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Henry Moore: drawings

6 April 2010
Published in Culture
by Giovanni Biglino

Large and heavily publicised exhibitions can be daunting. Some recent shows at the Royal Academy of Arts on Chinese or Turkish heritages have been so didactic that resulted to be almost tedious (the most fascinating topic ruined by an uninspired orator) and could only be balanced by other well-curated poignant exhibitions (a memorable Georg Baselitz). Crowded rooms are well-known enemies of contemplation, buy while it is sometimes difficult to enjoy the latter and avoid the first, paradoxically. But there are shows so rich in which we put aside preconceptions we might have. The attention is entirely captured by its true object. And above all there is an unexpected element that captivates our curiosity. Such is the case for the lavish Henry Moore retrospective currently at the Tate Britain.

 It has been defined “the most important exhibition of Moore’s work for a generation” (The Guardian) and it certainly represents an important homage paid to Britain’s most popular sculptor and one of the crucial names in the art of sculpture in the post-Rodin era (Brancusi, Giacometti, Smith, Moore, Calder, Chillida). But alongside the bronze, granite and wooden surfaces and the flowing melody of their shapes, their critical analysis and their contextualisation, it is interesting to discover a less known side of Henry Moore: the drawer.

The drawings represent much more that just sketches in preparation for the more physical action of sculpting, providing a rather different medium of expression. Despite the bi-dimensional approach which may appear in contradiction with the idea of sculpting itself, they are means to explore forms in isolation rather than in space. Or study forms and their relation to space. In this regard, some of Moore’s drawings enact the arrangement of the finished sculpture, with stylised cows grazing on the edge of the field for which the work has been conceived. This is particularly important for the sculpture that is meant to interact with its surroundings – Chillida’s El peine del viento eroded by the sea, Anish Kapoor’s installations in urban spaces, a reclining human figure in the Yorkshire countryside. A 1942 drawing portrays a curious indistinct crowd staring at a wrapped object in an open field (the object dominating the crowd), studying not only the interaction of the work of art with its surroundings but also the interaction of the work of art with its public.

While some drawings are clearly linked with a specific subject (maternity) others are linked with the preoccupations that the artist felt at the time and not to a specific single work, thus representing an independent production. The series of drawings portraying miners and the shelters of the World War II period, both included in the Tate retrospective, are of great interest. They reveal elements inspired by The potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh – the claustrophobia, the attention toward the oppressed working class, the dark atmosphere – and by the dreamy Caprichos by Goya – the nocturnal vision and the agitation of the nightmare –.

The exhibition explores defining subjects of Moore’s art, including the reclining figure, the iconic mother and child composition, abstraction and the seminal drawings of London during the Blitz. The mother and child theme is also studied by means of drawings. And while the pencil and the crayon defined female figures, Moore had not only in mind the traditional model – the Madonne of the Italian Quattrocento – but newer forms: a phase in Picasso’s oeuvre (Deux femmes courant sur la plage, 1922) and bodies with a wooden quality defined by Kirchner (Bathers throwing reeds, 1909). The drawings, together with the wood carvings and the sculptures, testify that by the end of the 1920s Moore had absorbed tribal art, but it was something filtrated through the Cubist experience and influenced by the novel psychoanalytic theories and ideas of sexuality.

Tate Britain, until 8 August 2010
Images: Tate © Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

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