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Henry Moore, Without the Preconceptions

The British sculptor didn't always make his signature bronzes. Ever seen his bomb-shelter drawings?

July 15, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In an era that hasn't forgotten the adage "Less is more," it may seem strange to acknowledge that sometimes more is more. But that's the idea behind a massive Henry Moore retrospective at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

"Hopefully what this show will do is to counteract the common cliche that everyone has in mind of Henry Moore, which is large outdoor bronzes," says Steve Nash, chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the Legion of Honor is part.

"Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century" includes six of those works in its outdoor courtyard, but then it also offers up over 170 more surprising pieces--sketches, models and more modest-sized sculpture in a variety of woods and stones, dating from Moore's student days in the early 1920s to late in his life. In short, there is more to Moore than meets the mind's eye.

About a third of the works are on loan from private collections and museums, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and the Tate in London. The rest have been lent by the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire, England, which was set up in 1977 by the artist to help manage his creative output and promote the arts in general.

The foundation's holdings, explains its head of collections and exhibition, David Mitchinson, originally didn't constitute a collection, but a "conglomeration of what happened to exist. We might have five casts of the same thing or huge gaps in the [chronology of the] drawings. What we've done is to sell off things [and acquired others] to form a collection." Today, the foundation maintains gallery space as well as an outdoor sculpture garden at Moore's estate, between London and Cambridge.

For "Sculpting the 20th Century," Mitchinson worked with Dorothy Kosinski, curator of European art at the Dallas Museum of Art, where the show originated. The aim was to combine the foundation's holdings with other loans in the hopes of illuminating not just the scope of Moore's work and his mastery of many materials, but his process and evolution as well.

"This drawing on the wall there goes so well with this sculpture," he says, pointing to a pencil, ink and wash drawing, "Two Upright Forms" (1936), in which the artist is working out two vertical abstract forms on paper. Nearby stands the related sculpture, "Two Forms" (1936), made of stone and borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The drawing was purchased by the foundation only a few years ago with just such a juxtaposition in mind. "We knew that one day we would put the drawing with the sculpture," Mitchinson says. "The drawing with it is fantastic."

The seventh of eight children, Moore was born a miner's son in Castleford, in the north of England. His father set high goals for all his children, and Moore said he resolved to become a sculptor upon hearing of Michelangelo when he was around 10. After serving briefly in World War I, he entered Leeds School of Art on a veteran's scholarship in 1920. A year later, he moved to London with a scholarship to the Royal College of Art.

After reading Roger Fry's "Vision and Design," with its chapters on "Negro Sculpture" and "Ancient American Art," and discovering the British Museum, Moore became fascinated by ancient art from Egypt, Greece, Oceania, Africa and pre-Columbian America. He later said that pre-Columbian art was most influential on his 1920s works. A compact sculpture, "Dog," from 1922 and a very Aztec-looking "Head" from 1923, as well as pages from his student sketchbook, show the results.

As Mitchinson writes in the exhibition catalog, "[T]he influence of primitive art ... had, in my opinion, a more sustained impact on Moore's work than on the work of any other major 20th century painter or sculptor."

At the same time, Moore also embraced the romantic notion of "truth to the material" then current in art circles. On this issue, says Kosinski, "Moore and his compatriots had what has been called a 'campfire religiosity.' There was this sense of passion, this notion of finding the form from within the material. The material was not arbitrary, it was not a neutral substance but was deeply allied to the subject matter."

From the beginning, Moore concentrated on the human figure. Among his earliest sculpture is a mother-and-child grouping, and in drawings of his sister Mary, in 1926, and his mother, in 1927, both in the show, his predilection for rendering solid, even monumental female forms is clear. "What's interesting to me about these early drawings is how sculptural they are," Nash points out, "There's an exaggerated sense of three-dimensionality, like the heaviness of proportion. To me these are really sculptor's drawings."

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