Skip to main content

Rounded characters

Henry Moore can inspire an interest in non-western art, says Gillian Wolfe

Henry Moore was an endlessly prolific experimental artist who became a 20th-century celebrity. It was his war-time shelter drawings that propelled him into sudden fame and gave him the recognition he deserved. In London's underground tunnels he saw rows of people huddled together for protection from the Blitz. This spectacle galvanised him into recording multiple reclining figures which he later translated into a personal sculptural language.

In this 1940s shelter drawing, several abiding themes are brought together in one sumptuous image. In the foreground a mother and child are bound protectively together with drapery, a representation which relates to many of Moore's later sculptures. It is possible that this hints at Moore's first commission, a Madonna and Child for St Matthew's church, Northampton.

The sleeping lower left figure is about to stir, the figure above is changing position under heavily draped covers while the figure above that has already settled into a propped-up reclining pose. In this instance the covering appears thinner and less dense.The top figures may, judging by the jutting head of one, be awake and watching in a recumbent pose, blankets rippling across their mountainous legs. All the elements beautifully illustrate Moore's wax resist techniques and his ability to create a feeling of monumental solidity with linear drawing.

In the bronze sculpture "Draped Reclining Woman", Moore incorporated the lessons he learned from his shelter drawings. The piece is best described in his own words: "Drapery can emphasise the tension in a figure, for when the form pushes outwards, such as on the shoulders, thighs, the breasts etc it can be pulled tight across the form (almost like a bandage) and by contrast with the crumpled slackness of the draperyI the pressure from inside is intensifiedI It need not be just a decorative addition, but can serve to stress the sculptural idea of the figure. Also in my mind was to connect the contrast between the sizes of the folds, here small, fine and delicate, in other places big and heavy, with the form of mountains, which are the crinkled skin of the earth."

Drapery not only defines the structure, its rippling form contributes to the sense of movement, even restlessness. We are not sure whether the figure is about to settle down or about to stir into motion, therefore adding tension to the pose. This impression of impending movement is better appreciated when viewing the figure in the round.

Henry Moore's sculptures have been placed in more public places throughout the world than any other sculptor's work in history. The current exhibition at Dulwich in south London traces the subject matter that dominated the output of this most prolific sculptor. The themes are: mother and child; family groups; the reclining form; organic abstract; square faces and heads; the war years; seated figures and half figures; and standing figures. There is something for everyone here and best of all the themes can be compared and contrasted within the tight format of a small but highly representative display both indoors and in the grounds.

Moore's early work remained firmly grounded in figurative forms. Initially he rejected the tradition of Graeco-Roman and Renaissance figures, preferring to find inspiration in primitive models, particularly Mexican sculpture and the non-western art that was fashionable at the time He was also influenced by two opposing developments of the time, abstraction and Surrealism. Moore rejected the established academic practices of modelling and casting and insisted on direct carvings and truth to materials. His impatience with established practices was considered revolutionary. His first public commission, "West Wind", (1928) is a monumental work in Portland stone. It can be seen today at the London Transport headquarters above St James's Park underground station. His shelter drawings together with those made later in the coal mines of Yorkshire are considered among his greatest achievements.

By the 1940s the public became aware of his work. He won a positive response for the first time and his reputation flourished so that by the 1970s the number of his exhibitions had grown to an average of 40 a year.

In his later years, Henry Moore was internationally feted. While the world was honouring him, Moore was giving back. He donated hundreds of sculptures, drawings and graphics to major collections such as the Tate Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Council in London. Before his death, he gave his whole estate of Perry Green in Hertfordshire, with its land, studios, houses, cottages, archives and collection of work, to the Trustees of the Henry Moore Foundation to conserve his work in the setting in which it was created.

Moore became an icon for post-war Britain, something of a national institution with everyone wanting one of his works. The scale and quantity of his output was enormous; in total there are about 919 sculptures, 5,500 drawings and 717 graphics.

Henry Moore's work offers good opportunities for vocabulary extension.

Discuss the concept of the reumbent figure and ask children to make drawings of people reclining, leaning, resting and relaxing. Point out the naturalism in these poses as opposed to stiffly drawn figures. Look at paintings such as "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" by Manet or "The Reapers" by Van Gogh for relaxing body language. Compare Moore's massive forms with the thin angular figures of the Swiss sculptor Giacometti.

Take a trip to see Moore's sculpture. Go to the Henry Moore Foundation at his home and studio in Perry Green (tel: 01279 843333), or the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich (tel: 01603 593199), or the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (tel: 01924 830642). Many regional museums feature his work, but to understand the inspiration behind it go to the British Museum. Make sketches of the western and non-western traditions. Compare the Greek and Roman figures with those from Mexico and Asia, and see the astonishing head from Easter Island in Polynesia. Students will understand why Moore had a lifelong passion for the collection.

Henry Moore 1898-1986.

Born in Castleford,Yorkshire, the son of a miner, Moore decided to become a sculptor while still at school.

He went to Leeds School of Art (Barbara Hepworth was a fellow student) and the Royal College of Art. His work is represented in almost every important public and private collection.

Gillian Wolfe is head of education at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Her fifth children's artbook Look - Body Language in Art is to be published by Francis Lincoln this autumn lHenry Moore at Dulwich Picture Gallery until September 19.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Lane, London SE21 7AD Tel: 0208 299 8731 www.dulwichpicturegallery. Shelter Drawing (Mother and Child with Reclining Figures) 1941-3. Pencil, wax crayon, chalk, watercolour wash, pen and ink (317 x 248mm) Draped Reclining Woman 1957-8. Bronze

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you