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

Annual Bulletin 1, 1977-1978

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Henry Moore's Reclining Woman

by Alan G. Wilkinson

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

Other notebook drawings of the mid-1920s allow us to chart the way in which the influence of the Chacmool gradually emerged and took hold. Its presence is next manifest in the three drawings of reclining figures on page 39 of No. 3 Notebook of 1922-1924 (fig. 11), particularly in the study enclosed in a rectangular frame showing the figure mounted on a base. The drawing on page 21 of No. 5 Notebook of c. 1925-1926 (fig. 12), although closer in style to several naturalistic works of the mid-twenties, such as Reclining Woman of 1926, foreshadows the Leeds sculpture, particularly in the positions of the arms and in the powerful upward movement of the leg. Though there are faint echoes of the Chacmool here, the rounded swelling forms are more reminiscent of Maillol.

The "Underground Relief" Sketch book of 1928 - which includes numerous preparatory drawings of reclining figures for Moore's first commission, the North Wind (fig. 13), for the Headquarters of London Transport at St James's Park Station, Westminster - marks the beginning of Moore's lifelong obsession with the reclining figure theme. He has explained the importance of the reclining figure in his work:

The vital thing for an artist is to have a subject that allows [him] to try out all kinds of formal ideas - things that he doesn't yet know about for certain but wants to experiment with, as Cézanne did in his 'Bathers' series. In my case the reclining figure provides chances of that sort. The subject-matter is given. It's settled for you, and you know it and like it, so that within it, within the subject that you've clone a dozen times before, you are free to invent a completely new form idea. (25)

The drawings for the North Wind relief were to lead ultimately to the preliminary sketches for the Leeds Reclining Figure. Page from "Underground Relief" Sketch book: Three Reclining Figures of 1928 (fig. 14) is representative of the drawings in the first fifteen pages of the sketch book, in which the naturalism of the figures is reminiscent of some of the life-drawings of the period, and of the cast concrete Reclining Woman of 1927. In the following pages, and in some of the larger sheets of studies, the static poses are superseded by drawings of the figures in motion, in keeping with the subject of the commission. In Ideas for "North Wind" Sculpture of 1928 (fig. 15), the head, arms, and torso of the figure directly above the one within a rectangular frame foreshadow almost exactly the Leeds Reclining Figure and also echo the rhythms of the Chacmool. In this drawing, the block-like forms, and the more angular approach to the human figure were among the characteristics of Mexican sculpture that Moore particularly admired. "I've always had a liking for square forms. The squareness of a right angle is a very rigorous action. This may be one reason why I appreciate Mexican and particularly Aztec sculpture." (26)

The full impact of the Chacmool erupts in the studies of a reclining figure for a garden relief, on page 58 of the "Underground Relief" Sketch book (fig. 16), from which the Leeds Reclining Figure evolved. The pose of the Leeds carving is established in the study at centre right, though here the head is at the right. In the pencil drawing on page 52 (fig. 17), the angularity of the figure is even more pronounced, with right angles formed at the elbows and the right knee. Here, the addition of rectangular protuberances added to each side of the head are surely derived from similar features in the Chacmool. It was from the drawing on page 51 (fig. 18) of the same notebook, which shows the reclining figure on the back of a garden bench, with the figure turned round so the head is at the left, that the definitive study for the Leeds Reclining Figure almost certainly evolved. (27)

Study for Leeds Reclining Figure of 1928 (fig. 19), the definitive drawing for the carving, is in all probability a slightly larger version of the garden-bench reclining figure (fig. 18). Here the neck is slightly longer, and the head is turned at right angles to the body. The carving differs in a number of ways from the drawing. In the latter, the left hand is placed at the side of the head, whereas in the sculpture it has been brought around it. In the drawing the three parallel rectangular protuberances of hair are reduced to a simpler, block-like mass. The triangular space between the legs in the drawing has not been opened out in the carving.

The basic differences between the Chacmool and the Leeds Reclining Figure are immediately obvious. The Mexican figure represents a male rain spirit of the Toltec-Maya culture; the Leeds figure is female. In contrast to the almost symmetrical pose of the Chacmool, with its weight supported by the elbows, buttocks, and feet, the body of the Leeds figure is turned on its side and is supported by the right arm, right hip and buttock, and right leg, thus leaving the left arm and leg free of the base. It is precisely this reclining pose, with the figure turned on its side, one leg looming above the other, that was to become one of the characteristic features of Henry Moore's treatment of the reclining figure.

Unlike the Leeds Reclining Figure, with its series of preparatory drawings, the Ottawa Reclining Woman of the following year has no such related material to help explain its evolution. Moore's working method from 1921 to the mid-1950s was to generate ideas for sculpture in the drawings, and it is therefore reasonable to assume that the Ottawa carving was based on a drawing or series of drawings that have subsequently been lost.

In many ways the Ottawa sculpture is closer to the Mexican prototype than the Leeds, so close as to be, in David Sylvester's words, "almost a paraphrase of it." (28) The similarities to the Chacmool are most obvious in the pose and disposition of weight in the Reclining Woman, the way in which the body is resting on and supported by the buttocks, back, right arm and elbow, and feet. But in contrast to the symmetrical pose of the Chacmool, Moore has made the figure asymmetrical in almost every respect. The legs of the Chacmool, raised and drawn in towards the body, are parallel and perpendicular. In the Moore sculpture, the legs, though raised with the knees at the same height, are not parallel; the right leg is far closer to the head and breasts than the left one. The head and torso are twisted round to the right, creating the almost parallel diagonals of shoulders and breasts which are repeated in the position of the knees and legs. Whereas the right arm and the position of the hand beneath the right breast correspond to the right arm of the Chacmool, the left arm is not resting on the base, but curves upwards with the clenched fist placed in the valley between the raised legs. Even relatively minor details, such as the ears, are asymmetrical, the right ear being 0.635 cm from the right eye, and the left ear 5.4 cm from the left eye. The head of the 1930 carving, with the two protuberances of hair at the back, is less mask-like than that of the Leeds sculpture, with its penetrating, staring eyes. The head of the Ottawa figure is turned to the right, and looks over the right shoulder. The expression of the face suggest both a feeling of anxiety and, like the Chacmool, a sense of watchfulness.

Next PageChacmool's influence on Moore

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