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Henry Moore: Invasion of the genetic mutants

Masterpieces – or works whose formless monstrosity is little short of grotesque? As the Henry Moore retrospective opens at Tate Britain, Tom Lubbock adjudicates

You can imagine it, surely, some sci-fi horror invasion story, mid-20th century. John Wyndham would be the right period and the right feel. They came by night. Perhaps they landed with a terrific simultaneous impact. Perhaps they somehow wormed out of the earth and solidified. Perhaps in the morning they were simply there, gleaming. But there they were, in country parks and city squares and public spaces everywhere, these giant, solid quasi-animate blobs, monstrous and motionless, holding their ground, biding their time. No one knows how they originated, no one can give them a name. But we all see, of course, what they really are: the works of Henry Moore.

And seen like that, it cheers them up enormously. It allows them to be themselves. You can stop pretending that these bizarre creatures are some concentrated essence of humanity. Take them as hideous, sinister, slightly comic bogeys. Now they make sense. An alien occupation force – this is the role they were born to play. And imagine the moment when finally they come to life!

Well, we have to do something with Henry Moore, don't we, since it seems we can't get rid of him. And Tate Britain has its own plan. It recognises there's a problem. Moore was once a cultural hero and a national mascot, our very own world-wide modern artist. But long before his death in 1986, he'd entered a limbo of post-glory. Nobody has been much interested for about 50 years. Perhaps this is the moment for him to be renewed.

We need new terms. The Tate's retrospective opens tomorrow, and what it proposes is a harder, edgier Moore. No longer the representative of a humanistic, organic, spiritual, archetypal art, we have a Surreal and political artist, formed by both World Wars, informed by psychoanalysis, a big lefty, a founder member of CND. The curator concludes: "Moore's is a troubled and troubling art that digs into the very essence of the modern experience."

That sounds good. Now prove it on the work. There may be all kinds of interesting things you can say around and about an artwork, and true things; but if the art itself has no strength, these things will have no purchase. Take Moore's Atom Piece, for instance. Half-skull, half-mushroom cloud, it is in one sense undoubtedly "about" nuclear terror. But it's such a hopelessly inarticulate lump, it isn't really about anything.

When it comes to what a work is about, the primary point is always to locate where its strength lies – if any. With sculpture, that's a matter of how it deals with forms and bodies. The ideas can come in later. If you're trying to renew Moore's work now, trust your now-perceptions. What do they look like and feel like today?

One thing you might notice is a lack. This is a generic art. A Henry Moore is a Henry Moore. You'd know it anywhere. But ask yourself: what are the famous, single Moores? They have their genres: mother and child; reclining woman; seated figure; head. They have their signature style, and once upon a time that style by itself made an impression. But now you see through it, and see that in the world of Moore, there are very few individual characters.

Moore was an intelligent artist. He understood that one of the main revolutions of modern art was the elimination of detail, of "all sorts of surface excrescences which completely concealed shape" – excrescences like curls, drapery, fingers, even limbs. And this is how Moore works too. Before anything, he simplifies radically.

But there's something else that other modern sculptors, Brancusi, Gaudier-Brzeska, Arp, Picasso, for all their reductions, have in common with their great forebears, like Pisano, Michelangelo, Bernini. Their works have focus, gesture, definition. Each individual work has an unmistakable identity.

This, Moores lack. They're all over the place. Their forms may be simplified, but (paradoxically) they still manage to be vague and disparate. They get rid of the excrescences without finding any vital shape. They perform directionless variations on the body. They swell and stretch, get squashed and hollowed, and wallow in themselves, but they never clinch.

So they're without tension. There's no dominant form, whose grip imposes a strain. The Stringed Figures, threaded with cords, are terrible give-aways. The literal tension of the strings is a phony substitute for the absence of any physical tension. And this absence not only neutralises our sculptural excitement. It neutralises sensation within the figure. The dulled and anaesthetised flesh in many a Mother and Child can't be what Moore wants, but it's what he does.

Very often, an idea of "modernism" seems to prevent him from seeing what he's up to. Contrary to what's sometimes thought, when the great modern artists make the body look weird, deformed, broken, they are aware of this. They're not asking you to overlook this or take it for normal. But Moore doesn't show any sign that he's conscious of his oddities.

Take those pert little cone-breasts, pointing up perkily among the massive lumbering limbs of some reclining woman. Any sense of incongruousness between pubescent and earth-mother escapes his notice. Take the pinhead with dot-eyes, that tops so many figures – figures that strive to be grand or serene, and not at all funny. There's no admission of bathos.

Indeed, take the famous holes, where the one thing you mustn't feel about them is that they're holes! With all Moore's typical devices, there's something unwitting or unwanted, some obvious aspect you mustn't think about. You don't get this special pleading with Picasso.

But Moore has one undeniable strength. It's his knack for a smooth transition (which often means smooth surfaces too). It's how he compensates for a lack of defined identities. It's how he covers up his incongruities. Everything is eased together, smoothed over. The result is a further layer of unacknowledged yuk.

Take the Recumbent Figure of 1938. Put the phrase "organic form" out of your mind, and see the piece for what it is: something found in a psychopath's cupboard, a dismembered corpse in a body-stocking. What's grotesque is not the dismemberment, the jointed human parts it's made of, but the way they're stitched up and streamlined in the fluid sheath of general, non-specific tissue.

Moore grafts seamlessly his diverse elements – limbs, stones, buttocks, bones, branches, crags, occasional hints of manufacture. There are no joins, no sharp corners. His figures are stuck in miasmic cocoons, creatures blunted and smothered within a membrane of uni-matter. They display a repulsively blinded, thwarted existence.

What makes it worse: it's meant to be nice, a form that expresses the unity of organic life. It's true that some Moores are agonised. The post-war Fallen Warriors, the 1951 Reclining Figure with a gaping mouth. But they're not agonised by their bio-blurriness. That's the normal state of any Moore, tormented or not. And if Moore were to give any hint that his graftings produce anatomical frights worthy of Bacon, then the situation would be altered. But he's oblivious to how he's doing a mutant plastic surgery.

Still, this is Moore's great sculptural invention, this half-life-form, helplessly stirring, served up in its integument of ectoplasm-protoplasm. His vision is in fact of a genetic nightmare, growths gone terribly wrong. If I was making a case for Moore, today, that's where I'd start.

So that John Wyndham fantasy was a joke, but not entirely. If you are looking for terms on which Moore's works can now succeed, then sci-fi monster is a pretty plausible suggestion. Doubtless there are much more serious approaches you might take. But this is the way of renewing Moores that comes closest to what they actually look and feel like.

'Henry Moore', Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888), 24 February to 8 August, £12.50, concessions £11