Dark currents flow beneath the surface of Moore's stone

THE extraordinary thing, really, about the sculpture of Henry Moore is its wide and apparently ever-increasing popularity. Consider what the venerable connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art, Berhard Berenson, had to say in the 1940s about this universally heralded English sculptor: ``The two most destructive personalities in European art today are Picasso and Moore, Picasso consciously destructive and Moore unconsciously. ... How strange it should be so, for I've never received a visitor who showed such knowledge and perception about my sculpture, not a piece of which he'd ever seen before. But I think his work monstrous, as bad as Picasso's, and it only needs a considerable artist to appear to blow Picasso and Moore sky-high.'' It seems that such a ``considerable artist'' has yet to appear.

Moore's work draws crowds, as is evident from the display of his work at the Royal Academy here through Dec. 11. The exhibition was originally arranged with his approval as a 90th-birthday tribute. Instead it offers an extensive and well-researched memorial.

Like Picasso, there is something about Moore's art that strikes people as the epitome of what they imagine modern art to be. At the same time, it has an accessibility that makes people feel it might not be such an enigma after all. And yet Moore's sculpture does have deep springs of the enigmatic.

The man himself impressed people as simple and direct, a matter-of-fact Yorkshireman, practical and sensible. But his art can't be assessed in these terms. On certain levels much of his work does seem fairly accessible. The form of his large public monuments exercises a humanizing influence on the modern architecture around them. And the persistent obsessions of his art - reclining women, mothers and children, masks and helmets, the timeless undulations of rock and hill - offer modern variations on acceptably ancient themes. But the sculpture is not really at all like the man seemed to be.

Moore always wrote and spoke about his work with measured reasonableness, and the idealism in his art is also a kind of reasonableness. Yet there is a discomfort, even a pent-up violence, never far from the surface. That is probably what Berenson found so distasteful. Moore wasn't often verbally explicit about the darker side of his art. But he came close to the tenor of his work when he wrote (as quoted in one of the wall texts peppered around the galleries): ``All that is bursting with energy is disturbing - not perfect. It is the quality of life. The other is the quality of the ideal. It could never satisfy me.''

The exhibition here, covering his entire career, amply shows that the undercurrents of Moore's vision were manifold. His works convey a stirring, brute admiration for physical strength and deep-rooted instinct, as well as a disturbed sense of an ambiguity in human nature that vacillates between protective affection and aggression. Frequently they illustrate a profound struggle to balance the energy or force of life with the disintegration or inertia of death. And in art historical terms, his work demonstrates a very 20th-century preference for primitive forms and means of expression over the tame, academic tradition of sculpture harking faintly back to the Renaissance.

This primitiveness is pointed up by a striking contrast in the first gallery: on the one hand a prettily incisive copy (done in Moore's student days) after a Renaissance Madonna, and on the other a group of primitive half figures of thick-necked, broad-shouldered girls.

The exhibition is well staged, given the limitation of its being indoors. You can always move right around the sculptures, which is essential with Moore. The Academy was self-conscious about this being an indoor show, since Moore's late sculpture in particular was so deliberately scaled to the open air and its space and light. The slightly comical, certainly theatrical ``solution'' in a few of the rooms has been to paint the walls with a backdrop of scudding clouds and cerulean sky.

Moore is durable. He withstood - or rather the best of his sculpture withstood - both early unpopularity and late overpopularity. It looks as though it will also take in its stride the inevitable attempts to debunk or at least diminish his extraordinary reputation.

His sculpture, produced through such a lengthy creative career, only occasionally allows itself moments of an almost completely light-hearted celebration of life - as in the little ``Rocking Chair'' bronzes of 1950 - or of simple tenderness, as in the Madonna and Child. But its conflicts are fruitful ones. It is never born of a deathly despair, even when his figures are at their most skeletal and spare.

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