ARTS: EXHIBITIONS: Why Moore is less

Henry Moore's centenary is as good a time as any to re-examine the legacy of a very lonely sculptor over

Tim Hilton
Saturday 02 May 1998 23:02

THE HENRY MOORE centenary year has begun with two exhibitions at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall outside Wakefield. In the park itself are 15 large-scale bronzes, while the YSP's Pavilion Gallery houses "Henry Moore in Perspective", a collection of maquettes, models and drawings. The rationale of this show is to give some idea of Moore's working methods, the ways that he made monumental sculptures from first ideas that are often not much bigger than your hand. But most people will look at the show simply as a display of miniature pieces - complete in themselves, whether or not they relate to grander work elsewhere.

The exhibits in the pavilion occasionally echo the big sculptures in the park, but it's a faint echo, because there's such a walk between them. You do get a wonderful sense of the artist in this park, with its rolling hills, wide spaces, lakes, trees and vistas over Yorkshire. Although the landscape was devised by a follower of Capability Brown and once belonged to a country house, it feels more like moorland than parkland, and has sheep in it rather than deer. It's extensive, and the sculptures are distributed within an area of 100 acres, so there's quite a hike from one piece to the next. All are beautifully sited, but they do not achieve the effect that was intended. For they emphasise what a lonely artist Moore was: not on his own in a contented sort of way, but lonely in the way that depressives are lonely.

I know that this interpretation goes against the evidence. Moore had family, friends, colleagues, riches and, latterly, all the honours that could satisfy his considerable personal vanity. But I still believe him to have been a solitary. One's social vision of Moore is as a Companion of Honour rather than a member of any artistic community. How odd - or telling - that he never in his life visited St Ives, where there was a thriving art life during exactly the years of Moore's maturity. We usually see a spark when one artists's work approached that of a contemporary. Not with Moore. Little wonder, for the influences on his sculpture were all anonymous and dead, and furthermore, had often been dead for some thousands of years, since his enthusiasms were for the art of ancient non-European and non-Oriental civilisations.

Moore himself provided a list of his influences, and it's enormous. He derived his work from the sculpture of the following cultures, among others: Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, African, Oceanic, North and South American and Eskimo, with most enthusiasm apparently given to Aztec, Mayan and Toltec pre-Columbian stone carving. Moore learnt about such art through books and hundreds of visits to the British Museum, beginning when he was a student at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s. Life at the RCA, he tells us, "meant nothing in comparison". Here was a bold campaign of scholarship, and also of taste. Moore began his career by pretending that the classic European sculptural tradition, from ancient Greece to his own day, simply did not exist.

The people whose art Moore admired did not resemble each other, and neither did their forms of sculpture. Surely Moore had too many influences. His own work somehow resembles all of these "primitive" exemplars and none of them. He harmonised his sources, smoothing out their differences. Thus, paradoxically, he made himself into an academic artist. Like an academic, he is even, repetitious, and wanting in passion. The modulation of his forms is nearly always of immense skill. Especially in the smaller pieces, we find a faultlessness, a desire for perfection and immobility. But this perfectionism soon becomes aloof and cold.

At Bretton Hall, Moore's sculpture is enhanced in two ways. The small works in the Pavilion Gallery are so neat and polished that they look like marvels of domesticity, quite the thing to put on your mantelpiece. And the large works in the park suggest that Moore's sculptures only appear dramatic in the open air. He aimed at museum art, but is often at his least convincing when encountered in a museum. In a mixed permanent collection, the eye slides away from his recumbent figures and fallen warriors, looking for something more vigorous on the next plinth. Moore is an arresting artist only when we approach him over grass, preferably from afar. This is the triumph of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park's installation, or rather siting. It makes Moore into a despondent warrior, an ancient lord of the picturesque.

His admirers often speak of Moore's "humanism", though this quality is hard to define. Whenever I visit a Moore exhibition, I am more struck by the general aura of pessimism. Is this because academic sculpture is incapable of conveying notions of hope or progress? Not entirely. There was a personal acquaintance with doomed youth (and youth as such is never the subject of Moore's art). Surely Moore was much more affected by the First World War than he ever cared to admit. The first time he used a chisel was to make a memorial to boys from his school who had recently died in the conflict. Before he died in 1986, he was probably the last surviving artist to have known service in the Great War. Looking at his career from afar, Moore's public esteem appears to belong to the national consciousness, and in much the same way that we wear poppies and respect war memorials. It's noticeable that his reputation (strongly promoted by the British Council after Hitler's war) does not much extend beyond the old Empire countries. They love him in Canada. Americans do not see the point.

There are many mysteries about Moore's enduring fame. Why is an imitator of tribal art so often said to have been a quintessential Englishman? Probably because of his instinct for our attraction to the picturesque. Why is it so seldom admitted that his drawings are terrible? Almost certainly because no one looks at them with a fresh eye.

We can have all sorts of reservations about his sculpture, but Moore endures. He could not deal with tragedy - like so many of us - but had a great deal of dignity, like so many survivors of Britain's wars. And I suppose this is his "humanism", which comes from no particular belief but does tell us that monuments are universal, especially if they are constructed by Moore himself.

! 'Henry Moore in Perspective': Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield (01924 830302), to 31 May.

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