BOOKS OCTOBER 22, 1945
A review of Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings.
This volume in plan and execution is in everyway worthy of its subject. It has large, especially clear reproductions of all the artist’s sculpture, plus many drawings, some in color; the introduction is by Herbert Read, apparently the most active enthusiast of modernist art in England; Henry Moore’s own writings are included; finally, there is a biographical chronology, a bibliography, and a photograph of the artist. The book is big enough, and physically attractive. One is bound to hope that not all of those who would derive deep pleasure from it will be prevented by the price from having it.
Henry Moore’s accomplishment, in becoming the first major figure in art to appear in Britain in generations, is of magnitude under any circumstances; it is more remarkable in that his work was realized at home, not in pre-Nazi Germany or in Paris, that is to say, realized in a segment of the hostile and plastically ignorant English-speaking world. For this reason every British or American artist watches him with excitement, good will and admiration.
The actual nature of this work is not easy to explain to a literary public. Perhaps the plainest preliminary is tosay that he loves the forms, at once concrete and abstract, but not very representational, of our great international modernist style, that he constantly employs these forms with great virtuosity, that he has borrowed them, since he is not especially inventive, from nearly everyone, among others Arp, Brancusi, Chirico, Giacometti, Klee, Laurens, Lipchitz, Miró, Zadkine and, above all, Picasso; but that, despite this, his work is not essentially abstract, but traditional and naturalistic. It is as though he did not fully comprehend the ends of abstraction, but loved its forms sensuously, as one might love an Eskimo object without knowing what it was for. Standing onthe frontier of an absolute conception, he remains an empiricist and undecided; then sometimes he plunges, without premeditation. His quality is not universal at all, but personal and romantic:
As far as my own experience is concerned, I sometimes begin a drawing with no preconceived problem to solve, with only the desire to use pencil on paper, and I make lines, tones, shapes with no conscious aim; but as my mind takes in what is so produced, a point arrives where some idea becomes conscious and crystallizes, and then a control and ordering take place.
This is kin to the technique of automatism systemized by the surrealists. It has been a constant resource, with differing functions, for Ernst, Klee, Masson, Miró and Picasso—a weapon for inventing forms. Some of these forms, though concrete in being tactile and visual, are abstract.
Everyone understands abstraction from nature, whether in art or science: it is a mode of selection. There is another kind, abstraction from the possible, which, though it may ultimately refer to the background of experience, can be taken (for certain purposes) as an internal and, if necessary, arbitrary system of relations, such as can be found in logic or mathematics. The late Piet Mondrian was the most thorough and consistent constructor among artists of such an abstract structure; and these abstract means were related to a clear and intelligible end: the union, and in being a union, a dissolution of painting, sculpture and architecture into a harmonious ensemble. As early as 1912, when Henry Moore was still a youth, the friend and appreciator of the cubist painters, Guillaume Apollinaire, saw the point: “When sculpture departs from nature it becomes architecture.” It is for this reason that representation of any kind disappeared from Mondrian’s work. What has to be insisted on is a relation between means and ends.
It is hard to believe that Henry Moore is profoundly interested in architecture. He is an isolé and romantic living in a traditional and literary country. Rather than relate, he dominates, by virtue of his powerful personality.
Still, he is much taken by modern sculptural forms, and by other media—painting, drawing, collage, and perhaps mathematical objects. These last, extremely beautiful and complex models made by mathematicians to represent equations, may have suggested the general character of Moore’s most advanced and eloquent creations, his so-called “stringed figures.” Imagine large stones, or columns of lead or hard wood profoundly indented, so that planes stick out, all elegantly curved; and the planes perforated, with colored strings or metal wires drawn through, as across an imaginary and many-stringed guitar. These objects are beautiful to behold, and nearly purely esthetic. They constitute a complete contradiction to his most recent work, a “Madonna and Child” commissioned by St. Matthew’s Church, Southampton. The solution of this contradiction must be his present problem. On what solution depends the Value his creations will exhibit to the future.