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Feature Archive
February, 2001

Henry Moore and the British Museum:
The Great Conversation
By Joseph Phelan
In 1921, while attending the Royal College of Art in London, the young Henry Moore began to pay visits to the British Museum:
The Museum was a revelation to me. I went at least twice a week for two or three hours and one room or another caught my enthusiasm. The wonderful thing about the British Museum is that everything is stretched out before you and you are free to make your own discoveries.
Moore worked his way through the great departments of this renowned institution: the galleries housing the Antiquities of Egypt, Africa, the Orient, Asia, Prehistoric and Roman-Britian, Greece and Rome. In those days the Ethnographic Galleries housing the art and artifacts of Oceania were also located in the Museum.

As an aspiring modernist sculptor, Moore had devoured Roger Fry's recent collection of essays, Vision and Design. This book - perhaps the most influential work of art criticism written in English up until World War II - contained brilliant revisionist essays on the art of Africa and other non-Western peoples, arguing for the great superiority of "primitive" sculpture over anything produced in the West.

It would have been easy to resist Fry's enthusiasms and arguments if one was a hack and had no serious talent or ambitions, or if one had not seen through the moribund character of late British 19th century sculpture compared with the paintings of the post impressionists and the Cubists, or if one had not gagged on the wretched copies of Greek and Roman works used as models in the art schools. But Moore had talent, ambition, probity and a fine eye.

So the sculptor-to-be set out "to remove the Greek spectacles" from the eyes of his contemporaries, by which phrase he meant to advocate abandoning the decadent standards of late Greek classical and Hellenistic sculpture and substitute the vitality and strangeness of non-Western work. At the British Museum he could study those works. Making copious notes and drawings of his favorite pieces, Moore began to store his mind with images, shapes and ideas for his own works. He later assessed that "Nine tenths of my understanding and learning about sculpture came from the British Museum."

I shall quote freely from Henry Moore and the British Museum (1981, New York) now out of print but still available in libraries and second hand bookstores. In this valuable book, Moore looks back on some of his favorite pieces. As an aid to understanding how Moore developed his distinctive style, this book is a revelation. As an rare example of how a major 20th century artist looked at the art of the past, it is indispensable. As a cicerone to accompany one's own travels through the history of sculpture, it is a delight. One needs to develop one's three dimension vision in order to appreciate Sculpture - how better to do that but through some lessons in looking from Moore.

Not many of my readers outside the United Kingdom will have ever visited the British Museum, but with their newly upgraded site on the internet many of the pieces which Moore fell in love with are accessible in high-definition images accompanied by helpful information. These images are found in the Compass section of the site.

But things are never so simple when one of the great bastions of learning or high culture are involved. Compass does not encompass all that it should. I could find nothing of the great works of African, Oceanic, Caribbean or First Nation art which Moore so loved and so lovingly elucidates.

Still, a few of Moore's favorite works are online. So with apologies to all the great anonymous sculptures which are not yet available, I have selected a few gems and accompanied then by brief excerpts or paraphrases from Moore's notes.

Egyptian Sculpture

Gray Granite Figure of an Official, late Twelfth Dynasty,about 1800 B.C.: Observe the way the artist uses the cloak to reveal the form of the body, how by making one side fuller than the other he has given the feeling of movement, as if the wearer had just pulled it closer to him. Note also the way the hand creeps out like a ghost from the material. Moore observes the astonishing similarity between this figure and Rodin's great statue of Balzac. Could Rodin have been influenced by this piece?

Limestone Statue from the Tomb of Inyotef, 1950 B.C.: Tremendously fine observation of the human figure, stylized but realistic. The whole figure has the stillness associated with Egyptian Art "a stillness of waiting, not of death." In Moore's own works, waiting alertness in the figures, especially the reclining ones, is a notable feature.

High Official and his Wife, late eighteenth dynasty: One of Moore's favorites. He finds the two figures terribly real. The work influenced his bronze King and Queen. A superb sense of repose and serenity. "The pair are represented at an ideal age, one of full growth but before disillusionment has set in."

Alabaster Head of a Cow from Deir el-Bahari, about 1480 B.C.: "Marvelous innocent simplicity... perfectly captures the soft docility of a young cow. The Egyptians had a great feeling for animals and this is one I love." Compare Moore's 1956 sculpture Animal Head [Henry Moore Foundation], illustrated at right.

Fragment of the Head of a Limestone Statue (thought to represent King Akhenaten of the Eighteenth Dynasty), C.1355 B.C.: "Wonderful example of how a good sculptor can make his material look like a quite different substance. These lips look like soft, pliable, sensuous flesh, and yet they are carved in limestone." This praise shows how far Moore had moved away from his original (1920s) dogmatic belief that the sculptor must respect the materials and not try to make them look different than they are.

Aztec Sculpture

Seated figures of Mictlantecuhtli and of Xochipilli: A seated man; the god of Death. The "simple, monumental grandeur" of Aztec carvings appealed to Moore enormously since his student days. He noted the "massive weightiness" which seemed indestructible and so true to the nature of stone.

One of the most Aztec influential pieces - a stone mask of Xipe Totec - is not available online. To see what Moore made of it, check out his Mask (1928) at the Tate.

Pre-Classical & Classical Greek Sculpture

Small Violin Idol: This little violin figure expresses the kernel of the style which is developed and refined in the larger figures. (GR 1889.5-21.2)

Cycladic Marble Figurines of Women: Moore loved the innate sculptural sense of these figures. Despite the simple form the figure is very female in feeling look at those lovely long legs and the arms folded around the breast.

Seated female figures of Chares and of a Woman in a Chair. Note the sense of repose and monumentality: "Look how poised yet relaxed that simple head is, it's the very essence of head on a neck on shoulders." Moore was obsessed with these woman even as a student. His Three Standing Figures (1947-8) owes much to them.

Bronze Horse with an Armed Rider, 550 B.C.: "I love the vitality and alertness of this piece. You feel that the horse could turn its head at any moment." Alertness is one of the most important qualities Moore sought in his figurative sculpture. The helmet may be the ultimate source of Moore's important commission for the University of Chicago: Nuclear Energy (1964).

A final caveat about the British Museum's "Compass" search facility: it seems designed for insiders or for people with the latest catalogue information (e.g. asking us to type in the catalogue number of a piece, and reminding us us to note the catalogue number of a piece we like on our next real visit to the exhibit - this is a joke which only the British museum elite will find amusing). I found that the advanced search features either don't work or were way off target.

Perhaps some of my readers in the United Kingdom will encourage the British Museum to improve its search capabilities so that the public can have access to this great collection.

This article is copyright 2001 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

Joseph Phelan can be contacted at joe.phelan@verizon.net

Past Articles

December, 2000

      Advent Calendar 2000, narrated by Joseph Phelan

November, 2000

      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon

October, 2000

      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      Article: The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan

September, 2000

      Article: The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan

August, 2000

      Article: Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2000

      Article: Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2000

      Article: Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2000

      Article: Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan

April, 2000

      Article: Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex

March, 2000

      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon

February, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)

January, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

December, 1999/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)

November, 1999/The Louvre Museum

      Web site review: The Louvre

October, 1999/Impressionism

      Web site review: North Carolina Museum of Art

September, 1999/Optical Art

      Web site review: The Butler Institute of American Art

August, 1999/Animals in Art

      Web site review: National Museum of Wildlife Art
      Online exhibit review: PBS: American Visions

July, 1999/Surrealism

June, 1999/Sculpture

      Web site review: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
      Online exhibit review: Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995

May, 1999/Women in the Arts

      Web site review: National Museum of Women in the Arts
      Online exhibit review: Jenny Holzer: Please Change Beliefs

April, 1999/The Golden Age of Illustration

      Web site review: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
      Online exhibit review: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe online

March, 1999/Vincent van Gogh

      Web site review: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
      Web site review: The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery

February, 1999/Great Art

      Web site review: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
      Online exhibit review: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark