by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Henry Moore Foundation
Henry Moore at the 24th Venice Biennale, 1948

Moore and Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 14 October 1995


Henry Moore first came to Italy on a traveling scholarship in 1925. Ironically, the young sculptor made energetic efforts to be allowed to spend the time instead in Paris, then generally regarded as the artististic center of the universe. As things turned out, however, this somewhat reluctant pilgrim's initial Italian journey led to a lifelong association with the country, and ultimately to a radical transformation of his art.

Self-evidently gifted and hard-working, Moore never lacked admirers even in his student days, but it was not until he won, at the age of 50, the Sculpture Prize at the 1948 Venice Biennale, that he gained a world-wide reputation. He later bought a house near the famous Carrara marble quarries in Tuscany, and spent part of many years working there. Now, nine years after his death, Venice is host to a dazzling retrospective of his work, comprising 79 sculptures, over 60 drawings and engravings and 3 tapestries on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore (at the Fondazione Cini, through 26 November).

Moore was born the seventh of eight children in Castelford, a Yorkshire mining village, and early formed the ambition to be an artist, but in view of the probable hopelessness of ever making a living by following such a calling, was persuaded to become a teacher. The First World War proved his liberation - although he was almost killed in a gas attack on the way - since he became eligible as a veteran for a government grant to attend Leeds Art College, which soon led to his transfer to the Royal College of Art in London.

As the earliest pieces in this very well-thought out and impeccably presented show reveal, Moore acquired a precocious expressiveness and mastery of the techniques of traditional sculpture. A lesser artist might have been tempted to rest on his laurels even at this stage, but as the exhibition eloquently illustrates, whilst producing a succession of notable works, it took Moore the best part of 20 years to evolve a style uniquely and inimitably his own.

Like many of his contemporaries, Moore was fascinated by African and other 'primitive' artistic cultures, and he spent many hours studying them in the V&A and British Museums, developing a particular affinity with Aztec sculpture. His pieces were sufficiently avant-garde to be included in the London Surrealist and New York Cubism and Abstract Art shows of 1936, yet he never became truly aligned with any 'school'.

Curiously, the London Underground played a fortuitously key role in his career. His first major commission was a bas-relief for the London Underground's headquarters at St. James's Park Station in 1928. And a dozen years later, by a quirk of fate, it was to be in the Underground that he encountered scenes that were to profoundly influence his work.

When Hitler's bombs began to fall on London, the official air-raid shelters hastily provided proved woefully insufficient and often incapable of protecting their occupants. In response tens of thousands of Londoners took refuge from the night raids on the Underground's stairways and platforms, despite the authorities' best efforts to prevent them. When Moore joined them he underwent an almost mystical experience, carrying away with him the eerie vision of this huddled, sleeping mass, dimly-discerned in subdued light, and afterwards making dozens of sketches from memory of their recumbent forms.

This unforseen epiphany had a further extraordinary consequence, as Moore later related, in that the Italian art which he had come so much to admire and had assiduously studied, but which until then he had found impossible to integrate with his own style, suddenly became fully available to him, offering him new ways of capturing the wartime scenes he was encountering and of expressing himself as an artist in general. Encouraged, Moore returned to his native village to sketch miners working underground, an experience which he regarded as important in extending his understanding of the male body - though the female body remained the inspiration of nearly all his works.

One of the principal strengths of the present show is the juxtapostion of Moore's drawings and engravings with his sculptures, many of his works on paper showing a powerful and unusual sense of color as well as form. Serendipitous byeways include his sketches of the sheep outside his studio window at Perry Green in Hertfordshire (now the home of the Henry Moore Foundation, which has loaned most of the works), which are charmingly reminiscent of Samuel Palmer's pastoral scenes.

Moore's ceasless efforts to extend the boundaries of his endeavours is majestically confirmed by three superb tapestries made from his designs and realized during his last years by the artist-craftsmen at West Dean College in Sussex. On returning from his first trip to Italy, Moore had declared that the best sculptures he had come upon there were Giotto's paintings. And this trio of paradoxically painterly, beautifully-colored, woven works demonstrates both how fully-rounded an artist he was, and how completely he absorbed the lessons of his great predecessors and fused them with his own distinctive vision.

But perhaps the single most important revelation that emerges from the presentation of so many pieces spanning Moore's whole career in an Italian setting is that, despite his unquestionable 'modernity', the primary inspiration of even his seemingly most abstract productions never ceased to be the human body, and in this respect Moore represents not a break with the past but a continuation of the traditions of the Classical and Renaissance artists and the anonymous African and South American masters he strove all his life to emulate.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023