Blackpaint 79

Henry Moore

Drizzle, cold, grey, Sunday afternoon, concrete, windy, open spaces between office buildings – these are a few of the favourite things I think of, when I think of Henry Moore.  Clearly, I’m not alone, since all the commentators I’ve read or heard on the new exhibition at the Tate Britain have said the same.  The surprising aversion that everyone on the Review Show expressed on Friday night probably reflects similar memories.

the other thing that Moore suffers from is the use of his work, or caricatures of it, to stand for “Modern Art” in magazine and newspaper cartoons for the last 50 years or so.  Bemused man gazes at a Moore statue (hole in the middle, huge body and limbs, tiny – or no – head) and then glances at his wife/mother-in-law… 

As in most stereotypes, there is a nugget of truth – there is a whole room of “Mothers with child”, dozens of Recumbent or Reclining Figures, loads of holes, tons of little heads, very few men except in the war drawings.  But what comes across is not a tired repetition of easily churned -out motifs but an obsessive return to the human form, as customised, simplified, adapted by his particular vision and the properties and limitations of the stone and wood (and plaster and metal).

Strange to me, since its hard to imagine the sheer physical effort that these things must have demanded to bring them into being – not like painting, where you can get it down on canvas in a relatively short time, see it taking shape in front of (or beneath) you.  I suppose that goes for all monumental sculpture, not just Moore.  But his stuff has that quality of looking shaped and moulded by his hands without tools, a feel of immediacy.

Some of the early ones are of Cumberland alabaster, which sounds to me like the aural equivalent of the sculptures themselves.  The first ones show an obvious Aztec influence, African later.  there is one with what looks like painted on eyes, maybe different stone.  There is the little fat thug baby, like Khruschev maybe, squatting on his mother’s shoulders.  There is the skinny mother, strangling the bird head baby that is biting her head – oh no, its a breast; the head is further up, just a set of sharp studs.  There are the helmets, the atomic globe thing, the collection of strung sculptures, like Gabo and Moholy Nagy and Hepworth – I bet Moore did them first, haven’t checked.  It just looks as if he tried it once and then thought “I wonder what that one would look like with string”, and kept doing them until he got fed up.

there is a whole set of skinny plaster recliners, grooved, with dirty looking pigment rubbed in like rough tattooing.  One big figure has an intricate pattern of string glued on in impressive geometric lines; like old bones or scrimshank.  there is the blade headed woman with the turtle back, some have symbols scratched into them and marks that look like fossils, the helmets, the humps and whorls and scoops and holes and hummocks.

There is the room full of massive elm recliners done over 30 odd years.  Walking round these, I realised something incredibly obvious but I’ll say it anyway – a sculpture in the round is like an infinite number of paintings, because its different from every angle.  That may be why his “sketches” are so fully and beautifully developed – pen and ink, washes, crayon, scraping, pastels.

The other drawings – the miners, air raid shelters, heads – are equally stunningly good; very familiar to War Museum veterans like me, but none the worse for that.  Finally, there is that Meadows-like sculpture of the three points nearly meeting, that for some reason, I can’t get out of my mind. 

Go and see it, the critics are talking shit to be controversial, this is a genius exulting in his skill and vision  -I can imagine him in the middle of all these like David Smith at his outdoor sculpture park, with his toys all around him.

Private view after, in the heart of Deptford.  Sold nothing, but some good old friends showed up.  Home drunk on train and painted.


Sunday 28th Feb – !st March 2010.

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