Henry Moore: Back to a Land

When Yorkshire Sculpture Park announced that it was staging an exhibition of work by Henry Moore, to be based on the theme of ‘the land’, it was tempting to think, ‘business as usual then’. Moore’s monumental outdoor sculptures are a fixture at the YSP, with significant long terms loans from the Henry Moore Foundation, Tate, and Draped Seated Woman, 1957-58, better known as ‘Old Flo’ from Tower Hamlets, on display all year round. Moore became the YSP’s first patron in 1979, and the Park staged a celebrated large-scale exhibition of his outdoor work in 1987, the year after his death. The YSP, however, is conscious of the problem of curating Henry Moore in this gallery and environmental context and has attempted to ‘do’ Moore a little differently. Working in partnership with the Henry Moore Foundation, Mary Moore (the sculptor’s daughter) and the Moore Family Trust, Henry Moore: Back to a Landprobes the ways in which the land, its above-ground undulations and below-ground geological structures, informed Moore’s work. Rather than simply reiterate Moore’s preference that sculpture be displayed out of doors, this show investigates how Moore consistently explored man’s relationship with the environment.

The exhibition, Henry Moore: Back to a Land takes its title from Jacquetta Hawkes’ book, A Land, first published in 1951, for which Moore created a series of illustrations and some of these are on display. Hawkes’ book utilises the systems of geology and archaeology to argue for an holistic appreciation of nature and culture; the book is at once a history of the English landscape, a neo-romantic eulogy to the countryside and a rallying cry against the processes of industrialisation. In her preface she wrote, ‘The image I have sought to evoke is of an entity, the land of Britain, in which past and present, nature, man and art appear all in one piece ‘. It is this interplay between the body and land, past and present that has informed this exhibition: how did the land, its outline and geology, inform Moore’s work? More specifically, how did Moore’s experiences and memories of the Yorkshire landscape, its dramatic horizons and hard geologies, influence his sculptures and works on paper? 

1. Henry Moore:Back to a Land, Project Space (photo: © Jonty Wilde, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation)

The exhibition fills the three rooms of the Underground Gallery, and is supported by a display of Moore’s personal collection of non-Western artefacts, rocks, bones, and preliminary maquettes, curated by Mary Moore in the project space. For those unable to visit Moore’s house and studio at Perry Green, this room is a real treat and gives insight into Moore’s visual and formal interests. Outside, a selection of Moore’s large and monumental sculptures, including the white fibreglass Large Reclining Figure (1984, main image), are arranged in the historic Bothy Garden.

In its unusual selection of sculptures and drawings, the YSP avoids repeating recent Moore exhibitions, thanks largely to the show’s predominance of later works from the 1960s, 70s and 80s that are generally less well-known; even those familiar with Moore’s work will have the opportunity to make discoveries and view rarely exhibited sculptures for the first time, including a number of late marble carvings. Moore started working with marble in the late 1950s, and in 1965 purchased a holiday cottage with a carving studio in Forte Dei Marmi, Italy, which was conveniently placed near the Henraux quarry in Querceta – used by Michelangelo. Over the subsequent years Moore and his assistants carved a series of sculptures in Travertine marble, including Draped Reclining Figure 1978 and Two Standing Figures 1981, on display in Gallery One.

This first gallery, anchored by Draped Reclining Figure 1978 at its centre, focuses on Moore’s use of the reclining female figure. His interest in the associative similarities between bodily forms and those of the landscape emerged in the 1930s, and it is this formal equivalence for which he is most well-known. It is a shame however, that more use of Hawkes’s book wasn’t made in the exhibition’s interpretive text panels; the first chapter of A Land begins: ‘When I have been working late on a summer night, I like to go out and lie on the patch of grass in our back garden … this hard ground presses my flesh against my bones and makes me agreeably conscious of my body’. Considering Moore’s reclining women with these words in mind would have made the relationship between body and earth, and indeed Moore and Hawkes more explicit. Nonetheless, the exhibition does utilise the architectural design of the gallery to great effect, so that, while standing there surrounded by reclining women, it is possible to look through the long glass exterior wall out to the fibreglass reclining figure; perhaps the curators felt that Hawkes’ words weren’t necessary, given the way this monumental skeletal figure engages with the ground outside. 

The second gallery concentrates on Moore’s interest in materials and his use of native English stones; there are a number of surrealist works from the 1930s, including Composition 1931 in Blue Horton Stone, Square Form 1936 in Green Horton Stone, and Reclining Figure 1933-4 in Corshill Stone. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Moore intentionally worked with regional stones and, with John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, regarded this choice as part of a wider cultural aspiration for a specifically British modernism. The anachronistic presence of two concrete sculptures is best explained as an attempt to show the range of Moore’s experimentation with materials, but if this is the case, there is no stranger or better example in the show than truly weird stalactite sculpture Mother and Child 1978. Like a strange deformed ear growing on an unrecognisable mass, the work is suggestive of human physical attributes while simultaneously totally alien: evidence perhaps that Moore never gave up his surrealist tendencies. Moore’s reframing of the familiar can be seen in his transformation drawings of the 1930s, in which bones and shells are rearticulated as limbs and torsos, and his much later Elephant Skull etchings, in which close-up details of the skull’s bone structure are presented as gorges, caves and ravines.

The third gallery space is dominated by the large elm carving Reclining Figure Holes 1976-78, around which are presented a significant number of works on paper, many made in or about Yorkshire. A drawing made at the local Wheldale Colliery at Castleford, during Moore’s time as an Official War Artist show a stooped miner emerging from the darkness holding a lantern. It is a study of an inhospitable interior, underground space, and Moore achieved considerable lightness in use of black on black whereby man and mineral appear as one. An awareness of the fragility of life and mystery of nature are also found in Moore’s prints of the Yorkshire landscape, made for a collaborative project with poet, and fellow Yorkshireman, WH Auden. These abstracted landscapes present dark and brooding windswept vistas, the line between earth and sky analogous to that of life and death; made to accompany a set of Auden’s poems, the prints are made all the more poignant with the knowledge that Auden died prior to the project’s completion. Positioned alongside Moore’s Yorkshire landscapes is his series of lithographic prints depicting Stonehenge, some of which present the stone structure in extreme close up creating strange interlocking landscapes. In others, Moore has unusually populated his scenes; as diminutive figures gaze up at the looming, towering stones, Moore conveys a sense of the ancient monument’s enduring primal power.

Although there is a lot to see in this show, visitors should spend time examining a remarkable bank of pen and ink wash drawings, watercolours, wax crayon drawings from the 1970s and 80s in Gallery Three. These works depicting landscape scenes, sun sets, and cliff faces show Moore’s skill at applying tonal ranges to create moody atmospheres. Winter Landscape 1980 shows a delicate touch of smudgy landscape, while Shipwreck I 1973 with its ship rendered in fine lines could almost be by Whistler except for the looming cliff face; Arch Rock 1979 could perhaps be a memory of Claude Monet’s The Manneporte (Étretat)1883 which has inspired his earlier sculptures. These works serve as a reminder that Moore was an incredibly skilled draughtsman, and it is possible to see why early in his career, it was the sale of his drawings that sustained him financially.

Outside, the curators have successfully made the distinction between Moore in the open air and Moore in landscape. The formal arrangement of Moore’s work in the Bothy Garden contrasts with those placed in the expansive former deer park, and the two areas become present-day counter-parts for the organised and urban settings, and the wild and remote environments, in which Moore exhibited during his lifetime. In addition to the Large Reclining Figure set dramatically against the yew hedge (main image), and Reclining Figure: Angels 1979, the Bothy Garden also contains Reclining Figure Hand 1981, which survived an IRA bombing when cited at BBC White City, London, in 1981. At the top of the garden, as though growing out of the highest point of the sloping hill is Large Interior Form 1982. Developed from an earlier work from the 1950s, in this position, the stem-like monumental bronze has a lightness and optimistic sensibility that has been missing when displayed elsewhere.

By focusing on late work, this show does present Moore differently and there are numerous fascinating connections, interpretations and discoveries to be made. My only quibble with the show is the way in which the interpretive text panels and booklet fail to draw on the work of Jacquetta Hawkes, or add to established narratives of Moore’s work. By relying on previously published material, the textual elements of the show bring little in the way of fresh interpretation and in some cases are misleading. Gallery Three, for example, opens with a quote by Rosalind Krauss: ‘The veining of marble, the striation of limestone, or the grain of wood as it forms in nature, became the maps that Moore’s carving instruments followed as he worked directly on the solid block, probing towards its centre’. Such narratives of direct carving and truth to materials have surely to be questioned with regard to Moore’s late sculptures, especially in light of his mode of working with preparatory maquettes and reliance on assistants. At the time of writing, the exhibition’s catalogue has yet to be published, and it is hoped that it will redress these omissions and interpretive issues. Tantalisingly, Simon Armitage has been commissioned to write seven new poems in response to Moore’s work for inclusion in the catalogue. Having already written on that other Yorkshire sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, Armitage is experienced in responding to the three-dimensional form and his poems, and poetry reading on 21 May, are eagerly awaited.

Main image: Henry Moore, Large Reclining Figure, 1984, fibreglass (photo: reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation)

Henry Moore: Back to a Land
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
7 March – 6 September 2015

Aurora Corio