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

Annual Bulletin 1, 1977-1978

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Author & Subject

Henry Moore's Reclining Woman

by Alan G. Wilkinson

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What was it about the Chacmool that exerted such a powerful influence on Moore? He was certainly attracted by the reclining pose and the way in which the head is turned at right angles to the body, as well as, in the artist's own words, "its stillness and sense of readiness, and the whole presence of it with the legs coming clown like columns." (29)

The material of Reclining Woman is green Hornton stone. During the 1920s and 1930s the artist had what he has described as an almost fanatical belief in the "truth to material" doctrine. Like Brancusi, Epstein, Modigliani, and Gaudier-Brzeska, he championed the idea of direct carving and almost all his work from 1921 to 1939 was carved. In 1934 Moore wrote:

Every material has its own individual qualities. It is only when the sculptor works direct, when there is an active relationship with his material, that the material can take its part in the shaping of an idea. Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh....It should keep its hard tense stoniness. (30)

Moore believed that a sculptor should make use of the various stones available in his own country. The Royal College of Art, where Moore was a student from 1921 to 1924 and taught from 1924 to 1932, was close to a number of major London museums: the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the South Kensington Museum, and the Geological Museum. It was at the latter that Moore found small samples, often no more than 10 cm², of stones from all over England, and among them he came across Hornton stone, a material he did not think anyone had used before in sculpture.

Moore went to a quarry at Edgehill in Oxfordshire to choose a Hornton stone for the Leeds and Ottawa carvings. Running through the brown Hornton stone of the Leeds Reclining Figure are small veins of pure iron ore which are clearly visible in the legs of the carving (fig. 5). He found it difficult to carve across the veins, and when he came to select the material for the Ottawa Reclining Woman, he asked for green Hornton stone, which has less of the iron in it.

Moore's own comments on the qualities and characteristics of Hornton stone are of particular interest. (31) He pointed out that he first used it in the Mother and Child of 1924 (City Art Gallery, Manchester). When first quarried, the stone is quite soft. In 1924, before leaving on his travelling scholarship to Italy, Moore roughed out the Mother and Child carving. When he returned six months later, he found the stone to be twice as hard.

What I liked about Hornton stone is that when a carving is finished it doesn't look like new, as if it was made yesterday. Marble is so clean and pure it always looks like new. I didn't want one's sculpture to look as if it had just been made yesterday. (32)
One of Moore's greatest contributions to the language of twentieth-century sculpture has been the use of the human figure as a metaphor for landscape. Moore's interest in relating his sculpture to landscape elements was, by 1930, apparent in both his writing and his work. No doubt echoing Gaudier-Brzeska's dictum "Sculptural energy is the mountain," (33) Moore wrote in 1930 that the sculpture that moved him most "is static and it is strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains." (34) When R. H. Wilenski reproduced the Ottawa Reclining Woman in The Meaning of Modern Sculpture (London, 1932), it was called Mountains, a title that was suggested by the artist in conversation with the author. (35) Particularly as viewed in Figure 3, the dramatic thrust of the legs, the upward pointing breasts, and the hollowed-out area below the knees evoke a landscape of mountains and valleys rising up to a summit in the head.

And so the Ottawa Reclining Woman marks a turning point in Moore's development. On the one hand it represents the culmination of his interest in primitive art in the 1920s and reflects the formidable influence of the Chacmool; and on the other it establishes the reclining figure as a metaphor of landscape, a strong personal idiom with far-reaching possibilities. Now ''the subject-matter is given" as the artist has said, and for nearly fifty years, in single, and two -, three -, and four-piece reclining figures, it has remained so to this day.

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