I think a very good case could be made that Henry Moore was the most influential sculptor of the 20th century. He is certainly my favorite, along with Marino Marini, and for me, one of the greatest creators of pure form ever.
Moore was born in 1898 to a large family in West Yorkshire, England. He had a happy, though frugal home life and a long, stable marriage and family of his own. He showed great talent early and quickly received scholarships to first, the Leeds College of Art and then the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. Though schooled in the classical traditions, through exposure to ethnographic work in London museums, and then trips to Paris, he was seduced by the”primitive”. Picasso, Arp, Giacometti, and Brancusi were all influences on how to create a new formal vocabulary that owed much to African and Meso-American art.
The piece on the left is a cast of Toltec-Mayan piece from Chichen Itza. The one on the right, an earlyish work of Moore’s. The effect of the stone carving from Mexico was to reverberate throughout his career. Moore said that the “power of expression ” of the primitive, was much deeper and more vital than the “beauty of expression” of classical forms. His embrace of the “primitive” was part of an attempt by many artists and philosophers at the time, to find new meaning and connection to the essential human spirit. Many felt that industialization and materialism had stagnated culture and alienated people. Moore, like Picasso, was set free by the power of the “primitive.”
Picasso was influenced to simplify and flatten, as he “fractured” the tradional notion of three dimensional space in a two dimensional universe ( i.e. the canvas). Moore went on to liberate and extend the broad, simplified forms into a more full 3D reality, then to punch holes through the forms, and simultaneously explore negative and positive space as well as concave and convex.
Moore was drawn right away to a very anthropomorphic abstraction of the human form and particularly female figures. His early practice was in the technique of direct carving where he would whittle away at stone to discover his forms. This earlier work concentrated on mass.
On the left is his first public commission, done in 1928-29. It shows the influence of both Michaelangelo, whom he admired most among classical sculptors, and the Toltec-Mayan piece (shown above), that he had seen at the Louvre.
His transition to more modern forms is documented in his sketchbooks. He was a passionate draughtsman his entire life, and, in fact his drawing, during WWll inspired his fellow countrymen and greatly added to his public renown and esteem.
Moore was also drawn to mother and child poses in both earlier and later work.te
Even his pure abstractions are biomorphic in feeling. He also started piercing forms with open space, and in later works, opening space directly in figurative forms, and exploring convex and concave spaces.
However, throughout his career, the crown jewels of his work, and most beloved motif, was the reclining female. Here are some of his extraordinary pieces.
By the late 40′s and early 50′s Moore was working such large public commissions that
he had to work in small maquettes, gradually having bigger models made, and then casting in bronze with the lost wax technique. He had come full circle from the classical method he turned against, to direct carving, then back again. The reality of his need to turn out huge pieces for public commissions, dominated. “The difference between modelling and carving is that modelling is a quicker thing, and so it becomes a chance to get rid of one’s ideas.”
Henry Moore was hugely successful in his time. He was plied with honors by the Crown, but turned down a knighthood, feeling it would alienate him from like minded artists. He established The Henry Moore Foundation, to promote public appreciation of art, and prerserve his work. He died in 1986 at his home in Hertfordshire, where he was laid to rest.
Moore always had a large collection of skulls, driftwood, rocks, shells, etc., so that he would always have natural forms in front of him. For him the human form was indistinguishable from a shell or a rock as a sublime manifestation of nature. In whatever method or material he worked in , his legacy of elegant, spacious, sensual forms is extraordinary. A true gift to the world.