Henry Moore at Tate Britain

“Like excrement” was Francis Bacon’s description of the monumental Henry Moore sculptures which appeared, ubiquitously it seemed, in city squares and parks across the western world in the 1940s and 1950s. Moore’s smooth, rounded, stable, grouped figures offered exactly the humanistic images of comfort and reconciliation that the postwar era craved. Bacon’s agonised, violent, shifting ones, by contrast, described what it wanted to forget: man as beast.

Today, Moore the consoler is dismissed as nostalgic, Bacon the provoker revered as seminal. Tate Britain’s job is to re-examine such entrenched positions, and its new Henry Moore exhibition valiantly claims “a troubled and troubling art that digs into the very essence of the modern experience”. But nothing in this graceful, generous, unstartling recapitulation supports such an overhaul of Moore’s reputation.

The most delightful room is the first, which is devoted to the small-scale 1920s carvings that more or less replicate prehistoric models. The flattened green stone masks, smooth schematic heads in alabaster or ironstone and mother-and-child pairs evoking ancient fertility figures all demonstrate from the start a masterly simplification and elegant line. They are as thrilling as Moore gets – condensed, lifted by the excitement of his early engagement with his materials, alive with the discovery that he could inject emotion through direct carving.

Like Brancusi and Picasso, Moore attempted to broaden sculpture’s vocabulary beyond the classical and the fluid modelling of Rodin by exploring primitivism – from the “ecstatically fine negro sculpture” he encountered at the British Museum to pre-Columbian statuary and American Indian totems. His first “Reclining Figure” (1929) in brown Hornton stone, with veined surfaces and chisel marks bored as eyes and nipples, is tense, vital, fraught with the possibilities of pitting classical form against the flat, death-staring factuality of Etruscan funerary monuments.

Picasso via Epstein is the immediate influence, although already in the 1920s Moore had found his own inexhaustible subject. The Hornton stone “Mother and Child” (1924-25) is a masterpiece of cubist compression – massively frontal, brutally intimate, ambivalent in the distancing, even aggression, between mother and infant. The motif is modulated through the next decade: the infant now folded into the form of the mother, as in the tender Verde di Prato “Mother and Child” (1929), now rearing away as in a 1930 Ancaster stone version, now upright, hieratic, with the mother detached, as in Leeds’ striking white alabaster “Mother and Child” (1932).

Jacob Epstein and Barbara Hepworth also made maternity their subject in these years – as DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf did in literature: all were reacting against the mechanisation of society in the aftermath of world war. But for Moore the theme was intensely personal too; his formal working of it was embedded in childhood memory.

“I was a Yorkshire miner’s son, the youngest of seven, and my mother was no longer so very young. She suffered from bad rheumatism in the back and would say to me in winter, when I came home from school: ‘Henry, boy, come and rub my back.’ Then I would massage her back with liniment,” he wrote, referring to the 1924-25 piece. “When I came to this figure, I found that I was unconsciously giving to its back the long-forgotten shape of the one that I had so often rubbed as a boy.”

That tactile-visual quality, a particular pleasure in Moore, develops in the 1930s semi-abstract sculptures in the round, when he turned the body inside out, pierced it with holes, rotated it around a hollow case in a fluid, rhythmic drama of interior and exterior, shell and core, to be viewed from many angles. Picasso is again the inspiration – the 1931 “Composition” in blue Hornton stone alludes directly to Picasso’s bronze “Metamorphosis” of 1928; following Picasso too, the body is remade as vessel or container in the concrete “Composition” (1933) and the Corsehill stone “Figure” (1933-34).

The next stage was to extend this abstracted body by breaking it into two or more pieces: Tate’s key “Four-piece Composition: Reclining Figure” (1934) illustrates how, rather than fragment the figure, Moore let space breathe through it, asserting its unity. I don’t accept for a minute Tate’s contention that from the 1930s “an iconography of broken, abject bodies became central to Moore’s art”, or that he “explored ideas of the absurd, the uncanny”. The work shows the reverse: in both MoMA’s Pynkado wood “Two Forms” (1934) and Philadelphia’s Hornton stone upright “Two Forms” (1936) there is a sense of one element sheltering the other – abstractions of the mother and child theme, formally foreshadowing the celebrated “Shelterers in the Tube” drawings, and suggesting, too, landscape metaphors of the body as boulder, hill or dale that dominate Moore’s later work.

These natural analogies are the opposite of uncanny – elemental, organic, satisfying by their reasonableness and rightness, they never surprise or shock. It is here that Moore differs crucially from Picasso or surrealism, whose metamorphoses of forms are absurdist, incongruous, menacing.

Moore’s unique gift was to synthesise diluted versions of surrealism and constructivism, the major European mid-century movements, with a home-grown romanticism that is most eloquently expressed in his doctrine of truth to materials. Tate brings this out excellently: the darting, staccato mobility of bronze in the lovely small rocking chair pieces “Mother and Child on Ladderback Chair” and “Rocking Chair No 3”; the poisonous lead of the mutilated, stark “Helmet Head”; the swelling, undulating “Reclining Figure” series in elm, where the sweep of head, shoulders, breasts seems dictated by the grain of the wood, embodying Moore’s belief in the oneness of man and nature.

Attempting to radicalise Moore, this show prioritises the early work and ends at the 1950s. It documents impeccably how Moore held up the figurative tradition for three decades by confronting and incorporating the threat of abstraction. Francis Bacon, of course, did the same in painting. His open screaming mouths suggesting psychological collapse are the diametric opposite of the orally fixated hollows with which Moore reconstructed harmony and balance. But both artists broke down the figure only to reassert human figuration as art’s ineluctable subject – thus becoming, respectively, 20th-century Britain’s pre-eminent painter and sculptor.

Yet whereas Tate’s Bacon retrospective last year proceeded to Madrid’s Prado and then to New York’s Metropolitan, Moore is going first to Toronto, then home to Leeds. Moore, who called for a “world view” of sculpture, now looks almost provincial – in his English compromises of form and style, in his sentimental humanism. He is a great artist and technical virtuoso, but, solid as the sculptures themselves, the standard view of him as a reassuring conservative proves, at least for now, impossible to shift.

‘Henry Moore’, Tate Britain, London, to August 8; www.tate.org.uk
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, www.ago.net
Leeds Art Gallery, www.leeds.gov.uk/artgallery

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