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Mysteriously Ordinary Henry Moore : THE LIFE OF HENRY MOORE by Roger Berthoud , (E.P. Dutton: $29.95; 454 pp., illustrated)

November 22, 1987|Gerrit Henry | Henry, the author of "Janet Fish," a monograph on the contemporary painter published by Burton Skira, Geneva, is a contributing editor for ARTnews. and

There's no doubt about it: Sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of Great 20th-Century Artists, British Division, alongside the American-born Jacob Epstein, Ben Nicholson, and Nicholson's wife, Barbara Hepworth. In that classic casebook of modernism, H. H. Arnason's "History of Modern Art," Moore is described as a sculptor whose mature work had "international implications," rooted as it was in the pioneering sculpture of Rodin, Brancusi, Picasso, and Giacometti.

Well-versed in sculpture, and famous, too. It's hard to imagine anyone in the civilized world not having come in contact with at least a reproduction of Moore's super-stately 1943-'44 "Madonna and child," its height, 59 inches of Hornton stone, or his similarly gigantic bronze "The King and Queen" of 1952-'53. And Moore achieved a certain Pyrrhic popularity with the general public. Cartoonists throughout the latter half of the century, when Moore's star had fully risen, had fun doodling one of Moore's sternly voluptuous reclining female nudes, holes, smooth contours, and all, with such gag lines as a husband saying to an overweight wife reclining before Moore, "Mariele, watch out. You're becoming fashionable."

Now, after years of catalogues and coffeetable epics and critical studies by Herbert Read and John Russell, the "first full biography" of Moore has appeared. If you're looking for a thick, thorough recounting of Moore's life and work, Roger Berthoud's "The Life of Henry Moore" may just be your ticket. Berthoud--former deputy editor of the Illustrated London News and author of a 1982 biography on British artist Graham Sutherland--has certainly done his homework to a fare-thee-well. He conducted copious interviews with relatives, friends and associates and had access to Moore--and his archives--for the last four years of the artist's life.

The sculptor came from the proverbial humble origins: He was one of eight children of a coal-mining father and an overworked mother. From early on, his dedication to sculpture was established: As a boy, he was thrilled to hear Michelangelo described, in an anecdote told by a Sunday School teacher, as "the greatest sculptor who ever lived." "From then on," Berthoud tells us, "when asked what he wanted to be in life, he would answer 'a sculptor.' "

Berthoud also makes much, in neo-Freudian fashion, of the time the boy put in giving his arthritic mother back rubs. "In retrospect, (Moore) recognized it as one of his first specifically sculptural experiences, and with all its Oedipal undertones, it doubtless played no small role in shaping his preoccupation with the female figure as a theme."

Berthoud also leans heavily on Jungian scholar Ernst Neumann's "The Archetypal World of Henry Moore" for interpretation of sculptural motifs. The psychoanalysis is bolstered by hard, if often cozy, fact--Moore's early taste for Assyrian and Mexican primitive sculpture, his relations with Epstein, Nicholson, Hepworth and other artists (hardly a Bloomsbury Circle, from the sound of it), and his lifelong marriage to an upper-class Russian beauty, Irina Radetzky.

At mid-life came the war, and it was during World War II that Moore did the work for which he is perhaps most admired, the so-called "shelter drawings." In his capacity as one of the London Home Guard, Moore haunted by night the subterranean caves--underground stations, factory basements--that had become the refuge for so many homeless. Back in the studio, Moore personalized his reactions in ink and chalk and watercolor, producing some of the finest depictions of the material cruelties of war since Goya.

From there, it was more or less all gravy--public commissions, retrospectives at the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and, most recently, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Indeed, Moore's slightly fantastic international success seems, somehow, predetermined--making for a genuinely monumental, but curiously uninvolving read. What went wrong?

Perhaps the problem lies in the tale rather than the teller. Berthoud acknowledges, in a Prelude to the text, that Henry Moore was anything but a Romantic figure: ". . . He might have been a well-to-do Yorkshire farmer. . . . No one could have been further from the popular conception of the artist as Bohemian, as Outsider or as obsessed egocentric. . . . "Thus, deeply lacking from the book is what we've come to expect of the modern artist: his sense of himself as a kind of existential Everyman, an invalid Matisse painting from his bed with brushes attached to poles, or the sort of tragic, wicked figure who makes even the cheapest chapbook on Picasso enthralling, or a Jackson Pollock careering drunkenly down the highway with two women at his side, about to meet his doom.

Perhaps, then, Moore the modernist was too much of a Philistine for words. Still, one feels that Berthoud might have missed some critical biographical link in Moore's psychic chair, a link that could explain how an Englishman of such apparent equanimity and affability could have created the tortuous "shelter drawings" or imbued a 1929 "Reclining Figure" with the urgent primacy of pre-Judaeo-Christian art. In fact, Berthoud seems aware of the problem. In the Prelude, he mentions in passing a slightly "daunting" observation made by a Moore associate at the outset: "Of course your book will be judged by your success in bridging the gap between the man and his work." That gap is not bridged; Berthoud seems almost too much the gentleman himself to have even attempted it, fervently underscoring, as he does, Moore's sturdy normality. Informative and authoritative as it is, we hope "The Life of Henry Moore" does not close the case on the subject--for art's sake, as well as the artist's.

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