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

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In his comprehensive study of the history of sculpture, Moore was to follow his own advice contained in the No. 6 Notebook of 1926: "Keep ever prominent the world tradition/the big view of sculpture." (14) In 1930, in his article, "On the Nature of Sculpture," Moore lists the periods and styles of "the world tradition", he had studied and assimilated as a student. Drawings in the sketch books of the 1920s of works from an the periods mentioned in the following passage, with the exception of the Babylonian, Romanesque, and Byzantine, provide concrete evidence of the actual sculptures he had studied and found of particular interest:

The world has been producing sculpture for at least some thirty thousand years. Through modern development of communication much of this we now know and the few sculptors of a hundred years or so of Greece no longer blot our eyes to the sculptural achievements of the rest of mankind. Palaeolithic and Neolithic sculpture, Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian, Early Greek, Chinese, Etruscan, Indian, Mayan, Mexican and Peruvian, Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic, Negro, South Sea Island and North American Indian sculpture; actual examples or photographs of all are available, giving us a world view of sculpture never previously possible. (15)

Of all the styles and cultures that Moore discovered and explored in the British Museum he was most attracted by the pre-Colombian:

Mexican sculpture, as soon as l found it, seemed to me true and right, perhaps because I at once hit on similarities in it with some eleventh-century carvings l had seen as a boy on Yorkshire churches. Its "stoniness," by which I mean its truth to material , its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture. (16)
Several of Moore's minor works of the 1920s clearly reflect the influence of pre-Colombian sculpture. The coiled marble Snake of 1924 (fig. 7) so closely resembles the rattlesnake carvings of the Aztecs as to be almost a paraphrase. A number of his masks of the 1920s undoubtedly reflect a familiarity with Mexican masks of various cultures which he had seen in the British Museum and in books on pre-Colombian art. (17) In addition, features of the stone Head of 1929 (fig. 8) may owe something to the general influence of heads and masks from the Guerrero region of western Mexico. But whereas it is difficult with the two sculptures just discussed to pinpoint individual examples of Mexican art that may have inspired them, the Leeds and Ottawa carvings are rather unusual in the history of primitivism in modern art in that they do not reflect general derivations but the direct influence of a specific and well-known sculpture - the Chacmool.

Accounts of just when Moore first became aware of the Chacmool vary considerably. Herbert Read dates Moore's initial contact with the Mexican reclining figure from a visit to Paris in 1925, when he saw a plaster cast of it in the Trocadéro (now the Musée de l'Homme); the original carving is in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. The process of assimilation was, Read suggests, a gradual one, and "it was four years before the 'shock of recognition' that had been experienced in the Trocadéro found complete expression in the [Leeds] Reclining Figure of 1929." (18)

In 1946 Moore discussed his discovery of the Chacmool in the context of the conflict that developed on his return to England in mid-July 1926 from his travelling scholarship in Italy:
Six months' exposure to the master works of European art which I saw on my trip had stirred up a violent conflict with my previous ideals. I couldn't seem to shake off the new impressions, or make use of them without denying all I had devoutly believed in before...Then gradually I began to find my way out of my quandary in the direction of my earlier interests. I came back to ancient Mexican art in the British Museum. I came across an illustration of the Chacmool discovered at Chichén Itzá 225; in a German publication - and its curious reclining posture attracted me - not lying on its side, but on its back with its head twisted around. (19)
Moore himself told David Sylvester that he saw an illustration of the Chacmool in Walter Lehmann's Altmexicanische Kunstgeschichte, (Berlin, 1922) in Zwemmer's bookshop, probably around 1927. "He looked at the plaster cast of the same statue in the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris only after completing the 1929 [Leeds] carving. He believes he may have done so before making the 1930 [Ottawa] carving." (20)

The earliest visual evidence of Moore's awareness of the Chacmool, to be found in the two small drawings of reclining figures on page 93 of No. 2 Notebook of c. 1922-1924 (fig. 9), clearly suggests that Moore's own recollections, the basis for his own account and those of Read and Sylvester, were not entirely accurate. The poses of the two figures, reclining on their buttocks and backs, the heads turned to the right at right angles to the body, the legs drawn up, the position of the right arm, and the way each is mounted on a rectangular base, leave little room for doubt that they were based on the Chacmool, probably from memory. When he was shown these two studies in 1970, Moore commented: "The first bit of influence of the Mexican figure. I might have seen a plaster cast of it in the Trocadéro.'' (21)

Further evidence in support of this last statement is found on page 80 of the same notebook (fig. 10). This page, noting the name and address of a Paris hotel, bears a series of thumbnail sketches of seated bathers which were almost certainly related to the figures in Cézanne's Grandes Baigneuses, which Moore saw in the Pellerin Collection on his first visit to Paris. (22) If, as Moore has said, (23) he first visited Paris at Whitsun during his first year at the Royal College of Art, the date of these Cézannesque studies, and of his first encounter with the Chacmool, as reflected in the two reclining figures on page 93 (fig. 9), would be the spring of 1922. The dating of this notebook is, however, problematic, as it contains drawings for two carvings of 1924, the Hoptonwood stone Seated Figure and the marble Snake. (24) It is possible that No. 1 Notebook, which has been lost, dates from 1921-1922 and that No. 2 Notebook in fact, dates from c. 1922-1924. What is certain is that two reclining figures on page 93, whether of 1922, 1923, or 1924, are the earliest surviving records of the Chacmool influence, thus suggesting that Moore was aware of the Mexican reclining figure much earlier than had previously been believed.

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