Figuring Space, the Henry Moore Institute’s soberly presented and thought-provoking exhibition, proceeds through the three galleries allotted to it like some carefully presented argument of the kind you might find in a book. You can almost sense its curator, Penelope Curtis, rubbing her chin and murmuring to herself under her breath as she paces out the spaces allotted to it and then, all of a sudden, turning on her heel to take in some sudden insight.

The show begins by looking at the nature of the relationship between architecture and sculpture. This section of the argument is illustrated with architectural drawings of various projects, some realised, others unrealised, by the great modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, together with a selection of the sculptures he often used to punctuate the spaces inside and outside his buildings. These sculptures are by Aristide Maillol, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Georg Kolbe.

It then goes on, in the second gallery, to consider the relationship between two chairs designed by Mies for one of these projects and a sculpture of a king and queen from the 1950s by Henry Moore. To what extent do these chairs and this sculptural grouping have things in common?

Last, in a small third gallery – too small for its purpose, it has to be said – the show looks at three items of furniture, all chairs, by Charles and Ray Eames and Arne Jacobsen, and invites us to consider to what extent these functional objects have not only absorbed the lessons of sculpture, but may also, to an extent, even be substitutes for sculpture when placed in their habitual environments.

The first room is the most surprising. Here we have the careful architectural drawings of a man who believed above all in the austerity of clean, sweeping lines. Mies was never a man for curves. His lines move, straight as an arrow, to left and right and upwards – and then up further. There is something slightly chilly and almost inhuman about this vision – and, in the hands of his many mediocre imitators down the years, it has become chillier still. It is entirely unfussy and lacking in human warmth.

Given how uncompromising these building projects seem to be, it is surprising to see the kinds of sculptures with which Mies chose to punctuate his spaces. They are all figurative – massive and monumental, certainly, but figurative all the same. Here is a Maillol nude of 1909 called “Night”, for example, a female form on a low plinth, legs drawn up, head bowed, arms folded across its knees. It is knotted, folded in on its itself, intensely introspective.

How then did Mies use such a conventionally figurative form – and why? His drawings show us where he put them: in corners, at the end of sight lines, by a pool, looking in. The rooms sometimes seem to pivot about them. They sometimes give direction, indicating where things are in relation to each other. Perhaps they also provide some modicum of humanity, an interlude of warmth in which to bask momentarily, that their surroundings are asking for.

The next room focuses on Mies’s work for the German National Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition – and imagines it changed in order to accommodate the next, pivotal stage in the curatorial argument. This room is not only the gallery’s largest but also its most imposing, with a great window that allows light to flood in.

At the centre of the original pavilion, a space was reserved for the visit of the king and queen of Spain. Two Mies Van der Rohe chairs were positioned on a black carpet. Here they are again, on a similar large black carpet, but now, diagonally across from them, sit the king and queen by Moore. Both chairs and monarchs seem grudgingly to acknowledge each other’s presence. The way, in the Moore, the chest sweeps down until it becomes the lap and then the legs, in a single unbroken curve, makes the sculpture look a little like a chair. And the chairs themselves look a little like posturing, stiffly dignified human forms – in spite of the fact that they are waiting for human forms to make sense of their presence.

And so we move to a room of chairs, and there are too many chairs in this room – it feels cluttered, a bit like a lumber room. But the chairs themselves make their points forcefully enough. Here is the Eames “La Chaise” lounge chair. It resembles a white bowl that has been kneaded and spread until it has turned into a graciously flowing organic sculpture (think Barbara Hepworth). The rods that support it remind us of constructivism. It might be a chair almost by accident.

And this is where this skilful argument ends, and quite gracefully too. The distinction between furniture and sculpture has blurred; furniture, it seems, can fulfil the function within a building that sculptures by the likes of Maillol once did. These abstract forms – whether sculptures or chairs or some creamy melding of the two – can be whatever they want. They might even be comfortable as well as beautiful.

‘Figuring Space: Sculpture/ Furniture from Mies to Moore’, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until April 1. Tel +44 113 246 7467

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