On the 100th anniversary of Henry Moore's birth, Anthony Barnett asks what the sculptor's reclining figures meantby Anthony Barnett / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
When the Labour government came to power in May 1997 it launched a cultural offensive. A new Britain was to be projected on to the world. Some of us were reminded of the way Harold Wilson’s government caught the winds of swinging London in the mid-1960s and used them to blow out its empty sails. But as Wilson bandwagoned trendiness, he cold shouldered a British artist who was this country’s (and perhaps the world’s) most successful sculptor of the time, Henry Moore. This seems especially surprising, as Moore came from a classic Labour background-the seventh child of a Yorkshire miner-and by the 1960s had become globally celebrated. True, Moore participated in-and even helped to pioneer -the inflated monumentality of lifeless modernism. But it cannot have been the shallowness of much of Moore’s later work which explains his rejection.
It was Margaret Thatcher who put Moore into No. 10. She did not celebrate him publicly, for he was an icon of the “progressive consensus” that she denounced. But she discovered that other European leaders regarded Moore as a figure of prestige. In 1979 Helmut Schmidt oversaw the installation of a Moore outside the Bonn chancellery. In 1985 Fran?ois Mitterrand helicoptered to the home and studio of the then ageing Moore to make him a Commander of the Legion of Honour. The appreciation of these two cultured social democrats encouraged Thatcher to request a copy of a reclining figure for her official residence. There it remains, in the corridor between the famous front door and the cabinet and garden rooms, in an alcove backed by some Moore prints. There Thatcher could show off, if she wanted, a British success story.
What kind of success was it? Despite his early association with Barbara Hepworth, for much of his life Moore’s work was modern sculpture, if only because it was lampooned in Punch. More than 30 countries acquired pieces by him for their public collections. In Japan, Australia and Hong Kong, through the middle east and even Bulgaria, across Europe and North America, as well as in Venezuela and Argentina, there are copies of Moore’s work. They are often in the open air. It is tempting to suggest that “the sun never sets on Henry Moore.” In this sense he was one of the century’s greatest artists.
It is surprising that a world sculptor of the mid-20th century should be English, because England…