The dark side of Henry Moore

In his thirties, the establishment's favourite sculptor was exploring erotically charged emotions and a rebellious streak, a new exhibition reveals. Andy McSmith reports

Tuesday 23 February 2010 01:00

The Henry Moore we think we know is a conservative who produced reassuring sculptures that blend with the landscape, such as his bronze, Knife Edge – Two Piece, suitably located opposite the House of Lords. He is the establishment's favourite sculptor. He won acclaim with a series of graphic drawings of Londoners taking shelter from the Luftwaffe in the Underground, which were hung in the National Gallery during the war and became symbols of the spirit of resistance to the Blitz. His death in 1986 was marked by a service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey.

But a new exhibition of his work, which opens at Tate Britain, Westminster, tomorrow – the first for many years – is designed to draw out what the programme notes call "a dark and erotically charged dimension" to Moore. It suggests that the artist as a young man was a more brooding, rebellious figure than the gentleman he became as success made him respectable and rich.

A whole room of the Tate is taken up with a subject which seems to have obsessed Moore in his early thirties: depictions of babies suckling. In Western culture, the standard mother-and-baby image is the Madonna and child, in which everyone's attention, including the viewer's, is focused on the child. In Moore's sculptures not one of the mothers is looking at her baby. The child suckles, but the woman's attention is elsewhere, as if she is thinking about what her next task will be. Some of the women are so solidly built that they look as if they could be employed doing heavy lifting. In one sculpture, the mother has disappeared and all that remains is a child clamped to a disembodied breast.

None of these images has anything to do with Henry Moore's intense relationship with his daughter Mary. He was approaching 50 when she was born in 1946, whereas these images date from the early 1930s, just after Moore had married an art student, Irina Radetsky, whose mother had fled Russia after the revolution. The marriage produced no children for the first 16 years.

Moore's inspiration came from another relationship, which intrigued those of his contemporaries who had studied the work of Sigmund Freud. He told his friend Edouard Roditi that while he was making the first of these mother-and-child studies, in 1924, he realised that he was "unconsciously" giving its back the "long-forgotten shape" of a back that he had known well as a boy.

He explained: "I was a Yorkshire miner's son, the youngest of seven, and my mother was no longer so very young. She suffered from bad rheumatism in the back and would say to me in winter, when I came home from school: 'Henry, boy, come and rub my back.' Then I would massage her back with liniment."

Moore was born in Castleford on 30 July 1898. His father was a committed socialist. The son won a scholarship to Castleford Secondary School, where his talent was fostered by his art teacher. In 1917, he gave up a teaching post to go and fight, and at Cambrai underwent an experience whose significance, the curator of the Tate exhibition Chris Stephens believes, has been underrated. Three-quarters of the men in his unit were killed in a gas attack. Moore was sent home to recover from gas poisoning, returning to the front just before the armistice.

"This experience tends to be marginalised because, like everybody else, he was writing home cheery letters about 'meeting Jerry'. He wasn't a man given to describing his inner thoughts, because he belonged to a class, culture and generation that didn't talk about emotion," Mr Stephens said. "The affirmative, reassuring images that he created later, the abstract forms that relate to the landscape have, to some extent, compromised his critical reputation. There is a darker, edgier and sexier side to Henry Moore. I thought at one point that this might be a fantasy of mine, but actually it was much commented upon in the 1930s."

In the late 1930s, Moore was drawn into active politics, in support of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He planned a trip to Spain in 1938, but was blocked by the Foreign Office. At that time, Moore produced a series of stringed figures and disturbing drawings in which sculptures are displayed in what could be grim prison cells. In 1939, he produced a threatening-looking sculpture based on a soldier's helmet.

"What it was like to be a figure on the left in the late 1930s is hard to imagine," Mr Stephens said. "There was a real inner conflict in Moore who was a pacifist because of his experience in the First World War and an anti-fascist. There was a political tension in which he was actively engaged, which I think the physical tensions of these figures relates to."

In the event, the anti-fascist in Moore prevailed over the pacifist. If he had been young enough to fight, he might have enlisted again. Instead, those shelter drawings have endured as his contribution to winning the war.

Trauma and creativity: Four tormented artists

Edvard Munch

Most famous for The Scream, Munch was a sickly child whose mother died when he was five years old. His beloved sister died nine years later. Munch later wrote of his father: "My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious – to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born."

Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh suffered from mental illness throughout his life, thought to have been schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, among other conditions. The nature of his work hints at an increasing frustration with the episodes he suffered, which he felt were restraining his creativity. On 27 July 1890, aged 37, he shot himself.


The Dutch master's paintings of his wife on her deathbed are often said to be among his most moving works. Saskia died in 1642 soon after giving birth to her fourth child, Titus – the only one to survive to adulthood. Rembrandt's work took on a more sombre tone as personal tragedies took their toll.

Samuel Palmer

A contemporary of the poet and artist William Blake, Palmer tried his hand at painting, etching and printmaking as well as writing. However, his later years were tinged with the sadness he felt at the death of his son, which he called the greatest tragedy in his life.

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