x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sculpture on a global scale

A new exhibition suggests the sculptor Henry Moore's influences were far removed from the northern English mining town where he grew up.

A woman admires Henry Moore's Reclining Figure 1951 on display at the Tate Britain.
A woman admires Henry Moore's Reclining Figure 1951 on display at the Tate Britain.

The sculptor Henry Moore's famous reclining figures are on display around the world, from Finland to Iran. Walk down Corniche Road in Jeddah and four of his enormous public works look out over the Red Sea. His pieces light up Hong Kong, Taiwan and, of course, the UK. A major retrospective of his work, currently on display at Tate Britain in London, goes some way towards explaining his global appeal.

The British artist, who died in 1986, is of course famous for his monumental sculptures, punctured with modernist holes, smooth curves and suggestive protrusions. But his influences, as this exhibition suggests almost as soon as you walk in the door, were some distance removed from the northern English mining town where he grew up. Ancient Mexican art, and particularly the Mesoamerican stone statues - which he first saw in the Louvre in Paris in 1924 - had a profound effect on him. It's no surprise that the piece he first clamped his eyes on during that trip to Paris was, naturally, a reclining figure.

And Moore's interest in African sculpture was also key. For him, it offered a permanence and an alternative to the horrors of the First World War. His notebooks of this post-war period - also on display at Tate Britain - are full of Egyptian, Peruvian and Oceanic-influenced sketches. Today, there's something incredibly satisfying about work so clearly influenced by South American and African art taking pride of place at two separate museums in Mexico City, at galleries in Venezuela, Argentina and Johannesburg.

In a way, that's not completely surprising; a recent survey suggested that Moore's body of work comprises a staggering 12,000 items. He made no apology for returning to the same subjects again and again. His Mother and Child works - again influenced by Native American art - were, as he put it himself, "an inexhaustible motif" that always offered him new possibilities, even if the viewer has to really concentrate to see the differences.

This, of course, has a downside. Moore became the go-to guy for British town planners wishing to make a statement about their shiny new conurbations built out of the rubble of the Second World War. And, in the end, such ubiquity has become something of a problem for critics tired of his omnipresence in 20th-century art. But it is good - great, even - to be able to stand outside the Karlskirche in Vienna or the National Library of Australia and admire these hulking reclining figures, rather than have them locked away in gallery spaces.

Oddly, the retrospective has had the opposite effect to that which one suspects the Tate intended: critics have lined up to say Moore is comfortable, passive, or polite. Perhaps that's the repetitive nature of his shows across the world; these seem like the words of tired reviewers unable to stomach yet more curatorial claims for his sculptural brilliance. But it is certainly true that his drawings - during the Second World War Moore abandoned sculpture for draughtsmanship - represent the most revealing section of the exhibition. This isn't the first time these works have prompted a re-evaluation of Moore's craft. His reputation was transformed during the war. Nevertheless, his depictions of a mass of skeletal, almost mummified figures cowering in air raid shelters are hugely evocative. The mine drawings - his father was an engineer in a Castleford colliery - seem to have more of Moore, if you will, within them. They capture the dark claustrophobia of the pit brilliantly.

Of course, Moore's drawings aren't so widely accessible around the world as his sculptures. Apart from the commissions for the new towns of the UK, he was also asked to provide work to sit outside the Unesco building in Paris and the Lincoln Centre in New York. Interestingly, he admitted, "I don't like doing commissions in the sense that I go and look at a site and then think of something... I try to choose something suitable from what I've done or from what I'm about to do." That's certainly not how you'd expect the likes of Antony Gormley, whose similarly popular sculpture of human forms is becoming just as ubiquitous for the ambitious town as Moore's, to speak.

Sometimes Moore had no say in the matter anyway. Cities such as Toronto and Dallas didn't go down the rather laborious route of commissioning Moore. They just bought into the iconography by getting their cash out, acquiring his work, and plonking it outside an important building. It wasn't only UK towns, then, that saw a Moore work as emblematic. The list of American towns that boast one of his sculptures is little short of incredible. From Baltimore to Wichita, the acquisition of a Henry Moore was proof that a city was going places.