Henry Moor

I met Henry Moore once.  I think I was probably too timid to say much more than ‘Hello’ and ‘Pleased to meet you.’ What a wasted opportunity! One of many I’m afraid. At a relatively early age I was privileged to meet some of the great movers and shakers of the 20th century. One of the advantages of working for a newspaper, particularly one that has so few staff that the juniors get to do really interesting jobs. 

Sadly I was too young and too inexperienced to make the most of these encounters. Moore was, I now realise, only 74-years-old when I met him but to my young eyes he seemed much older.  I knew of course that  he was a radical, experimental and avant garde sculptor and was regarded as one  of Britain’s greatest artists. His sculptures became a kind of short-form for modern art. He epitomised contemporary practise.

Somewhere in the 24-years since his death his position in the canon of modern British art has become clouded. This major exhibition at Tate Britain aims to re-assert his place at the forefront of progressive twentieth-century sculpture.

It’s an impressive show which brings  together the most comprehensive selection of his works for a generation. More than 150 significant works including stone sculptures, wood carvings, bronzes and drawings are on display. They reveal the range and quality of his art in new ways – sometimes uncovering a dark and erotically charged dimension that challenges the familiar image of the artist and his work. 

Moore first emerged as an artist after serving on the Western Front during the  First World War and this  exhibition emphasises the impact of that terrible conflict on his work - the effects of the trauma,  the advent of psychoanalysis, new ideas about  sexuality and the influence of primitive art and surrealism.

It explores the defining subjects of Moore’s work, including the reclining figure, the iconic mother and child, abstract compositions and seminal drawings of London during the Blitz.  It also includes  a group of Moore’s great reclining figures carved in Elm wood, the largest number ever to be brought together. These heavily grained works show the development of the subject over the course of Moore’s career. The recurring motif of the mother and child is explored throughout the exhibition. Moore called it his ‘fundamental obsession’, and presented a complex vision of the maternal relationship.

He was also of course an Official War Artist and the celebrated series of drawings he made of Londoners sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz are also well represented.  

They include a selection of the most important made between the autumn of 1940 and the summer of 1941. These drawings transformed Moore’s reputation, not only documenting, but helping to build, the popular perception of the Blitz. His depictions of rows of sleeping figures lying huddled in claustrophobic tunnels captured a sense of profound humanitarian anguish and the fragility of the human body. This continues in his work of the 1950s, reflecting the aftermath of war and, with Cold War anxieties a daily preoccupation, the prospect of further conflict.

The Tate exhibition also examines the influence of world cultures in Moore’s work on an earlier period with primitive masks and works such as Girl with Clasped Hands 1930. There are abstract sculptures and threatening and sexualised works that suggest the influence of Freud and psychoanalytical theories as well as the political tension of the Spanish Civil War and the approach to the Second World War, such as The Helmet 1939-40 and Three Points 1939-40.


© Jeremy Miles 2022