Henry Moore: Exhibition at Tate Britain, 24th February-8th August 2010
Exhibition catalogue published by the Tate
A major retrospective Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain is clearly a blockbuster which will attract thousands of visitors. In so many ways, Moore represents the archetypal image of the artist beloved by the public, as Giotto was first described by Vasari: the untutored genius who comes of age and then transforms the medium in which he works. From a humble Yorkshire background, Moore emerged in the 1930s as the foremost avant-garde English sculptor, a role he would occupy for the rest of his long life. His work at first seemed daring and very modern, yet by the end of his career he was being commissioned by the largest corporate organisations to enhance their new offices and sales centres. Vast bronze figures by Moore can be seen in important public spaces all over the world; he is an instantly recognisable and hugely popular artist, yet his reputation may now be tarnished by his own success, as the works on show here demonstrate to some extent.
This exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, is of the usual high standard that one expects from the Tate. The works are well laid out and accompanied by useful information, the route finishing, appropriately enough, with a group of large wooden reclining figures, works carved over a period of more than forty years. Indeed, the familiar forms that one associates with Moore (mother and child; reclining figures; helmeted heads; stringed abstract shapes) are all displayed here, and they speak of an artist who was aware of modernist trends, but who could not or would not embrace complete abstraction, preferring ultimately to base his figures within the tradition of figurative reality.
The strength of this exhibition is that it allows the visitor to trace Moore's development as a sculptor up to the point where he began to receive the large commissions. From the small, beautifully-worked wooden and stone figures of the 1930s to the lead and bronze figures of the immediate pre- and post-war period, we see an artist comfortable with his materials and the forms that he is creating. As we trace his progression from the mid thirties onwards, it becomes apparent that he began with naturalist subjects, as in the mother and child sculptures, moved briefly towards more abstract forms with the stringed figures of the late thirties, but then returned to familiar themes. It is almost as if he felt that the experiments with abstraction had failed and he needed to root his work again in the real, visible world. This should not be taken as a criticism, for Moore was a serious artist who continually searched for the means towards greater expression. It is true, however, that while his contemporaries were beginning to explore the possibilities of removing all human forms and references from their work and attempting total abstraction, Moore moved in the opposite direction. The European avant-garde, Mondrian, Naum Gabo and Moholy-Nagy amongst others, briefly visited these shores when they fled the political and artistic tyranny of Nazi Germany, and while artists such as Barbara Hepworth took up their challenge to explore the possibilities of abstract forms, Moore returned to naturalism, like a mother to a child.
Nestled in the middle of the exhibition is a not completely unexpected highpoint. Shortly after the war started in September 1939, Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, persuaded the government to set up and fund the WAAC: the War Artists Advisory Committee. Selected artists were given commissions to produce their own responses to the war, and many notable figures were encouraged to take part, with the benefit of protection from physical engagement with the enemy. At the height of the London Blitz, Clark suggested that the crowds flocking each night to the Underground might make a good subject, and Moore began to record this human experience. The resulting notebooks, Clark subsequently claimed, were "visible confirmation of the world of form that he (Moore) had been extracting from his inner consciousness for the last ten years."
The stories behind these remarkable works have since passed into artistic folklore: that on the 11th of September 1940 Moore and his wife were returning from an evening at a West End theatre and saw people crowding onto the platform at Belsize Park, and he subsequently remained there to witness the experience; that he spent hours sketching the sleeping figures as they sheltered from the horrors of the bombings; that the sketches were just that, preliminary works produced on the spur of the moment. There may be some truth in these statements, but more likely they represent yet another artistic myth of which Vasari would be proud.
These drawings are indeed very powerful, but they are not the product of hasty impressions. They are well constructed, carefully thought out responses to a unique situation. Moore was unable to work on three-dimensional pieces because the war situation meant that the materials he needed were unavailable. Therefore he turned to drawing and, with obvious suffering visible all around him, he filled two large sketchbooks with pen and ink drawings which were then inlaid with wax and carefully washed with coloured ink. The results helped to establish several artistic and social myths: Moore as social commentator, Moore as the artistic spokesman for the common man, Moore as the great artist responding to unprecedented events. While there are elements of truth within these generalised myths, the power of these images derives not simply from the context of their production, although this is important, but from their place within an art historical tradition of images of war.
Inevitably one thinks of Goya's Disasters of War or Otto Dix's Der Kreig, but there are other influences which can be identified. One of the most beautiful and moving works in the exhibition is Two Sleepers in the Underground (No.105 in the catalogue). It shows two sleeping figures, one with mouth slightly open, the other gently resting an arm on the other's chest. The two heads are strangely reminiscent of one of Géricault's most powerful works, Heads of Executed Criminals, an early nineteenth century French painting firmly positioned within the Romantic tradition. In this picture, two heads have been placed on sheets. One with closed eyes appears at rest, the other, with open staring eyes and gaping mouth, seems caught at the moment of death and earthly release. The contrast between the two expressions is immediate and affecting. With whom does the viewer identify--the one at peace or, to use the words of Dylan Thomas, the one raging against the dying of the light? Moore's figures evoke the same emotion. Amorphous shapes, curled together, slumber amidst the turmoil. They could easily be corpses, suffocated underground and now asleep forever. The way the nearest figure clutches at the cover suggests a troubled rest, contrasting with the companion lying quietly on the other side. The coloured washes -- red, green and yellow--add to the otherworldliness of the scene and enhance the claustrophobic effects of the dramatic foreshortening.
After the success of the Underground scenes, Moore was commissioned to record the work of Yorkshire coalminers. By general consensus these drawings are less successful, seeming forced and self-conscious, as if Moore was aware of the power of the earlier works but unsure how to either recreate their success, or better still, build on it. However, when the war finally ended he found himself with an enhanced reputation and a supply of materials to work with, and the public commissions began to flood in. The birth of Moore, artist of the modern town and city space, was complete.
From the 1950s onwards Moore came to represent the great public artist. Reclining figures, huge helmeted heads, and family groups were once again part of his repertoire, often made on a colossal scale, as if Moore was attempting to dominate by sheer size the often enormous spaces that he was commissioned to fill. While many of these works are impressive, they lack the subtlety and nuance of his earlier masterpieces. Like the wartime drawings of the miners, the technique and mastery of form are present but the inspiration, the soaring imagination, is strangely absent. There is little doubt that Moore was a masterful artist, but his later public sculptures are not his best work.
For that, and here the curators of this exhibition are to be congratulated, we need only look at the last works on display here, four large sculptures. During his long career Moore carved six large reclining figures in elm, the first in 1936, the last between 1976 and 1978. The ones on display here are truly breathtaking and, unlike the large bronze interpretations of the same subject, have an intimacy and sexual presence which gives the works great strength. Here we can see Moore at the height of his powers, manipulating forms in a material which yields easily to his touch. More than anything else in the exhibition, apart from the Underground drawings, these works deserve the epithet 'great.'
The Tate has made much of this exhibition, and of its collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario. This gallery received a huge bequest from Moore which could have been given to the Tate itself, but for the conditions which he insisted upon. However, despite the claim made in the catalogue's introduction that "a major reassessment of Moore's sculpture has long been desirable," this exhibition does not deliver it. It repeats orthodox views on Moore's work while seeking to place him at the forefront of twentieth century sculpture worldwide, an argument which is, frankly, difficult to defend. Nevertheless there is much to admire here, with Moore's importance to English art demonstrably visible.--Paul Flux
Drawing in Space, Mary Reid (2009) Presence, Paul Moorhouse (2010) Figurative and Narrative Sculpture, Julius Bryant 2009 Interior and Exterior, Karen Wilkinson 2009 Small Sculptures, H. F. Westley Smith 2010
Five-volume boxed set (Lund Humphries, 2010)
That Anthony Caro is the greatest living English artist is a fairly obvious way to start this review, and yet it still needs to be said. Born in 1924, Caro has spent his whole life examining and experimenting with solid forms in several different media, and his body of work can leave no-one in doubt as to his genius or his influence on the sculpture of his generation. Along with that of Henry Moore, for whom Caro worked as an assistant in the early 1950s, his work represents a kind of benchmark against which any contemporary English sculptor may be judged. These beautifully produced books are especially significant, for together they contain more than 350 colour plates of his work, representing all stages and periods of his long life, and thus enable the interested amateur (and professional art historian for that matter) to view the entirety of this distinguished artist's oeuvre.
The way the series has been constructed is admirable. Five distinguished art critics and professionals have each contributed a volume and the whole series is edited by Karen Wilkin, a New York based art critic who specialises in twentieth century modernism. Together, the contributors and editor have combined their talents so that not only does each volume stand alone as a valid addition to our understanding of Caro, but taken as a whole the series has everything that the reader needs to fully appreciate this exceptional artist's sheer diversity. Informative and erudite text and high quality photographs ensure that each book is a pleasure both to study and explore.
As might be expected, there is much to surprise and delight even those who are familiar with this artist. Having seen Caro's work in the major 2005 Tate retrospective, I was unprepared for the extraordinary range of works on show here. So much is impressive and worthy of mention, but I will restrict myself to just a handful of examples to demonstrate the quality of work on offer. In the volume Figurative and Narrative Sculpture there are several superb works which I would love to see, but one in particular is truly arresting. Produced between 1996 and 1999, Gate of Heaven demands prolonged attention, as does the complete installation of which it is a part, The Last Judgement.
The Last Judgement is a twenty-five piece installation which alludes to Michelangelo, Goya and Beckman. The photograph of this work is dominated by a stoneware bell hanging above and in front of a corridor that is crowded with figures enclosed within spaces set against bare brick walls. At the far end is a partly open door which could be either an entrance or an exit. The text explains that this work was Caro's response to the late twentieth-century genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere. The artist has clearly absorbed the apocalyptic images from the artists previously mentioned, but has added his own powerful interpretation of life's final moments. The ambivalence present in these images of exit and entrance, of eternity and annihilation, of darkness and light, is made visual in a most powerful way.
Gate of Heaven, the slightly open door which is one of the twenty-five pieces, is the subject of a separate photograph. Now part of the Würth collection in Germany, this steel, stoneware and wood construction is a recent addition to a long line of artistic visions involving doors. The text mentions Ghiberti's Baptistery doors in Florence and Rodin's Gates of Hell, but equally relevant references could also include Rothko's brooding Tate canvases inspired by Michelangelo's Medici Library, or even photographs of the oven doors at Auschwitz or Dachau. Standing some eight feet tall and more than six feet wide, this simple structure's most noteworthy feature is the parallel supports. These burnished steel columns hold an internal wooden frame upon which a slightly tilted open door is positioned. Beyond (or behind) the door is black space. The most obvious question that we must initially ask of this piece is: which side are we looking at it from? The accompanying text suggests that this is hell's only exit, but as the door is opening inwards, there is a suggestion that we could be viewing it from the comfort of heaven. But if that is the case, why are the studs and steel protection on the inside? On the other hand, if we are looking at the door from the outside, why is the visible interior so dark and forbidding? The door seems to enclose something of the highest value and to prevent unwanted visitors from entering. With a majestic control of his materials, Caro has created a distinctly sinister image of heaven and hell.
Caro is, of course, best known for his abstract work, those great lumps of coloured steel which challenged perceptions of what public sculpture could be. The volume Presence shows examples of mostly large abstract figures produced between 1960 and 2009. As in the other volumes, the sheer range and quality of the work is immediately obvious. Caro excels in his manipulation of mass produced materials: the book is full of monumental sculptures in which he has pushed, pulled, twisted and ripped enormous pieces of metal, stone and wood to realise a harmony which weds together the formal qualities of the materials within our own human experience, an achievement which few other artists can match. Tundra, a work which belongs to the Tate, best exemplifies this point. Produced when Caro was experimenting with large flat pieces of steel, this work is composed of three slightly bent sheets, seemingly supported on a solid base, with bookend-like props on either side. Yet the title suggests to us a vast landscape, and so does the piece itself. As with many of Caro's finest works, his use of abstract forms evokes images and memories of the real world.
My final example of work from this series is taken from Interior and Exterior, probably my favourite volume since it contains several images from Caro's recent work at St. John the Baptist church at Bourbourg in France. Like Matisse at the Chapel in Vence, and Rothko at his eponymous Rothko Chapel in Houston, Caro has utilised a religious setting and placed within it structures and figures which transform the space into something which is both contemplative in its own right, and fitting for the space that it occupies.
Bourbourg is a small town near Dunkirk, and in 1940, during the panic which accompanied the British withdrawal from that area, the mediaeval church was mostly destroyed. After the war the church was partly repaired but the huge Gothic choir was not restored until the late 1990s, when Caro was commissioned to transform the space into a building with a purpose again. Inside it Caro has placed two wooden structures, entitled Tower of Morning and Tower of Evening. Made with French oak, these beautiful towers reach up from the floor of the chapel towards the Gothic arches which surround them. An asymmetrical pure white concrete font is surrounded by giant steel structures which seem to be bursting out of the small double arches in which they are placed. The photographs (and I wish there were a few more!) graphically suggest both the power and the harmony which Caro has realised within the chapel space, and the unity of the whole. It is truly an achievement which can stand alongside that of Matisse at Vence.
Caro is a major figure on the art world stage, and has continued to experiment with form and material throughout his long life. These admirable books do him a great service in that they show just how challenging and ground -breaking he has been. Of course there are gaps—most notably, there is no image of the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul's to the Tate Modern—but that is a small price to pay for such a worthy tribute to a great artist's life's work.--Paul Flux