Tate Britain goes in search of a darker Henry Moore

By Ben Miller | 24 February 2010
A photo of a curvy brown wooden sculpture

(Above) Reclining Figure (1939). Detroit Institute of Arts, © reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

Exhibition: Henry Moore, Tate Britain, London, until August 8 2010

We see and hear a lot about Henry Moore, the British sculpture superstar immortalised on a grand scale in parks, gardens and public spaces from Belgium to Saudi Arabia.

Unfailingly majestic, Moore's ubiquitous calling cards create very definite preconceptions about his stock – you might think of his undulating landscape bronzes at Yorkshire Sculpture Park or moulds of child-cradling mothers, scattered from Dorset to Scotland in a gently awesome, faultlessly crafted set of sculptural crown jewels.

They are resolutely safe blocks of mainstream splendour, as unmoving as they are immovable, so it suggested an intriguing break with tradition when the Tate revealed they'd step into the unknown in this first major exhibition of Moore's work in 22 years.

Promising unexplored, darker sides to the serene Godfather of British bronze, exhibition curator Chris Stephens says he devised the show "with certain juxtapositions in mind", alluding to both the literal layout of the pieces and a body of work which takes in everything from sensual exotic woodcarvings to grim, bony, twisted metal visions of a world haunted by the Holocaust.

A photo of a sculpture of a reclining figure in dark stone

Reclining Figure (1929). Leeds Museums and Galleries, © reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

This is a prolonged scratch at the surface of a more personal Moore, an impassioned left-winger and founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, troubled by a bloody First World War campaign which killed most of his battalion.

The wartime section at the core of the exhibition is by far the most pointedly affecting, enveloping you like a weighted cloak of relentlessly bleak drawings, responding to the horror and fear consuming England during the Blitz.

An official war artist, Moore scrawled black, apocalyptic portrayals of people crammed into tube station shelters, foreboding and seemingly bereft of hope.

"His art is unimaginable without the 1930s," argues Stephens.

"He deals with the war and the trauma which followed – the morbidity, the threat of violence, the Holocaust and the shadow of the atomic bomb. There's a claustrophobia to this period of work."

Visitors are invited to play the role of psychoanalyst, trying to decipher Moore's inner workings.

A picture of a drawing of bodies lying side by side in a dark underground tunnel

Tube Shelter Perspective Liverpool Street Extension (1941). Leeds Museums and Galleries, © reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

In actual fact, it turns out to be Moore's trademark motifs of horizontal bodies and mother and child embraces which raise the greatest questions about his mental state – what sort of mind would produce the weird, sinister sprawl of protruding limbs in his 1931 Reclining Figure, the dismembered bodies and alien heads in his modernist phase of the early 1930s, or the latent sexual charge of his African pieces?

His daughter, Mary, has repeatedly spoken of his studio being the sole outlet for Moore's emotion, and Stephens says the drawings, which transformed Moore from an avant-garde visionary to a household name, uncover the thoughts and "sense of anxiety" of a man who "resisted explaining his art".

He's partly right, but the psychological complexity behind Moore's output is only an interesting augmentation of some of the finest sculpture ever crafted.

It's a far less compelling element than it was for, say, Tate's Francis Bacon show last year – also curated by Stephens – but that scarcely matters by the time you reach the final room, a quartet of towering hollows turning giant elms into curvaceous sculpture so beautiful it feels like walking among biblical stones.

Two were made in the 1930s, and they all predate Moore's later production line of plinths and town centre meeting points. These, more than anything else here, seem to cast fresh light on Moore's true singularity.

"His ability to respond to the grain overshadowed everyone," says Stephens.

"He had a technical brilliance which was matched by no-one."

Curator's Talk with Chris Stephens on March 11 2010, Clore Auditorium. Admission £5, runs 1pm-2pm, book online or call 020 7887 8888.

Open 10am-5.40pm (last entry 5pm, 8.30pm first Friday of every month). Admission £12.50/£11, book online or call 020 7887 8888.

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