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
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"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.