Ahead of the curve

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 18

Ahead of the curve

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 18

Henry Moore was fascinated by the relationship between figure and landscape. Rachel Spence on how one sculpture marks a crucial turning point in his work

"The sculpture that moves me most is full blooded ... it is not perfectly symmetrical, it is static and it is strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains. It has a life of its own, independent of the object it represents." These words, written by Henry Moore in 1930, held true throughout his life.

Certainly, they resonate for Reclining Figure on Pedestal, the bronze female nude that Moore modeled between 1959 and 1960. Raised on a pedestal that consists of two separate blocks, the figure draws grace from her awkward dissonance rather than any conventional classical beauty. Her head, small, tightly modeled and alert as a meerkat, chimes with her single, ambiguous, jutting limb. The uneven voids that burrow through her torso are echoed by the swooping, lop-sided curve scooped out of the bottom plinth. Although her material is as solid as the mountains invoked by Moore, what strikes the attention most is her weightless aura.

"Having gaps and holes and voids means that you have space circulating around the figure," observes Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Henry Moore Foundation, and one of the world's leading experts on the sculptor. "That lifts it up and, in an odd way, gives it a lighter quality." Moore made the figure at a crucial turning-point in his practice. "And this was the moment when he was exploring the relationship between the figure and its architectural context."

Born in 1898 in Yorkshire, the son of a coal miner, Moore spent his early career pursuing the art of direct carving in stone and wood. "It was all about truth to materials then," observes Calvocoressi of a moment when Moore was captivated by the potent immediacy of African and Asian sculpture and the European artists who had embraced it, such as Constantin Brancusi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein.
After the war, however, as more public commissions started to come Moore's way, he turned to working in bronze. "To model a figure in plaster and cast it in bronze is four times quicker than carving it," explains Calvocoressi, adding that the material also appealed because the precision and stability of the modeling and casting process allowed for Moore to make much bigger work which could 'compete' with imposing architectural surroundings or the wild landscapes of Glenkiln, the Scottish moorland estate that belonged to Moore's patron Sir William Keswick.

Moore's most important commission was the Reclining Figure he made in 1957-58 to preside in front of UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. "Everything from that era related to that piece," says Calvocoressi, of the travertine female whose body twists, turns and folds back onto itself with an athleticism that is simultaneously sinuous and angular.

With its diminutive head and air of buoyancy, it is evident that the UNESCO sculpture is a predecessor to Reclining Figure on Pedestal. Originally, Moore was asked to make it in bronze but, after making some drawings, he realized that its dark patina would see it eclipsed by the French building's glass façade.

"So then I worked on the idea of siting the figure against a background of its own, but then, inside the building you wouldn't have had a view of the sculpture. Half the views would have been lost. So I finally decided the only solution was to use a light-coloured stone, and I settled on the same stone they've used for the top of the building: travertine," wrote Moore of this landmark work.

His words underline Calvocoressi's observation that this was the moment when Moore really started to explore the rapport between his sculptures and their environment. "It was a period of enormous experimentation with architectural settings for Moore," the Foundation chairman continues. "Sometimes, for example, he would put his figures on walls or steps that were circular or curved."

A key influence on Moore at this time was Michelangelo. The 16th century Tuscan sculptor was responsible for arguably the most potent reclining figure in the history of art. Carved from marble to grace the tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici in the New Sacristy of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, the sleeping goddess Night slumps on one elbow, her bulky muscles echoing the macho flex and splay of her enormous thigh. Although her overt sensuality seems quite at odds with the taut restraint of Reclining Figure on Pedestal, Night's small head and displaced, protuberant breasts make her a distant yet perceptible ancestor. More important is the manner in which her undulations map the convex curve of the tomb's scrolled volute as if she and her pedestal are surging out of the same organic form.

Moore was, if anything, even more taken with another Michelangelo statue: the Rondanini Pietà. Carved in his final days, this sculpture of the Madonna gripping the shoulders of her son's reeling corpse is a cry of jangled grief and passion from an artist who had matured into a deeply spiritual man. Left unfinished, it takes its power from the jarring encounter between the willowy elegance of the long-legged Christ and the raw misery of his mother, whose flesh has been left rough as the quarry from which it was carved. Meanwhile, a slender disembodied limb, perhaps from a previous work, traces the contour of the pair, as if they are haunted by the ghost of another mysterious figure. "It was Moore's favorite [Michelangelo]," testifies Calvocoressi. "He loved the awkwardness of it, the unfinishedness of it, and that leg from an earlier sculpture."

Moore's feeling for the Pietà chimes with his love of sculpture that defied classicism. One of the crucial inspirations for the reclining figures which were a recurrent subject in his oeuvre was the Chacmool, a prehistoric stone figure which supported itself on its elbows. Generally, the goddess figures worshipped in non-western cultures captivated Moore. "There were endless possibilities within it," says Calvocoressi. "You could have them turning, twisting, collapsing, tense, wary, asleep."

His sensibility for those sturdy, invulnerable women, whose chunky, rough-hewn volumes appear to have been borne out of the earth yet also touched with the archetypal power of a divinity, is what gives so many of Moore's female figures a strength that rescues them from any hint of frailty or submissiveness. "It's not terribly comforting, is it?" says Calvocoressi of Reclining Figure on Pedestal. "It's very impersonal; the head has very few marks to indicate the face and I have always thought that this rather ambiguous limb is very phallic." Calvocoressi is intrigued by the theory of another leading critic of British modern art, David Sylvester. "He says that many of Moore's women are more male than female. There is certainly a lot of sexual ambiguity here."

The Bonhams figure precedes, says Calvocoressi, Moore's ground-breaking shift towards the two-piece reclining figures, such as Two Piece Reclining Figure No 2, Tate Britain's bronze, whose separate elements have the gouged, jagged awkwardness of rocks sheared off a cliff-face. Two Pieces would become an important theme in the latter half of his career. "He is almost splitting the body into two parts," he says, gesturing at the twin gulfs beneath Reclining Figure on Pedestal, which are only yoked together by the narrow central valley. "This is a good example of Moore's realization that the void is as important as the solid. That's another reason why it's a very important work."

Rachel Spence writes about art for the Financial Times.

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