Visual Arts: A reputation that should be chiselled away

In the sculptor's centenary year, Tom Lubbock argues that while his standing is as monumental as his art, the work itself has always been overestimated

"FORMS that are vital to the life of mankind." That was Herbert Read's opinion in the early Sixties - and even allowing for critical hype, and long personal friendship, it's an astonishing claim: to say that a body of sculpture is somehow keeping humanity going. But back then, Henry Moore held a special place in the English mind. He was our greatest living sculptor, and continued to be until his death in 1986. He'd put British sculpture on the world map, and was putting his own all over it. He had a role we can't imagine any artist having today. The lumps remain, of course. It's his centenary this year.

And if all the Henry Moores in the world were to leave their parks and plazas, take the nearest coast road, and jump in the sea, would the life of mankind miss a heartbeat? Wouldn't it be very slightly enhanced? I hate the work of Henry Moore. I think it's stupid, wrong, and often repellent. I don't take the started-well-but-went-off-later line. With a few exceptions, I think it's bad right through. Mostly, though, I don't think about it, which is easy, because mostly nobody else does any more. Now, soon, there'll be exhibitions everywhere, new books, TV films, probably two-minute slots with people saying "I've always really liked this one", all that. Naturally it's upsetting.

Moore's sculpture has had a range of enemies, and they generally had a point. Early on, there were critics who thought it much too modern. "Revolting formlessness such as offends sensitive people," said a review of one of his first shows. Later, there were critics who thought it not nearly modern enough - a safe, soft, English pastoral version of modernism. Heavens, even Kenneth Clark approved of it, setting Moore against Picasso, praising the Yorkshireman's sturdiness and doggedness over the foreign artiste's promiscuous invention.

Artistic comparisons do Moore's early work no favours. Picasso? Other contemporaries like Brancusi, Gaudier- Brzeska, Arp, Giacometti? The British Museum stuff, Mayan, African, Cycladic, that Moore drew inspiration from? As a general rule, anything Moore reminds you of, is always better. He's best when he imitates most closely. His own distinguishing mark is stupidity. What makes Moores Moore-ish is a failure of tone, a blatant gawkiness which somehow isn't registered as a problem.

Take those pert little cone-breasts, pointing up perkily among the massive lumbering limbs of some reclining woman. Any sense of strain between pubescent and earth-mother seems to escape his notice. Or take the pin head with dot-eyes, the Martian-tadpole, that tops so many figures - figures which are meant to be grand or serene, and not at all funny. It's no good saying "modernism, y'know". It just looks ridiculous, all the more so for believing itself noble. Indeed, take the famous holes, where the one thing you mustn't feel about them is that they're holes! With all Moore's characteristic devices, there's something unwitting or unwanted - some aspect you have to overlook for the sake of higher things. You don't get this special pleading with Picasso.

On the other hand, in terms of cultural achievement, Moore's career is impressive. He did needful import work, bringing new sculptural ideas into Britain. He inspired a popular amateur art form, something that only a few artists do: as Picasso gave us collage and Calder the mobile, Moore gave us the piece of undulating polished wood that has afforded Sunday sculptors so many happy hours of curvacious smoothing. And then - which again few artists, however famous, manage - he hit the stride of history.

Moore was the man for the post-war moment. In the years following his triumph at the 1948 Venice Biennale, international exhibitions and commissions abounded. One can put this down to vigorous cultural diplomacy by the British Council, doing promotion of Britain and free-world propaganda. But there was a true match between Moore's work and the needs of a war- wrecked world. His Anglican compromise of abstract, figurative and organic provided the right ideals and consolations: images of non-specific, non- divisive humanism; an art that looked modern but avoided modernist aggro and fragmentation; that offered the "mythic" as basic common ground.

"Timeless" was the mode of the time. You see it in Wieland Wagner's denazified Bayreuth productions, set in an abstract realm fusing primal past and sci-fi future. Moore gets the same feeling. The Helmet pieces: Mycenae meets Sputnik, The Internal and External Forms: creation pot cum splitting atom. The King and Queens: neolithic ETs. (Another of Moore's cultural credits: disseminating an image of the "alien" in the public mind)..

This mythic stuff is fatally dated now. Moore was blessed and cursed with a talent for the central cliches of the age. But how thrilling, then, for a viewer to able to feel: here are the myths of our time, here are the living icons of our culture (our culture therefore is alive, and unified). Moore's art was given a para-religious, almost a magical status, It was a dream of modern art come true - work that offered more than images, more even than the archetypal shapes of the human mind, but forms that actually radiated power, energy points in the world, like the old stone rings; and was quite popular too.

He became an international figure and a national treasure - and an artist almost beyond criticism. When, in the late Fifties, John Berger made a negative judgement on his recent work, the story goes that someone from the British Council rang up Moore to personally apologise for this outrage. It was Berger too who coined a brilliantly destructive insult that formulates all that's wrong with Moore's long late period: "Piltdown sculpture."

The famous archaeological forgery, purporting to be the skull of a missing link, really a collage of ape and human bones, was exposed in 1953. The phrase calls Moore's work pseudo-primal, and (more acutely) a collage of bits which pretends to a natural unity. I think the trouble starts with Recumbent Figure (1938). Put the phrase "organic form" out of your mind just for a moment and see the piece for what it is: a dismembered corpse in a body-stocking. And what's grotesque is not the dismemberment, the disparate human parts it's made of, but the way they're stitched up and smoothed over in the fluid sheath of general, non-specific tissue.

Moore's knack was for metamorphosis, seamlessly grafting together diverse elements - limbs, stones, buttocks, bones, branches, crags, occasional hints of manufacture. The metamorphosis always urges continuity and integration, not contrast. Herbert Read said: "Moore believes that behind the appearance of living things there is some kind of spiritual essence, a force or immanent being. "This spiritual essence comes out as the ectoplasm-protoplasm which Moore's bits and pieces dissolve into and extrude out of. His figures are stuck in miasmic cocoons of this uni-matter. They display a horribly thwarted life. What makes it worse: it's supposed to be nice, a wholesome wholeness. True, some of Moore's pieces are tormented. But they're not tormented by their biometamorphosis as such; that's their normal state of being, which they share with non-tormented figures. And of course, if Moore were to give any hint that his organic graftings produce - as they do - anatomical frights worthy of Francis Bacon, then the case would be altered. Here's Moore's stupidity again, another great failure of tone - he's oblivious to how he's performing a monstrous plastic surgery.

These "organisms" look especially awful when placed, where Moore liked them best, in a natural landscape. Hills, trees, rocks, sheep - and there, on an eminence, some ghastly mutant-colossus. (To the sea!) Peter Fuller couldn't have been more wrong, seeking in Moore the seeds of an "ecological aesthetic". Find rather potential monuments to radiation leakage and genetic experiment. (Whee! Splosh!)

Moore now? Seen thus, he could almost be recast as a YBA in advance, among the boys who do gross-out or the girls who do flux and dissolution. And no doubt every subsequent British artist owes him a general debt as one who first made British Art a chapter-heading. Some of the work is all right. Like everyone, I like the Underground pictures. But Moore's best legacy is his once reputation artist-priest-king, modern myth-maker, a grand and now wholly incredible figure - that's the image we should hold in our minds for the centenary, as a wonder. We'll never see anything like it again.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales and Account Manager - OTE £80,000+

    £40000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer - Kent - £40,000

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer - ne...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Team Leader / Chargehand

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Chargehand to join ...

    Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

    £30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project