Best of British

Nicholas Penny

Henry Moore was attracted by the idea of monumentality. He tried hard, but with limited success, to find ways of incorporating his sculpture into modern buildings. He also had the attractive idea of locating some of his statues in remote settings, following the example of his friend the late Sir William Keswick, who placed four of Moore’s sculptures, as well as one by Rodin and one by Epstein, in the wild landscape of the estate he owned in south-west Scotland. The setting is commemorated by John Haddington’s fine photographs, and the initiative richly documented by John McEwen (Keswick’s nephew), in Glenkiln. The sculpture by Moore which is most eloquent in this context is the bronze seated King and Queen of 1952-3. McEwen quotes Moore saying that the subject owed something to the bedtime stories he read to his daughter. Their majesties look like survivors of a distant age, an effect enhanced by the fact that they recall the lean, tense warriors of archaic Greek and Etruscan sculpture which was cast in bronze directly from small wax models, as well as the ‘pair statues’ of ancient Egypt who seem resolved to face an unknown future together and alone.

Many of Moore’s late large works, and especially the more massive of them, seem inflated: his earliest sculpture was more consistently grand in conception, even when small in size. The subjects of his finest pre-war sculptures were intimately related with the astonishing variety of materials he employed, ranging from alabaster to serpentine, from clay to concrete, from marble to lead. The material not only helped to suggest the subject, but often seemed to embody ideas of growth, vulnerability, protection, rugged endurance, molten softness. But all too many of his huge bronzes reproduce merely the surface of a huge plaster of Paris model scraped into shape. Ironically, working on a monumental scale involved a loss.

In his short, ardent, posthumous book Peter Fuller concedes that there was some unevenness in Moore’s sculpture, but he has no time for the ‘waves of intellectuals’ who have expressed serious reservations in recent decades. Moore is presented as an embodiment of ancient sagacity, a lonely figure, a king in exile, hailed at last by his lost son, Fuller. Moore was deeply interested in the relationship between the female body and the landscape and Fuller approves of his father figure for offering ‘a vision of woman as environment and of environment as woman’. Moore’s work turns out to be profoundly topical – green, but also patriotic, conservative, anti-Modernist, as Fuller was or rather had become. Fuller’s polemical intentions perhaps explain his lack of attention to the circumstances in which art was created and received in the first half of this century. Painting and sculpture that was regarded as ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’ or ‘avant-garde’ was only sometimes associated with an explicit interest in modern materials and subject-matter; African woodcarvings, fauns, pebbles and lobster-pots were quite as important as speed, nylon, neon and searchlights. Fuller, however, confuses modern art with Modernist architecture and assumes that an uncritical optimism concerning the achievements and prospects of modern civilisation was pervasive. He professes surprise that Henry Moore should have joined Unit One, a group founded by Paul Nash and dedicated to a ‘truly contemporary art’, because Moore’s sculpture had ‘sprung out of a reinterpretation of tradition, and involved looking intently at the sculpture of ancient civilisation of the distant past’. (The redundancy of ‘distant past’ is not atypical.) In fact, Moore’s sculpture had rejected the methods and priorities of over four hundred years of sculpture in Western Europe, and the ancient civilisations he was interested in were widely regarded as uncivilised. Fuller’s comment is equivalent to claiming that Picasso’s Demoiselles d’ Avignon had nothing to do with modern art since it owed so much to ancient Iberian sculpture and to tribal carvings. Of course a case can be made that Moore had a strongly conservative streak and when he did develop his relationship with Greek art there was no hint of irony in it. But to make such a case requires a delicacy which Fuller lacked.

Fuller sets up native Neo-Romanticism (or the ‘neo-Romantic revival’, as he confusingly calls it) in opposition to all the tendencies in European modern art which so clearly influenced Moore, completely disregarding the ways in which Neo-Romanticism was grafted onto Surrealism and even Cubism. Kenneth Clark, who supported British (Fuller actually says English) Neo-Romanticism and was a champion of Moore, Piper and Sutherland, was not a ‘great opponent of Modernism’ as Fuller claims. His Landscape into Art (1949) ends by relating Sutherland’s work to that of Klee and Miró, while The Nude (1956) culminates in an attempt to encourage appreciation of Brancusi, Matisse and Picasso and concludes by comparing Picasso and Moore and also, very ingeniously, by observing some analogies between Moore’s figures and the sculpture of the Parthenon.

‘This was a time,’ Fuller writes of 1948,

when there was a tremendous interest in British art, and in that peculiarly British cultural achievement which had its roots in the neo-Romantic revival of the Thirties and Forties, and which, unlike Futurism and Modernism, could never have led to Fascism. There was also a great optimism in our national cultural life: having won the war, we had also won the cultural leadership. There was a sense of the re-creation of a new world. It was the period of Bowlby, of Winnicott, and of the Festival of Britain.

There is something touching about Fuller’s confidence in the impact that the names of Bowlby and Winnicott would make and in his belief in the cultural might of the triumphant Britain of 1948.

But the passage as a whole is more nasty than naive. In what sense did Futurism and Modernism ‘lead to Fascism’? Does this mean that many artists prominent in one or other movement embraced Fascism (hardly true of Modernists), or that some ideas important to one or the other movement were also important for Fascism, or that when Fascism became powerful it adopted one or the other movement? Surely Fuller should have noted the sense of national identity and destiny, the revival of ancient tradition, which was fostered by Fascism. But Fuller is not writing here in a manner that encourages thought. This is rant.

Fuller saw that the greatness of Moore and of other artists of this period depended on an ‘affirmation of a form of imaginative life and of a tradition of technical and creative practices’ which the modern world ‘seemed determined to exclude’. Yet Modern Painters, the journal which Fuller founded, has as much in common with colour supplements and television chat-shows as with serious periodical literature. And much of Fuller’s own writing operated within, rather than against, the most pervasive force in modern cultural life – that branch of the fashion and entertainment industry which reduces, sweetens and wraps ideas, events and personalities for easy consumption, substituting for complex truth glib generalisations about the Victorians, Modernism, the Sixties or the ‘Thatcher era’. An especially crass example is his statement that ‘the early Victorians believed that their culture was better than any that had previously existed.’

The author’s prejudices and ignorance are at times appropriate to his subject. The view that European sculpture had been in decline since Michelangelo (Giambologna, Bernini, Legros, Roubiliac, Clodion, Canova included) and that this was related to the sculptors’ departure from a proper preoccupation with the primitive business of carving can be found in much writing by Moore’s contemporaries. Fuller repeats this theory, breezily mentioning the ‘use of machinery and modern productive techniques: i.e. an ever more extensive use of drills, pointing-up machines, “editions” of bronzes, and of craftsmen and foundries’. The drill is not a modern tool. It was far more important to ancient Greek, Roman and indeed medieval European sculpture than the claw chisel (which Fuller describes as a ‘primitive instrument’). There is no evidence that sculptors in bronze relied any less on the independent specialist skills of bronze founders in the 14th century than they did in the 19th.

It could be objected that Fuller was a critic not an art historian, but he fails to encourage us to look closely or carefully at any particular sculpture. At the centre of the book is Moore’s celebrated Northampton Madonna of 1943-4, ‘solemn, silent and serene’. This group is surely more popular than Moore’s other sculpture because the sentiment is obvious and easily separable from its formal appeal. Rather than analysing the sculpture, Fuller reminds the reader of the very different work of Francis Bacon and tells us that ‘in a sense, we are compelled to choose between these two antithetical visions of ourselves. We must decide whether, in a world apparently deserted by God, we prefer to see our fellow human beings as sacks of mutilated, spasm-ridden muscle; or as creatures still capable of composure, dignity and profound spiritual strength.’ Are we ‘compelled’ to assess works of art by their suitability as ensigns for a moral crusade?

To measure the part the Christian tradition and solidarity with a national past – both of which were stimulated by the emergencies of wartime – may have played in determining the unusually accessible nature of this sculpture is a task worthy of a sensitive and subtle historian. To assess how much of its appeal depends on the vulnerability of expression and tenderness of gesture – the former quality enhanced by the very faintness of the minimal features, the latter by the deliberate mitten-like clumsiness of Moore’s monumentality – is a task worthy of a sensitive and subtle critic. What we do not need is organ music and talk of England in her ‘travail’.