EXHIBITIONS / Just a little bit Moore

Bernard Meadows, purveyor of the `geometry of fear', has spent years escaping the legacy of Henry Moore

BERNARD MEADOWS is 80 this year; the anniversary is celebrated by a retrospective at Gimpel Fils and a new book by Sir Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawing (Lund Humphries, pounds 39.50, published 2 Oct), which also contains an essay by Penelope Curtis. Both writers, and indeed the sculptor himself, are long-time servants and administrators of the Henry Moore Foundation, the trust that underwrites the books in the "British Sculptors and Sculpture" series. So there's more than a whiff of fealty to Moore, plus a feeling that an old art Establishment is still at work.

On the other hand, there's something spiky, private and anti-social about Meadows's work - just like the crabs that he finds so fascinating. Bowness hints that Meadows himself is a bit crab-like, working away under the rocks of public life, never seeking to be known, hard-shelled and good at hiding. He has been a more sensuous artist in later years. But Bowness is quite correct to say that in the Fifties - the decade of his prominence - Meadows had one overriding subject: apprehension. His sculptures were twisted, with painful forms and rather aggressive surfaces. This aggression, however, always seemed to be in self-defence.

In a further paradox, the reclusive Meadows became part of the first group of post-war British sculptors to have a fashionable success. Nobody today is impressed by the "geometry of fear", even if they remember the rever-berating, meaningless words. Yet the phrase was once famous. The expression belongs to Herbert Read, and it appeared in the catalogue of the British entries at the 1952 Venice Biennale. Other sculptors in the UK pavilion included Armitage, Butler, Chadwick and Paolozzi, but Meadows was the star. He was the epitome of the "geometry of fear" - and still is, for his sculpture of the early Fifties remains his most telling work.

Meadows is a product of the old apprenticeship and patronage system among sculptors and people who run art education. After his local art school in Norwich, he simultaneously attended a course at the Royal College of Art and worked as an assistant to Henry Moore. For quite long periods he lived with the Moore family. His first professional break was when Moore bequeathed him teaching time at Chelsea. Not surprisingly, all Meadows's earlier work is dependent on the example of the older and more successful artist. No doubt this was frustrating; and I guess that the "geometry of fear" sculpture was an attempt to break away from the placid humanism of his mentor.

Unable to sculpt the human figure without reference to Moore's semi-abstraction, Meadows turned to animal forms. He was most attracted to crabs and cockerels. Bowness comments that there was quite a lot of animal sculpture in the early Fifties. But the phenomenon is also present in the painting of the period. I can't explain why, except that free improvisation on animal outlines might have allowed an artist to be more dashing. It wasn't so easy to be libertarian with the human figure. Anyway, Meadows's Black Crab of 1953 is at the front of the Gimpel show, and is an accomplished and self-assured piece of work, quite unlike Moore.

Self-assured, and therefore not apprehensive. I keep wondering about this business of being frightened. One could look for all sorts of fear in Meadows's (consistently ungeometric) art. Some people say that there was a fear of making the step into real abstraction. There might also have been a fear of making sculpture that did not look sufficiently artful. So, while there is a great deal of flailing around with cocks' feathers, Meadows quite often smoothed out such turbulence by making reliefs. He was anxious about good taste. The relief solution gave some very happy results. One of the best works in the exhibition is the bronze relief Cockerel, also of 1953, which uses the relief form to bring Meadows close to painting.

As many of his drawings demonstrate, Meadows's two-dimensional art was influenced by Graham Sutherland. Like practically all modern sculptors, Meadows has not been an instinctive draughtsman. But I prefer this relief to anything that Sutherland painted. Had Meadows pursued relief he might have made a fine contribution to British art, and of an unusual sort. Instead he became distinguished in other ways. From 1960-80 he was Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. Then there were all the committees, and finally his guardianship of the Henry Moore Founda-tion. During the earlier period of his eminence, Meadows's forms became rounder, smoother, polished and obviously figure-based. The most impressive sculpture of this sort is Lovers. I add that the works at Gimpel are extraordinarily cheap. The relief I admire is priced at only pounds 2,500.

! Bernard Meadows: Gimpel Fils, W1 (0171 493 2488), to 7 Oct.

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