The morning light glints off the reddish bronze of the larger-than-life reclining figures. You don’t have to be a Jungian to see these sculptures as the epitome of archetypal images: mother and child, maternal and eternal. These are my Henry Moores. Only the swish of tails and slow blinking of soft eyes to shield the sun’s glare reveal that this Family Group isn’t carved of stone or shaped by molten metal, but is a small herd of Red Polls, motherly cows blessed with the same time-effacing dignity that Moore gave to his own creations.
Sometimes, country life gets the better of me and I show signs of the same languor as my Red Polls. I justify my sedentary nature by claiming that the furrows of potatoes are as beautiful as a painting by Cézanne, that listening to Britten’s Sea Interludes on Radio 3 on a summer evening is as good as hearing the real thing at Wigmore Hall.
I could easily have persuaded myself that my Red Polls, vast boulders due to calve any day now, have the hypnotic beauty of the sculpture of Moore, thus missing the exhibition on at Tate Britain. Mercifully, a rare spurt of energy and common sense came over me and, finding myself in London on a Saturday morning, I walked from Victoria to the Embankment, hoping that the queue would not be too long. In fact, there was no queue. I could have been at a private view.
Nowadays, I hire the audio guides because they slow me down, send me to small things I once would have whipped past. I even like the musical interludes, the solemn experts, and the revelations. At one point, you’re asked to look at the back of a seated woman. Then, you’re told that Moore, a Yorkshire miner’s son, the seventh of eight children, would often rub his mother’s back. She suffered from rheumatism and he would massage her back with liniment. In sculpting the strong solid backs of his female forms, Moore acknow-ledged that he was re-creating ‘the long-forgotten shape of the back I had so often rubbed as a boy’.
Much is revealed in that brief account. The son of a miner. Seventh of eight children. The hands capable of care, patience and intimacy that gave shape to the works that would become the most lasting images of sculpture for the 20th century. And that is what this exhibition achieves. A gathering together of one artist’s response to that tumultuous century, monu-mental images assembled on a human scale.
It’s all here: the early sculptures, the haunting drawings, the studies, the influences, from Aztec carvings to Picasso. And, at the end, five great reclining figures in elm, the largest timber native to Britain, its broad grain perfect for these majestic carvings. More than a grand finale, they are vaux le voyage. I gasped when I saw these figures and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. And I so nearly missed them.
In truth, my problem wasn’t just rural idleness. It was the critics. Almost every review I read began with a confession of ‘almost total aversion’ to Moore, a prickly citing of the ‘saminess’, the ‘ugliness’. It was as if the artist now triggered generational warfare, with young critics determined to dismiss him as the second-rate producer of civic art worthy only of the Queen’s Award for Export. But there was something more than a generational rejection. Call it English sneering, a kind of snobbish intellectual disdain for sculpture that is too accessible, too beautiful, too popular, too loved.
I take comfort that Moore’s sculpture will outlast the art critics. The smooth, hard surfaces carved from stones of centuries past seem prophetic of some century still to come. Like English fields where cows recline in the sun, I believe Moore’s reclining figures will outlive contemporary taste, haste and greed. This exhibition will only last until August 8, however. Go now if you can.