National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 1, 1977-1978

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Henry Moore's Reclining Woman

by Alan G. Wilkinson

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6

When Alan Jarvis wrote to Mr. Norman Fowler (1) on 31 October 1956, "My Trustees met on October 17 and 18 and agreed to my purchasing this [Reclining Woman] at £ 2,000," (2) the third director of the National Gallery of Canada had just acquired one of Henry Moore's most important early carvings. Previous directors had shown little interest in sculpture and, at the time of Jarvis's appointment in 1955, one obvious gap in the collection lay in an area of particular interest to him: European sculpture from Rodin to the present. With his purchases of a fine early cast of Rodin's Age of Bronze, Lipchitz's limestone Seated Figure, Epstein's bronze Rock Drill, Gaudier-Brzeska's bronze Portrait of Brodzky, Arp's marble Cypriana, and Moore's Reclining Woman of 1930, Jarvis succeeded in forming a small but important collection of works by some of the major sculptors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Ottawa Reclining Woman (figs 1-4) of 1930, and the Leeds Reclining Figure (fig. 5) of the previous year are, like Michaelangelo's Day and Night, so closely related in style and period that it is impossible to discuss the sources and genesis of the one without frequent reference to the other. With some justification it may be asserted that these two stone carvings occupy a place similar in importance to that of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 in the oeuvre of Picasso.

The abrupt changes in style represented by these works, marking new departures for both artists, owe a great deal to primitive sources: Les Demoiselles to Iberian stone masks and Negro masks from the Ivory Coast and the French Congo, the Moore carvings to the Toltec-Maya Chacmool from Chichén Itzci (fig. 6). The stone figure of a Mexican rain spirit was, as Moore said recently, "undoubtedly the one sculpture which most influenced my early work." (3)

Moore's interest in African and pre-Colombian art was first aroused by Roger Fry's Vision and Design (1920), which he read in 1920 or 1921, while studying at the Leeds School of Art. "Once you'd read Roger Fry the whole thing was there." (4) Certain passages in the chapters on "Negro Sculpture" and "Ancient Arnerican Art" not only prepared the young Yorkshire student for the richness of the collections in the British Museum but profoundly influenced the direction his own work was to take in the 1920s: direct carving, truth to material, and full, three-dimensional realization.

Fry praised the African sculptors for their "complete plastic freedom; that is to say, these African artists really do conceive form in three dimensions" (5) and for "an exquisite taste in [their] handling of material." (6) He describes their forms as having a "disconcerting vitality, the suggestion that they make of being not mere echoes of actual figures, but of possessing an inner life of their own." (7) That Moore's own writings about the nature of sculpture owe much to such passages in Fry's book is apparent in the following quotation from an article he published in Unit One in 1934:

For me a work must first have a vitality of its own. I do not mean a reflection of the vitality of life, of movement, physical action, frisking, dancing figures and so on, but that a work can have in it a pent-up energy an intense life of its awn, independent of the object it may represent. (8)

In the chapter on, "Ancient American Art" Fry speaks of "the magnificent collection of Mexican antiquities in the British Museum," and remarks in the following paragraph:

Still more recently we have come to recognize the beauty of Aztec and Maya sculpture, and some of our modern artists have even gone to them for inspiration. This is, of course, one result of the general aesthetic awakening which has followed on the revolt against the tyranny of the Grreco-Roman tradition. (9)
In the 1920s Moore was very much a part of this revolt. As Professor Gombrich has pointed out in his title essay in Norm and Form, "most movements in art erect some new taboo, some new negative principle, such as the banishing from painting by Impressionists of all 'anecdotal elements'." (10) For Moore, as for Gauguin before him, who maintained "the great error is the Greek, however beautiful it may be," (11) the "negative principle" was the Graeco-Roman tradition. It has been shown that some of the "positive slogans" (12) of Moore's art, to quote again from Gombrich, were first suggested by Fry's Vision and Design. Beginning in September 1921, during the first term at the Royal College of Art, weekly visits to the wealth of the collections. These, in offering an alternative to the Greek ideal, helped with what he calls the "removal of the Greek spectacles from the eyes of the modern sculptor." (13)   

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