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Henry Moore (1898 − 1986)

Venice Biennale participation

Group show
1930 1948 1952 1954
Other exhibitions
1948 1964 1972

In his own words,

for the 1948 Venice Biennale – the first one after the war – the British Council decided to have just my sculpture and Turner paintings, which was a very sensible thing.

Though he featured at other Biennales, this was the show that won Moore the International Sculpture prize, and established his - and the Pavilion's - post-war international reputations.

In 1925, Moore had spent a rather less successful spell in Venice, on a scholarship from the Royal College of Art to study the Old Masters with
his best friend's fiancee, Edna Ginesi ('Gin'), with whom he'd fallen in love. Feeling isolated from the "primitive" carvings in Paris and Berlin he'd actually wanted to see, running up an enormous hotel bill, and having been unsurprisingly rejected by the fiancée on account of the groom-to-be, Raymond Coxon, he came the closest he ever would to a nervous breakdown.

In Roger Berthoud's reckoning, however, the experience 'helped to make him determined to take his place in the mainstream of European culture'. This was exactly what he did in 1948, with a selection of stone, wooden, bronze, terracotta and concrete sculptures, and 32 drawings.

Joining up in 1917 had ended what Moore called 'the most miserable' period of his life as an under-confident schoolteacher at his old Elementary School in Castleford. Out of the 400 men of his unit, only 42 survived a gas attack at Cambrai, and, on being demobbed, he wrote to a friend 'if God were 'Almighty', the things I saw & experienced, […] would, could never have been'. Yet in old age, in a voice which still bore the effects of the gas, he called it 'a very good experience', which 'passed in a kind of romantic haze of hoping to be a hero'.

He went back to teaching aware of 'how to exercise control', and, on the advice of his old art teacher Alice Gostick, applied for an ex-serviceman's grant to study at Leeds College of Art. As he remembered, 'sculpture was not a popular art form in England in those days'; the College had no department when Moore arrived in 1919, and Reginald Cotterill set one up especially for him in his second year.

On the first day at College, he met Coxon, Gin, and Barbara Hepworth, who was '17 years old and a very pretty girl'. As she and Moore became 'like a younger sister and an older brother', Hepworth switched to sculpture, and became his only serious competitor' in the 1930s, according to Berthoud.

Moore had a nicely Yorkshire analogy for the limited support around for modern art in the 1920s: 'when you put a tight lid on a kettle you develop quite a head of steam.' When the group went down to the Royal College in 1921, they enjoyed the mentorship of William Rothenstein, who would be Moore's co-exhibitor at the pre-British Council 1930 Biennale. Fresh back from the artistic excitement of Paris, Rothenstein invited his student Sunday dinner parties where they could meet people like Yeats and Eliot. That year, Moore and Coxon met Jacob Epstein, and saw the collection of 'primitive' carvings in his bedroom. With a civility he rarely extended to fellow artists, Epstein later praised Moore's 'integrity to the central idea of sculpture…the relation of masses', and called him 'vitally important' for the future of English sculpture.

As the modern artist who followed Epstein to in the Pavilion, Moore's sculpture has done a huge amount of ambassadorial work for his native country, and for its art, not least as a mainstay of the British Council Collection. This is thanks in no small part to the critic and Venice Selection Committee member Herbert Read, who wrote in the Pavilion catalogue that Moore had been researching 'a common world-language of form': an ambitious search for a kind of pre-Babelian way of communicating.

At the British Museum, where he had been, on his first visit, 'like a starved man having Selfridges grocery department all to himself', and in Paris, to which he made regular pilgrimages with Hepworth, Moore developed what Read called a 'critical approach […] to primitive art.' The Egyptian pieces were 'too stylized and hieratic', the Assyrian reliefs were merely 'journalistic commentaries', but the female figures in the Archaic Greek room were 'seated in easy, still naturalness, grand and full like Handel's music', and the ancient Mexican sculpture seemed 'true and right'. Momentarily disregarding time, it was one artist admiring another's craft, the way Lucian Freud would later call Frank Auerbach's composition 'as right as walking down the street.'

Its stoniness, by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form- invention, and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, made it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture.

Moore admitted Leeds City Art Gallery's brown Hornton stone Reclining Figure (1929), one of the earliest works at the Biennale (the latest was the British Council's bronze Family Group (1947)), and 'the best sculpture I had done up to then' was 'influenced by the Mexican sculpture, particularly by the Chac-Mool figure'. He had found the international language, the sculptural Esperanto: 'truth to material'.

Before he left for his scholarship, Moore lacked fluency. Carving Mother and Child (1924–5), he was too worried about weakening the material to cut through it, and left both figures without necks. John Skeaping, then Hepworth's husband, was probably the first British sculptor to cut all the way through a piece of stone in 1930, the year he co-exhibited with Moore and Rothenstein at the Biennale. By the time Paul Nash was launching his artistic collective Unit One with its inaugural 1933 publication, however, Moore could write

[…] a piece of stone can have a hole through it and not be weakened – if the hole is of a studied size, shape and direction. On the principle of an arch, it can remain just as strong.

The first hole made through a piece of stone is a revelation.

The Biennale selections neatly traced these thought processes: Reclining Figure (1929) and Girl (1931) have gently-hollowed spaces in the hook of the elbows, whereas the wartime Reclining Figure (No. 1) (1945) is almost more hole than stone. String Figure No.1 (1937), a cherry-wood cylinder daringly hacked away to leave taut Naum Gabo-ish strings in the spaces, corresponded to Read's idea of Moore finding a primitive piece in which the sculptor had discovered

that wood, for example, has a stringy, fibrous consistency and can be carved into thin forms without breaking, and thus a freedom of form is possible in wood-carving which would not be appropriate to stone.

World War II stopped Britain sending artists to Venice from 1938 till 1948, and during this period, Moore became a War Artist. Although he claimed he never 'made any direct sketches' of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground as 'it would have been like making sketches in the hold of a slave ship', Moore clearly found something hugely moving in the shadowy gallery of huddled human forms they presented. In the Pavilion catalogue, Read called the drawings 'some of the most realistic records that London possesses of its war-time experience.'

In 1976, Moore told the BBC's Barry Penrose that 'the British Council did more for me as an artist than any dealer'. It was a debt he repaid three years later by writing an influential letter to warn Margaret Thatcher, – a fan – against cutting its funding. Though the Council organized and cost-shared Moore exhibitions across his lifetime, it was 1948 that he considered to have laid 'the foundation' of the 'international side' of his career, as his Biennale selection followed a high-profile retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Having Moores alongside Turners didn't just make sense in terms of drawing in the crowds; Moore felt an affinity with an artist who focussed on 'the glories of nature and of life' and

painted real space for the first time. Space that has almost a solid quality that a fog can have, that smoke can have […] for me as a sculptor, three-dimensional space, whether it is made of solid stone, or it is made of cloud, or it is made of distance between a few things – it is form. And for me, [Turner] is the one person who did this.

Post-Venice - Moore's fiftieth year - his approach continued to evolve; 1951's Reclining Figure was an attempt 'to make the forms & the spaces (not holes) inseparable, neither being more important than the other.' By this point he was producing work at production-line rates at Hoglands, the converted Hertfordshire pig farm he had fled the Blitz to with his wife Irina in 1940.

Sending monumental works all over the world, he increasingly worked by making maquettes, and employing the next generation - Anthony Caro and Phillip King - to work them into fully-realised sculpture. Though he moved away from the hands-on 'Truth to material' stance, he stuck to the way Read's Biennale catalogue text described his craft to a new global audience:

Moore's studio is in the country, about fifty kilometres to the north of London, and here he works peacefully, unhurriedly, but with a concentration and complete dedication to his craft.

Tom Overton, 2009.

Sources

Henry Moore and John Hedgecoe, Henry Moore: My Ideas, Inspiration and Life as an Artist (London: Ebury Press, 1986).

Julian Andrews, London's War: The Shelter Drawings of Henry Moore (Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2002).

Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore [revised edition] (Giles de la Mare: London, 2003).

Alan Bowness, 'Art and an artist worthy of worship', The Times, 2nd September 1986.

Judith Collins, 'Skeaping, John Rattenbury (1901–1980)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, May 2008, accessed 11th November 2008.

Ionel Jianou, trans. Geoffry Skelding, Henry Moore (Paris: Arted, 1968).

Dorothy Kosinski, ed., Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century (New Haven and London: Dallas Museum of Art/Yale UP, 2001)

David Mitchinson, ed., Celebrating Moore: Works in the Collection of the Henry Moore Foundation (London: Lund Humphries, 1998).

Herbert Read, Sculpture and Drawings by Henry Moore [Vencice exh. cat.](London: British Council, 1948).

Henry J. Seldis, Henry Moore in America (London: Phaidon, 1973).

Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein, with a complete catalogue (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986).

Alan Wilkinson, 'Moore, Henry Spencer (1898–1986),' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, May 2008, accessed 30th October 2008.

Alan Wilkinson, ed. & intr., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations (Berkeley, LA: California UP, 2002).

http://www.henry-moore-fdn.co.uk/

Find images of Henry Moore's work on our Collection website

Images

Henry Moore and his daughter Mary in the studio with Upright Internal External Form 1952-53

Henry Moore and his daughter Mary in the studio with Upright Internal External Form 1952-53

  • Henry Moore The Artist\'s Feet: Two Studies (1979)
  • Henry Moore in the London Underground, taken during the filming of Out of Chaos (1943)
  • Moore with Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, Italy 1972
  • Irina Radetzky photographed by Moore around the time of their marriage in Summer 1929
  • Henry and Irina camping in Suffolk (1929)
  • Hoglands
  • Henry Moore Much Hadham 23rd July 1982 David Hockney
  • Moore working on drawing Reclining Woman on Seashore (1983)
  • Moore enjoying Calder's Museum of Modern Art New York exhibition catalogue inscribed 'My best to Har
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