Sculptor Henry Moore is portrayed as a radical who explored a dark world of sex, war and death in a show that challenges his modern image as the creator of gentle figures that adorn windswept plazas around the world.
London’s Tate Britain gallery has brought together more than 150 of the artist’s sculptures and paintings in what has been billed as the biggest exhibition of his work in a generation.
From claustrophobic drawings of skeletal figures sheltering from air raids to primitive stone masks and vast, erotic wooden female figures, it traces Moore’s work over more than 40 years.
Co-curator Chris Stephens said he hoped to show a darker, more complicated picture of Moore and reassert his position as one of the great sculptors of modern times after a period of critical ambivalence.
“Its critical edge, its darkness, its sexiness has been forgotten,” Stephens told Reuters in an interview. “You can’t fully appreciate his work without understanding the context of two world wars and the Holocaust and so on.”
The exhibition attempts to show that there is more to the artist than his oversized abstract reclining figures and cosy family scenes that are dotted around sculpture parks and public squares from Dallas to Berlin.
Born in 1898, Moore was the son of a coal miner in northern England. The seventh of eight children, he grew up during the upheavals in Europe that led to two world wars, the nuclear arms race and the Cold War.
After joining the army in 1917, Moore was caught in a German mustard gas attack in the frontline trenches in France. He was one of only 52 survivors from his regiment of 400 men and spent two months in hospital.
“His art came out of that moment of crisis and anxiety that characterised the mid-20th century,” Stephens said.
Moore combined aspects of traditional Greek and Roman sculpture with the bold, primitive designs of art from the Aztec, Mayan and African cultures, searching for meaning in organic shapes rather than accurate representation.
Each room of the exhibition opens with a different work featuring a mother and child, a subject that Moore called his “fundamental obsession”. The ambiguous statues appear to raise questions about human life that go far beyond maternity and nurturing, Stephens said.
It was a series of haunting drawings of Londoners sheltering from German bombing raids in the capital’s rail tunnels that transformed Moore’s career and brought international success.
But perhaps best known to modern audiences are his large reclining figures of women, often distorted and with holes cut through the stone or wood. While these often came to be seen as gentle and reassuring, Moore intended them to have an erotic charge.
“Moore’s art was an art about death and sexuality and about the human figure as a vehicle for expressing much greater truths,” Stephens said. * Henry Moore opens on Feb. 24 and runs until August 8, 2010.