Moore's majestic enigma

HENRY Moore's ``King and Queen'' of 1952-53 remains one of the most enigmatic yet (paradoxically) most human and accessible of this English sculptor's works. The enigma seems to reside in the strange amalgamation in these two figures of public dignity and subjective introspection. They are not superhuman in scale; but they are rather remote. They do not exist simultaneously as both figure and landscape, as many of Moore's sculptures do. They are quite unambiguously two personages sitting on a bench. Yet an ambiguity persists that is altogether intriguing. They are such a unity of the naturalistic and the surreal. Their pliable, sheathed bodies, greatly simplified, are surmounted by heads of dreamlike formation, reminiscent of bones or flints collected in the sculptor's studio and memory-bank: weird heads that seem, all the same, more vulnerable than aggressive, yet gaze (especially when sited, as one cast of the sculpture is, on a lonely Scottish moor) over their domain with an air of proprietary r oyalty.

Their arms are similarly bony -- carved elements of the sculpture as opposed to other more modeled parts -- though naturalistic in a way that the heads or smoothly hollowed laps are not.

Their hands are almost delicately expressive -- poised, sensitive instruments -- carved with less deliberate monumentality and ruggedness than are seen in much of Moore's work. They have an unexpected nicety, a repose, and a consciousness of touch that is an essential contribution to the atmosphere and character of the two figures, and witnesses to Moore's lifelong fascination with the form and feel of hands. As a student, as a mature sculptor in the '50s, and late in his career, he has draw n and sculpted hands with attentive interest and understanding.

The feet of the king and queen are also carved and modeled with naturalism, and although the figures are seated, their feet are placed with Massaccio-like stance and firmness on the ground. In fact, they echo the feet of the man-and-wife Egyptian statues Moore knew and admired in the British Museum.

Indeed, the whole sculpture unquestionably owes much of its spirit -- its combination of the realistic and the stylized, the primitive and the domestic, the coolly potent and the quietly gentle -- to the example of these Egyptian funerary figures. Moore has said that he associates Egyptian sculpture with ``a stillness of waiting, not of death.'' It is the inner, patient life of his ``King and Queen'' that has invested them with lasting mystery.

Some of the sculptor's own words have an explanatory bearing on the king and queen. Referring to the stone-carved figures of Chartres Cathedral, he has written that their ``bodies are like columns and the heads are realistic.'' But he adds that ``no one reproaches them for disunity of style.''

Describing the siting of the cast of ``King and Queen'' in Scotland, he has said that they have ``a magnificent view over [Glenkiln Loch] looking out toward England over the border 50 miles away.'' Clearly he enjoyed the notion that his royal couple are conceivably actual persons capable of appreciating that view.

And he has called the head of the king a ``clue.'' It is ``a combination of a crown, beard and face symbolizing a mixture of primitive kingship and a kind of animal, Pan-like quality. . . . When I came to do the hands and feet of the figures they gave me a chance to express my ideas further by making them more realistic -- to bring out the contrast between human grace and the concept of the power in primitive kingship.''

The first cast made of ``King and Queen'' is the one photographed here. It is in Antwerp's Middelheim Park. Moore has used this work to illustrate his conviction that a good sculpture works effectively in a variety of situations (though he has always stated his preference for landscape over city- scape). Certainly ``King and Queen'' maintains its presence and preserves its secrecy regardless of site.

The exploration of the two figures part by part is a telling exercise and helps to trace somewhat the sculptor's experience in their making. It is a process from which a viewer can gain a fresh sensitivity to surface, nuance, transition, and contrast.

But standing back again and looking at their majesties in toto, one realizes that their wholeness is a peculiar yet distinguished posture and reticence, imposing yet yielding, that cannot simply be grasped by means of detailed analysis or even understood by Moore's own characteristically rational explanations.

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