by rebeccaswirsky

An exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park allows for an inhabitation of Henry Moore’s visionary altering of figure and landscape

‘The form of land was my father’s vocabulary,’ explains Mary Moore, Henry Moore’s only child, as our press pack walks around the survey of his work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. ‘And if there was anything he understood, it was scale.’ Scale is in abundance here at the park, where 120 of Moore’s works have been installed in its rolling vistas and gallery, in collaboration with the Henry Moore Foundation. By curating a room of her father’s artefacts, Mary Moore has added a personal touch.

The Yorkshire-born sculptor was a founding patron of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and believed in placing sculpture in landscape, where it might be anchored by the earth or drawn upwards into the sky, invigorated by the changing seasons. Sheep wander freely in the park, animals Moore believed to be the perfect size to appreciate his work, and pieces have been sited with careful consideration to their interplay with the environment.

The exhibition’s title Back to a Land is drawn from Jacquetta Hawkes’ back-to-nature book A Land (1951). In those pages, Hawkes noted her admiration for the artist: ‘Rodin pursued the idea of conscious, spiritual man emerging from the rock … Moore sees him rather as always a part of it.’ In return, Moore illustrated a 1954 edition of Hawkes’ book; the art works he provided Hawkes with are featured in the exhibition. And the presentation of Moore’s artefacts, notes, sketches and photographs have been informed by Mary’s close knowledge of her father, while the commission of Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage to write poems for the exhibition catalogue draws on Moore’s life-long interest in poetry.

The park’s Underground Gallery has been reconfigured to halt incoming light that would be detrimental to Moore’s drawings, with two main doors closed, and entrances created in walls between two of the four display rooms. Moore’s drawings, some of which have never been shown, are an essential addition to the show; while Moore is best known for his sculptures, his drawings represent a quieter form of excellence. The artist’s delicate, rhythmic studies of nature such as Clouds in Sky (1982) and Northern Landscape: Iceberg (1980) connect with the poetic lineage of Turner and Constable, and his Stonehenge lithographic series (1973) crackles with the dualities of near/far, light/dark and heavy/fragile.

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Large Two Forms (1969)

Elsewhere in the gallery sculptures include Moore’s signature figures, such as the fecund-looking female Working Model for Reclining Woman: Elbow (1981). Moore expressed the hope that his sculpture had ‘a force, is a life, is a vitality inside it’ and these reclining forms can be seen as repositories for such energy. Meanwhile, Mary Moore’s room reveals her father’s interests in ethnography. Displayed in vitrines, his collection includes Columbian, Mayan, African and Egyptian pieces in addition to the sculptural vertebrae of a Minke whale, alongside assorted ink bottles, maquettes and drawings. When I asked Mary if the curatorial process had revealed any surprises about her father, she replied: ‘Two little plaster maquettes sit in the central display case, probably from King and Queen [1952-53, cast 1957]. My mother used to place her hands in a very gentle, delicate, resting position in her lap. It was only this morning that I looked at those maquettes and realised the hands and the arms in King and Queen are those of my mother.’

Outside, the deer park contrasts with the more formal setting of the gallery; rangers confide that children love to jump through Moore’s colossal bronze Large Two Forms (1969), and the water-slick appearance of Reclining Figure: Angles (1979) invites viewers to journey slowly around its complex 3-D perspective. Although Moore’s works contribute to outside space, outside space clearly contributes to Moore’s work, allowing his sculptures to be lifted through breadth, scale, perspective and unexpected interactions. The most unexpected, we are reminded, was when Reclining Figure: Hand, LH709 (1979) was impacted by a Real IRA car bomb at the BBC TV Centre in London’s Wood Lane. Small glass pieces were embedded around the figure’s knee and chest areas, and although later removed, the bronze blended and re-coloured, a palimpsest of that political history remains.

Moore was known for being anti-establishment, choosing English stone during the 1920s and ’30s rather than the classical Italian marble of Carrara beloved of academies. But, as Mary Moore recalls, the artist in his later years spent time reflecting on his place in the canon. ‘Sculptors like my father, especially when they reached their 60s, started defining themselves against Cimabue and Giotto and Masaccio and those guys – the A-listers – and thinking about how they will measure up with eternity.’ Moore’s response to those concerns was to create a language specifically his own, inviting us to see both figure and landscape through his visionary eyes. Back to a Land is a chance to inhabit that vocabulary.

This review was first published in Architectural Review, May 2015.