Moore, a modest Yorkshireman who `put sculpture on the map'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``A very direct, simple Yorkshireman.'' That's how the British sculptor Henry Moore struck American art collector Peggy Guggenheim when she met him 48 years ago -- and purchased a not-quite-so-simple bronze that he had brought along in a ``handbag'' to show to her. He was then ``teaching art to earn his living.''

Recently, a 1940s figure by Moore sold in New York for $1.5 million. Whatever that suggests about the art market, it does indicate Moore's phenomenal reputation.

This reputation was achieved long before his passing at age 88 on Sunday. It amounted to such a considerable international recognition that when London's Tate Gallery director, Alan Bowness, in his tribute, called Moore ``the greatest British artist of our time,'' it sounded rather like an understatement.

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But Moore always came across modestly. Professor Bowness summed it up: ``He was proud of his Yorkshire roots. . . . His enormous success made little difference to his way of life. . . .''

Moore described the kind of sculpture he was moved by -- and made -- as ``full-blooded and self-supporting, . . . strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains.''

The human figure was his main subject, particularly the themes of ``Reclining Woman'' and ``Mother and Child,'' but he carved the figure monumentally, half transforming it into the massiveness of giant rock formations. The form and feel of bones fascinated him, inspiring tough sculptures that combine rough with smooth, and play the sharp and abrupt against the hollowed and rounded.

His work was never completely abstract and sometimes surprisingly realistic; but its roots were in the art of ``primitive'' cultures. Sometimes it looks like a cross-fertilization of Mexican sculpture with the 11th century stone carvings he knew in Yorkshire churches. This primitiveness could disquiet those more familiar with the tradition of sculpture stemming from the Italian Renaissance -- though Moore regarded himself as part of the European development of sculpture and was an admirer of Michelangelo.

The steady growth of his reputation was sometimes encouraged at home by his success in other parts of Europe and in North America. ``Not even Michelangelo, not even Rodin, enjoyed such an audience,'' says Bowness.

A stream of large exhibitions throughout the world -- most recently a huge retrospective in Hong Kong and Japan -- is paralleled numerous books published about him and his work.

This international publicity ``has meant that a huge number of people have seen real works by him rather than illustrations,'' according to Terry Friedman, principal curator of the City Art Gallery at Leeds, Yorkshire, where Moore presented many works and set up a center for the study of sculpture.

``I think Moore was a person dedicated to the promotion of sculpture,'' Mr. Friedman says. ``One way you promote it is to show it. Before he came on the scene, sculpture was not shown in that way . . . I think his business was to put sculpture on the map.''

Richard Morphet, keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate, comments on Moore's ``exceptional prominence as a 20th century sculptor in Britain.'' Though some critics in the last decade tended to relegate Moore to the ``quite wrong'' position of being ``taken for granted,'' Mr. Morphet says, the truth is that he is of continuing interest to ``young people as well as other generations.''

``He did continue to renew himself throughout the whole of his career.'' His late drawings ``have an extraordinary spiritual intensity which I am sure people are going to go on feeling in the years ahead,'' Morphet says.

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