Henry Moore: drawn to sheep

THIS sheep's head emerges from the unfathomable cocoon of its fleece like a sculpted form appearing out of the unshaped roughness of its marble block. Looking at Henry Moore's drawings of sheep (and the etchings, like this one, which derived from them), it is easy to understand why this British sculptor became, for a few months in 1972, so obsessed with these creatures as they grazed near his home and studios in Hertfordshire. It is easy to see how perfectly this subject suited him. All the same, it would have been difficult to predict such an interest. One or two sketches of sheep made 50 years earlier hardly suggest that the animal might be of commanding concern to him. And although he had occasionally made sculpture based on animal forms rather than human, as in his imaginary animal heads of the 1950s, or ``Animal Form'' carved out of Roman travertine in 1969, they have the solid hardness of primitive, possibly even prehistoric, animal remains, rather than being sensate and vital like his sheep. And they are far from being woolly.

Moore's starting point as a sculptor, in terms of form rather than subject, was often in the hardness of bones or flints or rocks. Even in their more rounded parts, his forms were not so much soft or slack as smoothly taut.

Though he had made continual use of drawing all his career, there is a sense in which virtually everything he did was part of his thinking about sculpture. His drawing style subserved his sculptural purposes. Many drawings are clearly preparations for making sculpture, a way of exploring possibilities, of extending his imagination. He used drawing in the same way that he made small models, as part of the process of formulating his own sculpture rather than as a means of simply copying what he saw around him. Even his well-known drawings of people sleeping in the shelter of London's underground in World War II, and then of coal miners at work, seem part of this endeavor. The rows of dormant bodies in the Tube had immediately caught his imagination, because they were like hundreds of Henry Moore reclining figures. They were like his art come true - its surrealism, its dreamlike transformation of the real world into something tense, unfamiliar, even haunted, had suddenly been made a fact.

For all his plain-spoken, sensible, down-to-earthness, Moore's art does sometimes contain more than an element of nightmare - though generally his positiveness and humanity contain it.

Even his sheep drawings, however true they are to the animal's character, are not merely affectionate representations. There is something uncanny, something enigmatic about them to this artist. They are not the comfortable sleepy bundles encountered in the pastorals of Samuel Palmer's visionary art - though they do have something in common with that 19th-century artist's strange linear drawings of an ass in his early sketchbook, with its rotund body, spindly legs, and unforgettable head. Similarly, Moore could not resist the sheep's curious, appraising eyes, seeing and yet oddly unseeing. There is some- thing almost primeval in his depictions of the way sheep turn their strong, solid heads to stare with haughty indignation and suspicion, the way they walk stiffly away, the way their legs are so lean and bony, protruding surprisingly from their great masses of wool. His apparently haphazard line wanders and zigzags over the fleeces, simultaneously conveying their soft density and revealing an awareness of how the bodies, though blanketed out of sight, still dictate the animal's form. And then this same line can be worked so closely that whole areas become intensely deep and black like the silhouetted forms in Seurat's cont'e drawings (which Moore admired).

He continued to draw through the lambing season, trying, as he said,``to express the way the lambs suckled with real energy and violence,'' and, as they grew, he beautifully conveyed their robustness, the thickening weight of their tails, the still almost rope-tough feel of their wool. The book ends with a few drawings of shorn sheep. It might be expected that these would have attracted the sculptor because the structure of their bodies was now completely visible, but he found them ``pathetically forlorn, naked, skinny. ... They must feel miserable; they certainly look it,'' he wrote in his sketchbook, which was published in 1980.

It seems as though the sheep had engaged his attention because they were so unmistakably just themselves - not particularly because they might feed his sculptural imagination. Though he had very recently made a monumental sculpture which he called ``Sheep Piece,'' he gave it this name, he said, because he had ``placed it in a field and the sheep enjoyed it and the lambs played around it.'' The drawings themselves did not lead to any sculpture.

There is a direct fascination for realism, for accuracy, in his sheep drawings. This is in common with some of his other drawings in the '70s - studies of trees, of the log pile at his home, of Stonehenge, of his own hands. It is as if he was, perhaps for the first time in his career, drawing not for sculpture, but instead of sculpture.

In a certain way the sheep drawings were a sideline, started because it was impossible to do other work while the packers and shippers invaded his territory in preparation for the large retrospective in Florence that year.

He escaped the turmoil into a small studio he used for making maquettes. ``These sheep,'' he wrote, ``often wandered up close to the window. ... I began to be fascinated by them, and to draw them. ... If I tapped on the window [they] would stop and look, with that sheepish stare of curiosity. They would stand like that for up to five minutes, and I could get them to hold the same pose for longer by just tapping again on the window. It wouldn't last as long the second time, but altogether the sheep posed as well as a life model in an art school.''

And they had - presumably - much less of a notion than a human model, as to who it was that was staring back at them through the glass, and why.

``Head'' is now on view in the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, called ``Henry Moore Remembered.'' It continues through Feb. 7, 1988.

``I am not a purely abstract artist, and have never tried to be. I have three or four unending themes, and the basis of all my work is the human figure. A sculpture of mine has to have a top and bottom, a head and body. It might seem to some people to be abstract, but I know which part is the head, which part is an arm, which part is a child. Animals also have something of the same human quality. They have heads, bodies and legs, and even trees remind me of human beings. All artists have some subject that excites them more than others, and the sheep became one of those obsessive subjects.''

Henry Moore

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