You know what a “Moore” looks like, I know what a Moore looks like and they are so ubiquitous that I wouldn’t be surprised if my cat knows what a Moore looks like. They occupy every courtyard, park, lobby and museum in the western world and are the very epitome of what it is to be “sculptural” and, unfortunately, what it is to be conservative in art. Yet for all that we are familiar with the works in question we often miss their point. The survey show at the Tate Britain gets behind the ubiquitous Moore and suggests to us a different artist: an early modernist in the truest sense of the word, a political activist, a self publicist and a bluff and troubled man.
(Henry Moore, Reclining Figure , 1951, Tate, London. Credit: Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.)
Although the survey is divided into different eras of practice, they are all to a greater or lesser extent, facets of Moore's modernist impulse. The primitivist, the abstract and the deeply sexual content of his work are all deployed as radical and progressive devices. It is this that we often forget - that the return to the essential, primitive and substantial in his work is not necessarily a reactionary move, but a controversial and revolutionary part of early modernism. (One has to remember that Eric Gill's sculptures were being publicly removed at the time for similar erotic content.) The survey at the Tate beautifully illustrates this progressive fervour. Moore's collages of mother and child for instance, is as sexual, bodily, intimate and explicit as a Richard Prince "DeKooning" collage and yet we overlook it as establishment work.
The inclusion of many small maquettes adds considerable depth to the exhibition and helps to explain more clearly the conceptual position of an artist who is more widely known for his super-scale public works. The smaller works insist that Moore's sculptures are more than blobs for the punctuation of public places but come from an ongoing studio practice or "project".
(Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Perspective: The Liverpool Street Extension, 1941, Tate, London. Credit: Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.)
Not everyone may be convinced of Moore's true modernity but the Tate's survey helps us understand the impulse and fervour behind a sculptor who has done more than any other in the 20th century to shape our visual language.
(top image: Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1939, The Detroit Institute of Arts. Credit: Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.)