At Hauser & Wirth, a smart, modern gallery in a converted farmhouse in Somerset, Mary Moore shows me some of her father’s sculptures. The family resemblance is uncanny – she’s instantly recognizable as Henry Moore’s daughter – but what’s far more remarkable is her deep understanding of his work. “Sculpture is very physical,” says Mary as she guides me through The Arch, the gigantic sculpture that forms the gateway to this life-enhancing show.
Mary grew up in a farmhouse like this, a place called Hoglands in Hertfordshire, where Moore lived and worked for the second half of his long life. Moore moved there from London to escape the Blitz in 1940 and remained there until his death, so it feels appropriate to see his sculptures here, in a setting similar to that in which so many of them were made. is something like that.
Mary was an only child, which may partly account for her empathy with these artworks. Growing up in Hoglands, her father’s sculptures were all around her. She has witnessed every stage of her development. Now Hoglands is a museum and sculpture park with a permanent collection on site and special exhibitions in the gallery, but if anything this exhibition is even more comprehensive.
Henry Moore has disappeared in the foreground
It is an overview of Moore’s work spanning 60 years, from the 1920s to the 1980s, from his twenties to his eighties. At a time when sculpture can mean anything from unmade beds to pickled sharks, this ethereal, uplifting show is a reminder that, despite its avant-garde reputation, his work was deeply connected to the ancient past.
Moore was born in 1898 to a miner, the seventh of eight children. He grew up in a terraced house in Castleford, a mining town in Yorkshire, and fought on the Western Front during World War I. Throughout his life he went about his work in the same no-nonsense manner. Down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, he let his chisel do the talking. He was incredibly prolific and left a vast sculpting legacy on every continent, in virtually every major city in the world. His artworks are timeless and universal. Everyone can understand them. They are about how it feels to be alive.
Almost forty years after his death in 1986 at the ripe age of 88, Henry Moore has come to the fore. A victim of his own success, his work is omnipresent today. No public building is complete without one of its monolithic sculptures in the forecourt – and so they have become practically invisible, part of our daily lives. You have to see them here in this rural setting to be reminded of their elemental beauty – how they broke new ground and also forged new connections with antiquity.
Moore’s contribution to modernism is widely recognized, but his close connection to art history is equally important and often overlooked. As you walk through this exhibition, you realize that his work was archaic, not futuristic. The Renaissance was his guiding star. His favorite artists were Old Masters. He was fascinated by Classical and Neolithic art.
He ended up receiving an Order of Merit, a bastion of the establishment, and yet for half a century Moore was a modernist bogeyman, ridiculed by many in the art world and ridiculed by much of the popular press. Where from? Classical and Renaissance artists would have recognized his busts and torsos, his lying nudes. Sure, they’re not realistic, but anyone can see they’re figurative. His abstract sculptures also relate closely and consistently to the human form. No wonder Kenneth Clark was a champion of his work.
Moore’s influence on British art was so far-reaching that it’s easy to forget how radical his work seemed in his youth. Today its soft modernism looks positively friendly, but that’s not how it appeared in Britain between the wars. “The Cult of Ugliness Triumphant” was a typical headline in The morning post, above an intemperate review claiming that “Moore displays an utter disdain for the natural beauty of women and children.” When Moore was teaching at the Royal College of Art, where he had excelled, some of his students signed a petition to have him dismissed.
Why did so many people feel so threatened? In retrospect, that’s hard to say. Britain had never embraced modernity. During Moore’s student days, even Post-Impressionist paintings were treated with great suspicion. The abstraction fared even worse. But if anyone could convince Britons to try modern art, it was Moore. As a working-class war veteran, he could hardly be dismissed as elitist. His public statements were measured and level-headed. Slowly but surely, the substance of his art turned public tastes around.
Moore was admired by those in the know before World War II, but it was the Blitz that made him a national treasure. Too old to fight, he became an official war artist focused on the home front. His drawings of Londoners taking refuge from lightning in underground stations captured the public’s imagination and demonstrated that modern art can be populist and patriotic. If Hitler had invaded Britain, Moore would have been a scarred man. The Hamburger Kunsthalle, one of Germany’s leading public galleries, was a pioneering collector of his work; consequently he was the only British artist to be denounced as “degenerate” by the Nazis.
The fifties, sixties and seventies were a golden age for Moore. As Britain and Europe rebuilt their cities of steel, glass and concrete, Moore’s sculptures added a human touch to these brave new worlds. However, his heart has always been in the countryside, not in the city, and it is telling that his work feels most comfortable in the countryside. Nestled in the heart of rural Somerset, Hauser & Wirth’s farmhouse and court gallery is a fitting forum for these works, which feel rooted in the earth, part of the landscape that shaped them.
Moore’s relationship was with the Eternal
There is no overarching theme in this exhibition, and that’s all the better for it. It’s more of a compact retrospective, touching on virtually every era and path of Moore’s long and varied career. Many of the works are well known and exciting to see again, but for me the big surprises are his Stonehenge lithographs. I’ve seen a few of them before, but never so many together, and the collective impact is overwhelming. These images are so unusual and so energetic that they deserve a show of their own. Moore was fascinated by Stonehenge’s history, but most of all he was excited by its status as an interactive work of art. That excitement is transmitted in these muscular, graceful images that find entirely new ways of looking at this iconic monument and portray it in a completely different light.
Moore felt a strong empathy for Stonehenge and the people who built it. “He was carving outside, he was carving in daylight,” says Mary. “People thousands of years before him would have carved outdoors. They wouldn’t have worked in a studio.” Working outdoors, in natural light, conditions are constantly changing. Moore’s Stonehenge images provide a close connection to our ancestors, people who would have carved these stones in the same way. As Mary explains, “A lot of what he talks about is light and depth and space and volume.”
Moore’s relationship was with the eternal rather than the here and now. “Every year when we went on vacation, we would pick up rocks on the beach. He collected stones all his life and kept them as a kind of library.” Like all great artists, he saw craftsmanship and beauty all around him. He could have made a sculpture out of anything; The whole world was his gallery and so he never stopped working. “He hated going on vacation – he always wanted to work!” says Maria. “Family vacation was very short.”
Mary is a rare phenomenon and a valuable asset to art historians. As his only child, the product of a happy marriage and home, she enjoyed a close relationship with her father, but she also has a critical view of his work that is extremely unusual for such a close relative. “What was remarkable about my father was that he had this extraordinary understanding of standards,” she says. “He worked with a small turntable and modeled very small, so the models are really quite small – but he can imagine what it will be like if he just makes it on the table.” So his models don’t look like working models, but independent miniature sculptures.
“He had this ability in him to relate to shape and size. I think what he’s really doing is taking a landscape or a natural form, like a tree, and swapping it with the human form, so in Moore you see the landscape in the body and the body in the landscape. I think that was a big part of what he did.”
When Moore died in 1986 he was the most famous British artist of the century, the most famous sculptor in the world. After his death, the art world moved on. For a time his work fell out of fashion, but recently something surprising and wonderful has happened: the decades since his death have brought distance and perspective to his work. He is no longer a modern artist but one of the old masters whom he admires.
Henry Moore – Sharing Form is on view at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset until 4 September 2022.