Henry Moore at Kew

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I had been thinking today of providing a link to my review of the big outdoor Henry Moore show at Kew botanic gardens, which I caught up with last November on a trip to London. It appears in the new issue of Time‘s European edition. But if you go to the story on line you don’t get all the pictures, so I’m just going to reproduce it here with even more illustrations than we ran in the magazine. After all, this blog is called “Looking Around”. And so….

Double Oval, Moore, 1966 — Images: The Henry Moore Foundation

Henry Moore once said that “sculpture is an art of the open air.” That’s certainly true about his sculpture, all those massive blobs of bronze sunning themselves in plazas all over the world. Moore wanted his art, especially the monumental work that dominated his output after World War II, to be seen outdoors, in primal settings that bring out its kinship to the mineral fundaments of the earth itself.

Primal may not be the word to describe the well-groomed landscapes at Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens on the outskirts of central London, but the backdrop of grassy slopes and monumental trees turns out to be just the right fit for Moore’s work, which can seem both powerfully natural and shrewdly cultivated. For “Moore at Kew,” the vast show that opened there in September and remains through the end of March, 27 of his large bronzes and one massive figure in white fiberglass have been set to advantage all around Kew’s elegant acreage. Silhouetted against Kew’s white pavilions and specimen plantings, his massive Double Oval from 1966 has the power and strangeness that marks the best of Moore’s work. And his work that’s less than the best? The lawns of Kew also bring out everything that’s sentimental and suburban in his draped reclining figures.

Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, Moore, 1983

This is the rare exhibition at which visitors are actually permitted to run their hands along the sculpture. Since Moore’s swelling forms fairly beg to be touched, on a busy afternoon Kew can look like an artworld petting zoo. He’s still a crowd favorite. But even before he died in 1986, at the age of 88, Moore’s reputation had its ups and downs. There was a time when he symbolized modern art for a whole generation. In the years right after World War II, his work epitomized a kind of modernist humanism for an era that was both forward-looking and war-weary. He had hugely successful exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Venice Biennale, where he received the main prize for sculpture. The British Council began exporting his work all around the world, and the U.S. in particular responded to him strongly. He became the go-to guy for every American arts center, college and corporate headquarters looking for a hefty chunk of modern art to set beside its reflecting pool.

Two Piece Reclining Figure: Cut, Moore, 1979-81

What was at the heart of Moore’s appeal? Maybe that he had domesticated Surrealism. Moore took the biomorphic forms of Surrealist sculpture and painting, detached them from associations of shock or disgust, and reconciled them to the long traditions of the human figure.

Even his first more or less Surrealist work, a small stone sculpture from 1932 called Composition — which is not in the show at Kew — is one that Moore developed out of sketches of a child nursing at a woman’s breast. Compare it to the grotesque exaggerations of Picasso’s 1928 Bather (Metamorphosis 1), a work that Moore knew and which Composition appears to draw from, and you can see the road not taken. It’s not that the sources for Moore’s sculptural forms were always gentle and benign. Anything but. They could often be traced back to his service in World War I, to a world of dismembered limbs, warrior helmets and bone fragments. But at heart he was a conciliator. He refashioned his anxieties into consoling maternal shapes.

Then came the 1960s, and a backlash against Moore got seriously underway. By that decade he was turning out biomorphic humanism by the yard, which made him susceptible to the charge of mediocre mass production. Artists like Anthony Caro, Moore’s onetime studio assistant, started producing steel assemblage sculpture indebted to David Smith, blunt, sharp-edged work that made Moore’s Madonnas look corny. The Minimalists rejected the references to nature and the body that were intrinsic to Moore’s work. The ironies of Pop made him look all too earnest and sincere. Moore once said something to the effect that he could make any blot and scribble into a mother and child, to which a new generation had just one answer: alas.

Three Piece Reclining Figure Draped, Moore, 1975

But surprise — the show at Kew is a reminder of Moore’s enduring credibility. It has its share of Moore at his most middlebrow: the white fiberglass version of Large Reclining Figure that Moore ordered up in 1984 — a bloviating enlargement of what had been a suave little totem when he first fashioned it in 1938 in gratifying dark lead — belongs at an airport.

Large Reclining Figure, Moore, 1984

But set against the greenery of Kew, his way of conflating the curves of the human body with the swells of landscape is effective again. And his two- and three-part reclining figures, like Reclining Figure: Arch Leg from 1969, with its complicated balance of volume and void, are proof that Moore’s gift for forceful, enigmatic forms didn’t entirely desert him even in the ’60s.

Reclining Figure: Arch Leg, Moore, 1969-1970

He was the opposite of a Baroque sculptor. No corkscrewing flights of form for him. His default mode was a block volume as static and weighty as a desert mesa, or as the reclining Chacmool figures of pre-Columbian art that were another of his early inspirations. But by dividing a figure into two or three separate parts, an approach he started taking as early as 1934, Moore could endow an otherwise inert mass with a tangled energy and a forbidding hint of bodily dismemberment that spares those pieces from the sentimentality that can infect so much of his art. A work like Two Piece Reclining Figure: Points, from 1969, has the feel that Moore aimed at — but didn’t always achieve — of form as primal matter. At Kew you can pet it, but you just might be afraid to.

Two Piece Reclining Figure: Points, Moore, 1969