You could wonder about the prudence of presenting Henry Moore to the public for this 24 February to 8 August 2010 revisionist exhibition at Tate Britain under the heading of ‘anything but gentle’. This is how Christopher Stephens, editor of the catalogue, sidelines the Moore of the public sculptures in new towns and the great cast forms in concrete plazas before glass and steel façades: not that they need sidelining exactly, having grown practically invisible – the fate of art that’s made a part of the habitually endured environment.

Yet the challenge of making Moore’s work visibly significant in the currently credit-crunched art climate is a noble one. The waters in which the project must swim are indicated by Stephens’ suggesting that his art may lack ‘the critical rigour that would earn it respect from contemporary practitioners and critics’. Actions, even action painting, used to speak louder than words. Ryan Gander, quoted in Jon Wood’s ‘Apropos Moore’ – a discussion of Moore’s legacies for contemporary British artists – describes the sculptor as ‘a man who enjoyed making art more than being an artist and I imagine his was a practice practised rather than a practice understood, maybe even by him’. Moore wrote in The Listener that it is a ‘mistake for a sculptor or painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work’, recalled by his daughter Mary in her foreword to Henry Moore: On Being a Sculptor, also published to coincide with this exhibition. Not only does understanding your practice, out loud, release tensions needed for the work, it over-determines artworks’ significances before the fact of their making, and prevents artists from ‘understanding’ what they are doing in the very process of doing it. But, after the fact, Moore was an able talker about himself and his art. His saying on a black-and-white television in my family’s living room, around 1970, words to the effect that beauty was a by-product, that if you aimed for it you would not get it, has stayed with me as a talismanic aphorism.

Among the material that Alan Wilkinson collected in Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations (University of California Press, 2002) is this on Herbert Read, Moore’s friend and champion, from an obituary memoir in The Sunday Times: ‘In politics he was an anarchist, but the gentlest anarchist one will ever know’. The sculptor recalls a quotation from Lenin in Read’s Art Now (1933) about how ‘artists were a special sort of person and easily damaged’. Why then underline Moore’s being ‘anything but gentle’? Stephens’ revisionism highlights the smaller-scale carving of the 1920s and earlier 1930s, and (recalling Adrian Stokes’ contrast of ‘carving’ and ‘modelling’) the sculpting of resistant materials requires concentrated energy and repeatedly applied force. Yet, equally, the ‘truth to materials’ movement called for an informed attention to the resistances the wood or stone puts up. As well as having ‘attack’, the sculptor must curb aggression so as not to ruin the stone by an inopportune direction of force. Further, the presentation of sculptures can occasion degrees of polish and finish deployed or abstained from in making the work ready for public display. Figure (1923) in Verde di Prato contrasts the smooth finish of the woman’s skin with her hair left rough.

A carefully modulated aggression is at the heart of carving. The character of the artist’s engagement with the materials is manifested directly in the characteristics of the object viewed. The degrees of attack, of rubbing, polishing and caressing, are presented as values in the lit planes of the finished work – as can be felt in the presence of Reclining Figure (1929) in brown Horton stone, wonderfully evoked by Anthony Gormley in his comments for the catalogue: ‘its veining visible in the surface that still carries the marks of the chisel, bored holes as eyes and nipples (not vagina), the block acknowledged in the massive integral base like a great stone mattress’ and he adds that it draws on ‘Etruscan funerary monuments which all stare death in the face’.

Artists understand their techniques in such metaphorical terms: this is how what Moore calls ‘form-meaning’ can be influenced by both the identity of the artist and pressures in the moment when the work is being made. Moore insisted on an obsession with sex and religion in the ‘primitive’ sculpture that he studied in the British Museum in the 1920s. Kleinian psychoanalytic theory, as applied to art-making by Stokes, would see the dynamics of infantile attack and reparative integrating as crucial both to the viewer’s invitation into the work and to the reinforcing of separateness and wholeness drawn from encountering the completed object.

Such dynamics of aggression and repair were acted out in human environments on a terrifying scale during Moore’s lifetime, and the fate of his art – its trajectory – reveals the stages of Moore’s changing relationship to these conflicts and his attempted integration of forces and values. The Great War, in which both Moore and Read fought, complicated the relation of modern art to early sculpture. The ‘Toltec-Maya Chacmool’ figure, which Moore called ‘about as good a piece of sculpture as I know’, lies on its back, knees raised, with upright head and terrified look turned to one side, holding a bowl-like form in its midriff. The meaning of the position and sculpture is unknown, but looks to me like a sacrificial figure immediately before the act of blood-letting (Read refers to it as ‘the Rain Spirit’ in his 1965 Henry Moore, confusing it – according to Wikipedia – with Chaac, a Mayan deity). Truth to materials is then a form of ‘honesty’ about human motivations, opposing the self-deception of European civilisation which had produced its own indiscriminate blood-letting, the ‘sacrifice’ of a generation, as you might say, to the religions of technology and tribal superiority.

So is the ‘anything but gentle’ aspect of Moore’s neo-primitivism an enacted analogy for the violence inherent in our culture, or an attempt to influence that culture with a curbed aggression simultaneously alive to truths of our predicament that civilisation had denied? I do not know that there is an answer to such a question: but brutal technological warfare had made the form of modern art fearfully ambiguous, as can be sensed in these remarks of 1934 by Carl Einstein, cited by Jennifer Mundy in her ‘Comment on England’ essay: ‘let us signal here the total collapse of the rational individual, the distrust of the domination of reason, the deep “primitivisation” of man’. Revulsion from the Great War’s horrors is heralding conditions for its louder reprise.

Yet the strength of Moore’s earlier work derives from his ability to contain those ambiguities in the vitally coherent forms of his smaller-scale single figures and nursing pairs. In the case of the latter, parent and offspring are not regarding each other in the white alabaster Mother and Child and the one in green Horton stone, both from 1932; they can even appear (as in the 1930 Ancaster stone Mother and Child) in states of apparent conflict, common enough with restless babies and tired mothers, but here fixed upon as emblems of endured human fate. Yet these mute antagonisms are mitigated by the sculptures’ enlivened surfaces. Lyndsey Stonebridge explores such dynamics in A Love of Beginnings: Henry Moore and Psychoanalysis, citing Stokes’ early review of Moore at the Leicester Galleries in 1933. In the ‘Mother and Child’ series of 1930 to 1932, represented aggression and non-recognition are subsumed within the positive values of the truth-to-materials aesthetic: the blossoming stone, the enhanced grain in the polished finish, and the fact that mother and child both emerge from the same block.

David Alan Mellor describes Moore’s images of figures sleeping on platforms, in his ‘And oh! the stench’: Spain, the Blitz, Abjection and the Shelter Drawings’, as ‘the hinge point of his development as an artist’. What struck me was that the two examples of works from 1940, Women and Children in the Tube (said to be the first of the series, from September or more likely October) and Grey Tube Shelter with its anecdotal Underground logo, have an exploratory and improvisational feel, their paper surface warmly enlivened by wax-resist, washes and drawing, like a reminiscence of the stone surfaces in his carvings. But after his recruitment by Kenneth Clark as a War Artist, the much-in-demand works from 1941 tend to be darker and colder, more insistently outlined, the figures abstracted into emblematic ‘abjection’, and most of all the modelling of limbs or torsos generalised, schematic and scratchily repetitive. Moore said that his 1942 pictures recording miners at the coalface, also on display, were less successful than the Tube works. Yet the simplifying of his art for the war effort, however noble in motivation, may have split apart the ambiguous aspects of his art’s formality. The threat and reality of aggression overwhelmed the artist’s necessary attack both embodied in, and formally mitigated by, art-making.

Picasso’s Guernica, which Moore had seen in progress in 1937, is the world- famous instance of modern art’s formal inventiveness, fixated upon expressive possibilities in dismemberment, being deployed both as figuring and expressing aggression against bodies and as protesting against such aggression. Mellor notes the influence of figures from the painting on Moore, and its travelling celebrity (it visited the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1939) exemplified how a supposedly anti-humanist art could be deployed against the violence of a far more anti-humanist war machine. Yet the ambiguity that Guernica memorably embodies is itself a precarious one (frequently noted in comparisons with his 1951 Massacre in Korea). The hinge in Moore’s development shows him, rather, succumbing to the pull of these conflicted forces, so that protest against aggression, its mitigation, and the symbolising of

protection from violence are separated out in distinct Second World War and Cold War works: The Helmet (1939-40) and Helmet Head No.1 (1950), the Maquette for Mother and Child (1952) that seems made of shrapnel, the Fallen Warrior (1956-7), and the mushroom cloud Atom Piece (1964-5). Moore did not describe the ‘Toltec- Maya Chacmool’ as a protest against blood sacrifice, admiring nonetheless its ‘stillness and alertness, a sense of readiness’. His ‘Mother and Child’ sculptures are not protests against distracted mums or infantile selfishness. They confront and work with those facts in the resistant medium. When he represents mothers and children in Underground stations during the Blitz he is making a protest and insisting in his techniques on a statement about human indifference to harm.

The idea that Moore is ‘anything but gentle’ is, then, perhaps beside the point. Making any kind of real art is not a gentle activity, anyway; but nor is it a violent or aggressive one either. After all, the gentleness of a person is not something we admire because the person is incapable of cruelty: we admire it because the power to hurt is in us all – but gentle people have made efforts not to deploy it. What the best art, and the best of Moore’s art, does is exercise that power at a safe distance, where the only person likely to get hurt is the artist, if he or she misuses the chisel. The power to hurt is transformed in making art. In successful work, the pain we may cause is acted out and recast in an experience of resolved or, at the very least, balanced conflict, of imagined texture and felt pleasure in the holding environment of a home world. The damage to Moore’s art produced by the dual forces of mid twentieth century violence, real or threatened, and of the urge in himself (supported by his great advocates Read and Clark) to make his art stand against such violence, pulls the needful aggression, about which an artist is likely to feel anxiety, away from the consequent need to mitigate it in finished work. As a consequence, the artist exploits aggression in expressive protest against that ever- present, far more overwhelming aggression, and the holding environment may be sentimentalised – as in the two small Rocking Chair (1950) sculptures of mothers playing with babies and, perhaps, the family groups in new town precincts.

Yet this exhibition also invites us not to forget the example his life’s work offers, with its extraordinarily varied placings of a ‘biomorphic’ monumental modernism in parkland, precinct, and corporate space. However weakened from its pioneering amalgam of primitive and civilising urges in the stone carving of the 1920s and early 1930s, his oeuvre does, nonetheless, tell the difficult story of modern art’s struggles with the forces that actively sought to annihilate it. Britain had become the exilic home of not a few ‘degenerate’ artists (Oskar Kokoschka and Kurt Schwitters, for example) during the years Moore was making his drawings in the Underground. We are reminded of what would have happened by Richard Calvocoressi’s Moore, the Holocaust and Cold War Politics, documenting the sculptor’s involvement in judging competitions for commemorative works on the unknown political prisoner and Auschwitz. If the trajectory of Henry Moore’s art must be characterised as a Phyrric victory on the Kulturkampf front of these struggles, we should nevertheless continue to celebrate, and be eternally grateful for, the victory that it proved to be.

Henry Moore is showing at Tate Britain until 8 August 2010

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.