After All These Years, Henry Moore Is Great

The big retrospective devoted to Henry Moore (1898-1986), which

has now come to the National Gallery of Art in Washington,

would be a capital event at almost any time. Yet this splendid exhibition is

especially compelling just now for anyone who comes to it from a recent visit

to the retrospective devoted to Alberto Giacometti

(1901-1966) at the Museum of Modern

Art. As different as these artists were in

temperament, circumstance, style and reputation-Moore, an English coal miner’s

son who became the toast of the money-and-power establishment, and Giacometti, a Swiss painter’s son who became the darling of

the alienated intellectuals-they nonetheless enjoyed parallel careers as the

leading sculptors of their European generation. Inevitably, they had certain

crucial interests in common.

One was their enthusiastic embrace of the primitivism-or, as we

are now advised to call it, the tribal art-of non-Western cultures. For both

Moore and Giacometti, this was an aesthetically

transforming experience that cast a spell over all of their subsequent

accomplishments. Another, related to this, was their parallel periods of

submission to the irrationalist agenda of the

Surrealist movement. For neither, to be sure, did Surrealism prove to be a

sufficient foundation for their ultimate artistic ambitions. Yet it, too, left

a permanent trace, even on the later work that ostensibly repudiated Surrealist

orthodoxy.

If there was ever a time, however, when Giacometti

took serious notice of Moore’s work, it has (as far as I know) remained unrecorded. Moore,

on the other hand, was acutely conscious of Giacometti’s,

and drew upon it both in the sculpture of his Surrealist period and in some of

his early experiments in pure abstraction. For both of these essentially

figurative artists also had brief periods of keen interest in the aesthetics of

abstraction-an interest that proved to be more durable in Moore’s

sculpture than in that of Giacometti. Still, in the

catalog of the pioneering exhibition of Cubism

and Abstract Art , which the late Alfred H. Barr Jr. organized at the Museum

of Modern Art in 1936, Giacometti’s abstract,

Surrealist Head-Landscape (1932) was

reproduced on the same page as Moore’s biomorphic Two Forms

(1934) to illustrate the then-latest developments in abstract sculpture.

Some two decades later, on my

first trip to Europe in the winter of 1957-58, I met Moore for the first time

just a few weeks after my one and only visit to Giacometti’s

famously ramshackle studio on the Left Bank in Paris. This is the way I

recorded my impressions of those visits in an essay for Arts Magazine in 1960: “There are artists-one thinks of Giacometti in Paris and Henry Moore on his Herefordshire

estate-who are as much the authors of their milieux

as of their work …. To visit Giacometti in the tight,

dark, dust-covered studio he occupies in a working-class quarter of Paris,

entering from a narrow, constricted alleyway, stumbling over plaster dust and

dried clay, the light murky and gray, the sculptor himself fretting over the

fragility and impossibility of his art-this is not in itself an ‘aesthetic’

experience, but its peculiar qualities reveal something crucial about the

psychic image and the sense of human possibility which will also be found in

the art which is made there. Similarly, Moore’s

current style of life as a kind of benevolent country-squire humanist, a

celebrity of his country’s cultural establishment who sits on committees and

contributes to the Sunday Times ,

meets its nemesis in the monument to international bureaucracy he designed for

UNESCO in Paris.”

Well, I’ve never had any reason to revise my opinion of that

UNESCO monument, but about Moore himself and his highest achievements-which are

not, I think, to be found among the bulk of his public commissions-I’ve had

ample reason to revise my first impression. As I have had more opportunities to

become closely acquainted with every phase of Moore’s

copious production, I have been more and more persuaded that the campaign to

discredit his accomplishments was in urgent need of critical resistance. And

that campaign-to which, alas, I may have made a small contribution myself early

on-has been even more zealous and mean-spirited in London

than in New York. For a detailed

account of its principal participants and their charges, see David Cohen’s

essay “Who’s Afraid of Henry Moore?” in the excellent book-length catalog of

the current retrospective in Washington.

It was upon seeing an earlier retrospective in the summer of

1972-the sensational exhibition mounted at the Forte di

Belvedere in the hills overlooking Florence-that

my own last doubts about Moore’s greatness were laid to rest. It goes without saying that

as a venue for an exhibition of sculpture, Florence

is a formidable challenge for any artist. Yet Moore’s

retrospective proved to be an unalloyed triumph. Bathed in the mellow light of

the Tuscan summer, the large outdoor sculptures-often silhouetted under an

azure sky-were allowed to declare their classical affinities with aesthetic

impunity. And indoors, in the intimate galleries devoted to the smaller

sculptures and the drawings related to them in Moore’s

earlier primitivist and Surrealist periods, the sheer

virtuosity of invention was breathtaking.

It was not to be expected that Washington

could provide as sympathetic a setting for Moore’s

work as Florence did, but in every

other respect the current retrospective at the National Gallery gives us an

even ampler and richer account of its many-sided achievement. Even for viewers

who have reason to believe that they know everything there is to know about Moore’s oeuvre ,

there are many remarkable surprises-not only in the abundant representation of

the Surrealist period, but in the many sculptures and drawings from the wartime

and postwar years of the 1940′s and early 50′s.

Here, too, a comparison with Giacometti

is all but inescapable, for in both careers we are reminded that the trauma of

the Second World War brought these artists to a significant crossroads in their

artistic development. With European civilization radically imperiled by the

Nazi conquests, both artists found themselves impelled to reconsider their

relation to the traditions of Western art, and this inevitably involved

renegotiating their relation to the avant-garde ethos that had nurtured their

earlier accomplishments.

Both artists certainly knew there was a price to be paid-in

critical reputation, if not in financial success-for recanting their

commitments to the avant-garde. In Paris, André Breton-the so-called pope of

the Surrealist movement-was unforgiving about Giacometti’s

departure from its ranks, and in New York, Clement Greenberg-the leading

advocate of the American avant-garde-hastened to denounce both Moore and Giacometti for their apostasy. Always more of a pessimist

than Moore, Giacometti openly acknowledged what this

turning point in his own work signified. “After me,” he said, “there will be no

one to try to do what I’m trying to do.” Yet what biographer James Lord wrote

about Giacometti may be equally applied to Moore: “He

saw with melancholy clairvoyance that he stood at the extreme end of a

tradition.”

If you doubt the truth of that observation, I advise you to take

a look at the enormous sculptural construction by Frank Stella now being

erected on the grounds of the National Gallery, and make the appropriate

comparisons.

The Henry Moore retrospective, organized by the Dallas Museum of

Art in collaboration with the Henry Moore Foundation in England, remains on

view in Washington through Jan. 27. It is an exhibition that everyone with a

serious interest in the art and culture of the 20th century will want to see,

and indeed revisit. And its accompanying catalog, entitled Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century , is not only an excellent

guide to the artist’s work, but at times a trenchant and undeceived study in

the politics of artistic reputation.