Henry Moore, Without the Preconceptions

Scarlet Cheng is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In an era that hasn't forgotten the adage "Less is more," it may seem strange to acknowledge that sometimes more is more. But that's the idea behind a massive Henry Moore retrospective at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

"Hopefully what this show will do is to counteract the common cliche that everyone has in mind of Henry Moore, which is large outdoor bronzes," says Steve Nash, chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the Legion of Honor is part.

"Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century" includes six of those works in its outdoor courtyard, but then it also offers up over 170 more surprising pieces--sketches, models and more modest-sized sculpture in a variety of woods and stones, dating from Moore's student days in the early 1920s to late in his life. In short, there is more to Moore than meets the mind's eye.

About a third of the works are on loan from private collections and museums, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and the Tate in London. The rest have been lent by the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire, England, which was set up in 1977 by the artist to help manage his creative output and promote the arts in general.

The foundation's holdings, explains its head of collections and exhibition, David Mitchinson, originally didn't constitute a collection, but a "conglomeration of what happened to exist. We might have five casts of the same thing or huge gaps in the [chronology of the] drawings. What we've done is to sell off things [and acquired others] to form a collection." Today, the foundation maintains gallery space as well as an outdoor sculpture garden at Moore's estate, between London and Cambridge.

For "Sculpting the 20th Century," Mitchinson worked with Dorothy Kosinski, curator of European art at the Dallas Museum of Art, where the show originated. The aim was to combine the foundation's holdings with other loans in the hopes of illuminating not just the scope of Moore's work and his mastery of many materials, but his process and evolution as well.

"This drawing on the wall there goes so well with this sculpture," he says, pointing to a pencil, ink and wash drawing, "Two Upright Forms" (1936), in which the artist is working out two vertical abstract forms on paper. Nearby stands the related sculpture, "Two Forms" (1936), made of stone and borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The drawing was purchased by the foundation only a few years ago with just such a juxtaposition in mind. "We knew that one day we would put the drawing with the sculpture," Mitchinson says. "The drawing with it is fantastic."

The seventh of eight children, Moore was born a miner's son in Castleford, in the north of England. His father set high goals for all his children, and Moore said he resolved to become a sculptor upon hearing of Michelangelo when he was around 10. After serving briefly in World War I, he entered Leeds School of Art on a veteran's scholarship in 1920. A year later, he moved to London with a scholarship to the Royal College of Art.

After reading Roger Fry's "Vision and Design," with its chapters on "Negro Sculpture" and "Ancient American Art," and discovering the British Museum, Moore became fascinated by ancient art from Egypt, Greece, Oceania, Africa and pre-Columbian America. He later said that pre-Columbian art was most influential on his 1920s works. A compact sculpture, "Dog," from 1922 and a very Aztec-looking "Head" from 1923, as well as pages from his student sketchbook, show the results.

As Mitchinson writes in the exhibition catalog, "[T]he influence of primitive art ... had, in my opinion, a more sustained impact on Moore's work than on the work of any other major 20th century painter or sculptor."

At the same time, Moore also embraced the romantic notion of "truth to the material" then current in art circles. On this issue, says Kosinski, "Moore and his compatriots had what has been called a 'campfire religiosity.' There was this sense of passion, this notion of finding the form from within the material. The material was not arbitrary, it was not a neutral substance but was deeply allied to the subject matter."

From the beginning, Moore concentrated on the human figure. Among his earliest sculpture is a mother-and-child grouping, and in drawings of his sister Mary, in 1926, and his mother, in 1927, both in the show, his predilection for rendering solid, even monumental female forms is clear. "What's interesting to me about these early drawings is how sculptural they are," Nash points out, "There's an exaggerated sense of three-dimensionality, like the heaviness of proportion. To me these are really sculptor's drawings."

After getting his diploma, Moore taught at the Royal College while continuing to do his own work. In 1928 he had his first solo show and met student Irina Radetsky, a White Russian who fled her country during the Bolshevik Revolution. They married the following year, and Irina became Henry's frequent model. Their only child, Mary Moore, points out that her mother fit her father's vision of women to a T--"She was just the way he liked girls--big and hefty."

Among the poses Moore would make use of time and again is the reclining figure, inspired by a circa AD 1000 Toltec carving of the rain spirit Chacmool. The exhibition shows the gamut, from realistic examples of the 1920s, to more abstract ones, like a stone slab with an upraised knob on one end, from 1934-35, to late, often monumental, works in the 1970s, some of which once again have identifiable heads, arms and legs. He "oscillated between realistic and abstract shapes," Kosinski says. But everything seemed to have a tie to the organic.

"The human figure is what interests me most deeply," Moore once said, "but I have found principles of form and rhythm from the study of natural objects, such as pebbles, rocks, bones, trees and plants."

"He transforms the human body into a landscape of billowing shapes, hollows and mountains," Kosinski says. "One of the key points of the show is that he finds his themes, his inventive stream very early on."

Pointing out a small 1930 "Reclining Woman" made of green stone, she says, "You look at that and you think Moore, without a doubt--because of the reclining figure, a reductive vocabulary with exaggerated shapes, and an emphasis on the torso."

When World War II broke out, Moore was appointed an Official War Artist. One evening he and Irina waited out an air raid in a London subway station. "It was like a huge city in the bowels of the earth," he said later. "I saw hundreds of Henry Moore reclining figures stretched along the platform. I was fascinated, visually. I went back again and again. . . . I drew from memory on my return home."

In these "Shelter Drawings," several of which are in the exhibition, ghostly figures huddle and lie in rows in the Underground. Thirty-one of the sketches were purchased by the War Artists Advisory Committee and distributed to museums and galleries throughout England, exposing his works to the general public. Toward the end of the war, he also often sketched and sculpted Madonna and child and family groupings. In these works, says Kosinski, "he captured a kind of wartime heroism, and people were very touched by them."

"These drawings and a lot of the more figurative works right after the war really helped grabbed the attention of a large popular audience," Nash adds.

Over the decades, the critical assessment of Moore's work has undergone dramatic turns and upsets. During the 1920s and 30s, he was allied with the avant-garde and seen as a progressive artist, but postwar critics saw him as part of the establishment. Clement Greenberg, for one, accused him of an "attachment to the past" and of pandering to the "popular demand for the heroic."

Despite such sniping, he became one of the best-known sculptors in the world. In 1948, he won an international prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale. In 1959, he was on the cover of Time magazine. His works were increasingly in demand, and he turned to casting in multiples, becoming known for large-scale public works--often reiterations of his reclining figures and family groups.

"He'd always used the family subject, of Madonna and child," Mary Moore observes, in part because it served a compositional purpose. "He was as much playing with, in an abstract sculptural way, a larger form relating to a smaller form and the variety of gaps and piercings and shapes and structures you get when the arms and hands are going to hold that smaller form."

She says these subjects also related to his personal life, pointing out there was a resurgence of his interest in family groupings around the time she was born, in 1946. "[For an artist] what happens in your life happens to your art," she notes. "When my son Gus was born in 1977, he returned to mother and child themes. It revived for him a recurrent theme but in a more poignant and immediate way."

Moore died in 1986 and is generally regarded as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century. "We just opened our 'Henry Moore: War and Utility' exhibition in May," Mitchinson says, "and I was just amazed by all the large number of young artists that turned up. Generations move on. The people who thought he was passe in the 1960s are probably now considered passe themselves."

"He invented a vocabulary of form which is so naturally a part of our everyday life now," says Mary Moore, "that we do not know what it would have been to go forward into this century without it."

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"HENRY MOORE: SCULPTING THE 20TH CENTURY," California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. Dates: Through Sept. 16. Price: Adults, $10; seniors, $8; youths 12 to 17, $7; includes regular museum admission. Phone: (415) 863-3330.

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