Tate Britain, London. 24th February – 8th August 2010
When I was a student at the RCA it was considered deeply un-cool to like Henry Moore’s work. So much so that when some of his larger pieces were temporarily installed in Hyde Park, I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t even cross Kensington Gore to take a look at them. It wasn’t until some twenty years later, when everyone started to go on about how great his friend and contemporary Barbara Hepworth was that I began to appreciate just how important and very influential Moore was. Four Square (Walk Through), the image above, is one of Hepworth’s pieces I photographed at her St Ives garden. See more at www.pedrosilmon.com.
My having previously only seen giant-sized pieces in the flesh – Moore at Kew Gardens, 2008 – and pictures of Moore’s sculptures in books and magazines, the tiny ones – not much bigger than a Philippe Starck lemon squeezer – included in the current Tate Britain retrospective, each produced with the same care and sensitivity to materials as their larger siblings, come as a pleasant surprise. ‘Bird Basket’ 1939, one of his stringed pieces, could almost be a toy sailboat. Sadly, understandably – the smooth surfaces of his work cry out to be touched – notices in each room ask us not to – the exhibition organisers have chosen to display these diminutive works in perspex boxes. The life-size stone masks from 1928 and ’29, are placed, tantalisingly, just a little further up a wall than an average adult’s comfortable reach.
Surprising to me, too, are the drawings – reminiscent of children’s book illustration: Edward Ardizonne’s come to mind – only a couple of days ago I discovered Ardizzone was a WWII war artist, too – of people sleeping in London Underground stations during the Blitz (‘Pink and Green Sleepers’ 1941) and those of tunnelling miners (‘Miner at work on the Coalface’ 1942). But so surprising it jars is Moore’s drawing ‘Tube Shelter Perspective’, which he dated 1941. A sudden departure and, despite the doubt that has emerged over whether Moore witnessed this scene or copied it from photographs in Picture Post, an extremely compelling image, in which endless rows of ghostly, recumbent evacuees, resembling skeletal Holocaust survivors, line the walls and disappear inside a black hole. It would seem Moore had been searching for a way of giving his work the sort of edge expected of an official war artist. While his early surrealist/cubist meets Afro/Aztec 3D output could be described as benign, sometimes erotic, some of the larger pieces of the immediate post-war years, emote a similar, powerful spirit of stark pain and horror as expressed in Picasso’s 1937 ‘Guernica’ and Jacob Epstein’s far earlier, pre-WW1 sculpture, ‘Rock Drill’, 1913-14. But perhaps this wasn’t where Moore’s heart truly lay.
Referring to this exhibition – which, I crossed London and would certainly cross any road to see – a quote from The Daily Telegraph on Tate Britain’s website reads: ‘Giant of 20th Century Sculpture’. Sensitively organised and easily navigable, more-or-less chronologically arranged: the exhibits are divided between six rooms. World Cultures comes first, then Mother and Child, followed by Modernism, War Time, Post War, and finally Elmwood, a roomful of huge 1970s reclining figures carved in this cool, greyish wood. By now, edges having been rounded off and sharp points blunted; the benign element is reasserted; any sign of the early eroticism is gone. Easily missable, produced in the 1950s and tucked into a corner near the entrance to the same room, are some of Moore’s smallest sculptures: a playful series of rocking chair pieces, said to have been inspired by the birth of his only child, Mary, in 1946. For Henry Moore, ‘Gentle Giant of 20th Century Sculpture’ might perhaps be a more fitting epithet.
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