prone to the atrocities of war, unable to control the anxiety and apprehension it caused.
This trepidation came out in the figures Moore created, nameless and disfigured, a distorted humanity. His two most rendered subjects present these foundations, the reclining form and the mother and child. With these two themes he was able to invent completely new forms, to express life without representing it; his goal was not to create idealized figures, as he saw life was not perfect. These figures gave him room to investigate form, simplifying the essential elements and eliminating everything else. However, out of the darkness of conflict came a new venture for Moore, his first experiments with printmaking. With materials and space difficult to locate because of war and his studio bombed in Hampstead, Moore had to find less monumental ways to work than his prodigiously scaled sculpture. His print work began in 1931 and continued over fifty more years of his life. Moore never claimed to be a printmaker and he relied heavily on the help of master printers to create the end result which he valued the most. Moore’s print output increased dramatically in the last decade of his life, suffering two medical encumbrances in those years preventing him from sculpting.
The year 1944 brought Moore’s first exploration into the universal theme of the Mother and Child, after the birth of his first child and the death of his mother two years prior. The mother and child gave Moore a subject in which he could study the spatial relationships between an imposing nurturing figure and her smaller child, creating a sense of connection and emotion between the two figures without providing any sense of recognizable identity. He went so far to say he could create a mother and child from any inkblot, being such a rich subject he would always endeavor to use it. Many of the works in this exhibition are dedicated to “Mary,” his daughter.
Equally as synonymous with the name Henry Moore as the mother and child are the reclining figures. With this subject he was free to create human figures out of the simplest of means; stretching, bulking, deconstructing the figure. His first reclining figure was produced around 1934, years before his drawings of the London tunnels, the figures that remained vivid in his mind for the rest of his life. Many of Moore’s early figures in repose can be recognized for their solidity and mass much like ancient Mexican Toltec-Mayan sculpture in which he drew inspiration, while his later figures are marked with voids, more airy with a pronounced sense of undulation.
The prints in this exhibition demonstrate Moore’s graphic obsession with exploring diverse variations of backgrounds, hues and composition in the printing process. As form and space hold a strong place in Moore’s work of all media, with the help of printmaking, he was able to effortlessly experiment with these elements. He shows us his non-sequential progression from turning recognizably human figures into near complete biomorphic abstractions, combining various rounded geometric shapes into an entity resembling an anthropoid. Many of his prints appearing nearly identical in subject matter and arrangement explore the minute discrepancies in Moore’s oeuvre, working through his ideas and challenging the viewer to find the variances in his work. Often, he combines multiple subject matters into a single composition, as can be seen in this exhibition, in particular the mother and child and reclining figures. More importantly, Henry Moore’s great virtuosity can be seen throughout this exhibition by showing us human forms amid undulating masses and sensual curves.
Publishing over seven hundred small editions in his lifetime, Moore was also one of the most significant sculptors of the 20th Century. Moore’s work is included in museum collections throughout the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, UK, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, Guggenheim Museum, New York, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Italy, Tate Gallery, UK, Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts, Neuberger Museum of Art, New York, San Diego Museum of Art, California, Storm King Art Center, New York and University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa.