Henry Moore is one of those artists that it’s easy to be familiar with while knowing very little about him. His sculptures are both endemic and rather anonymous; along the road from the Tate Gallery where a Moore exhibition is currently being held, are two Moore sculptures, Knife Edge and Looking Piece. The previous weekend, I had stumbled across Falling Warrior in Cambridge. I’ve always preferred Barabara Hepworth’s work, where there’s something rather more suggestive about the way she combines geometrical designs with natural forms. Moore’s work, by contrast, often feels rather formless, as if the abstraction were simply an excuse for a lack of content.
The Tate’s exhibition begins by showing his earlier work that rather reminds me of Epstein, Gill or Gaudier-Brzeska in its preoccupation with the influence of African or South American cultures. Moore observed that African sculpture was dominated by ‘sex and religion,’ and much of the work here is dominated by mother and child figures, part fertility figure, part Madonna. Some of these suggest a tenderness to the relationship, others seem to suggest something trapped by a monster. For all of Moore’s pre-occupation with the theme, there’s little sense of it meaning a great deal, which is perhaps why the exhibition then traces Moore’s path to abstraction with a set of compositions in which figures dissolve into Daliesque patterns, like melted wax. Probably the most interesting aspect of Moore’s work is the Duchampesque idea of found art; much of these wooden or stone sculptures look like something eroded by the waves and cast out into the seashore. The material proves rather more important than the form in several respects. Similarly, his Hepworthesque stringed sculptures are at their most interesting when they echo organic forms; a white sculpture festooned with red string looks like nothing so much as a skeleton and decomposing ligature. What the exhibition brings out well is that Moore conceived his works as part of a landscape, with each sculpture originating as a drawing.
All of which is why when works like The Helmet are attributed to a context of the coming second world war, when the post-war work is attributed to the holocaust or when Moore himself created works around themes like atomic energy, it’s very difficult to see whether the parallel comes from. A postwar work like Falling Warrior echoes the classical tradition in that the figure is clearly holding a shield as it falls. But the undulating blobs that make up the figure are no different to those used in any other of his reclining forms, male or female. The abstraction is so absolute, there is no obvious sign of symbolism. Instead it simply looks as if Moore had succeeded in erasing the line between art and nature. The one exception to this are his drawings from the second world war, showing miners at work or people huddled in the London Underground. This is really the only point at which Moore’s stylistic vicissitudes came into line with the spirit of his age.
Before returning home, I walk to Trafalgar Square to see the current occupant of the fourth plinth: Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. Where Moore spoke of his work as having a mystery that only served to conceal vacuity, Shonibare heads towards the other extreme of literalism. Shonibare is the first black artist to be commissioned to make a work for the fourth plinth, creating a celebration multiculturalism society, which Shonibare attributes in part to Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar: the seas were freed for the British to build their Empire; ushering in an age of globalisation that led to Britain itself becoming a home to many of its former colonial subjects. Shonibare represents this by using African fabrics for the sails, although the fabric is actually from Brixton market. The reason it is associated with African dress is not indigenous craftsmanship but the mass production of the material by the Dutch, who sold it to their West African colonies. The design, in fact, is not even African: it’s based on Indonesian batik. A cynic might suggest that while not without merit, this account of British colonial history is a rather unproblematic one that leaves out troubling trifles like the Indian Mutiny or the Mau Mau uprising. Still, it’s both unusual and rather captivating to look at, blowing up the traditional ship model, like an inverted model village.
Recently, I’ve been reading Gauguin’s Tahiti Journal. Unsurprisingly, much of this consists of opposed corrupt European civilisation with the Eden of Tahiti’s noble savages, but it’s interesting to note that Gauguin is far from consistent in this respect. Tahitian myths are described as a prototype for a theory of astronomy, while he frequently tends to look down on the natives, as when his wife wants to buy some worthless copper trinkets or when he ignores their superstitions.
The other book I’ve just finished is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. I’ve written various times before now on the difficulties of writing a social novel of a similar breed to that created by Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot or Balzac; a society increasingly lacking social homogeneity is likely to be increasingly inhospitable to that sort of project. It has to be said that Wolfe copes rather well, substituting racial tensions as the modern taboo instead of the Victorian obsession with sexuality. It’s also interesting to note that whereas the Victorian novel assumes character is stable, the product of a particular place and time, Wolfe assumes it to be as fluid as the society it inhabits; "there is no such thing as a private self.. western philosophers had viewed the self as something unique… at the core of one’s self there had to be something irreducible and inviolate… each person is a transitory composite of materials borrowed from the environment… your self is other people… I’m not Sherman McCoy anymore. I’m someone else with a proper name." In the Victorian novel, suffering ennobles and refines character. In Wolfe’s, McCoy becomes increasingly duplicitous, his self changing as he goes from stockbroker to professional defendant. Equally, in the Victorian novel, the two nations are to be demonstrated to be as part of a single indivisible whole. Wolfe has no such concerns and has no regard for the nobility of poverty or for philanthropy (Dicken’s Mrs Jellyby and Wolfe’s Reverend Bacon have quite a great deal in common).