Modern Sculpture, Primitive Roots
THEY were born within a very few years of each other.
The first, Leon Underwood, in Shepherd's Bush, London, at the end of 1890.
The second, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, just outside Orleans, France, 1891.
The third, Henry Moore, in the Yorkshire town of Castleford, 1898.
Their careers could scarcely have taken more different routes. Yet all three were sculptors who worked in England, and who made outstanding contributions to what amounts to an English naissance (rather than a renaissance) in sculpture in the 20th century. They had this in common: a determination to instill sculpture with a vitality and power based on primitivism; a recognition that sculpture had in the previous centuries been increasingly stifled and emasculated by its academic devotion to the Hellenisti c ideal. When Moore talked of the need to take Greek spectacles from the eyes of modern sculptors, he was far from being a lone voice. He was part of a change, but not a full-scale movement. Nevertheless, what Gaudier, Underwood, and Moore had in common did not mean that the way in which they made their separate marks on "the story of art" wasn't as individual as it could be.
There has been no doubt in the art world's mind which sculptor is the "greatest." Henry Moore's sculpture, produced in an unstoppable stream of creativity, has encircled the globe from Italy to Mexico, from New York to Athens, from Tokyo back to Yorkshire - commissioned, exhibited, admired, written about. His was an astonishing career of persistent imaginativeness and ambition, his art full of complex challenges to convention, his imagination as strange, disturbing, and experimental as his personal demea nor was matter-of-fact and uncomplicated.
In his early days, Moore's work had prompted outrage from the art establishment and simple incomprehension and ridicule from the man in the street. Later he was thought of as "great."
He made no concessions to popular taste. Even if some of his works are more sympathetic than others - those for instance on such accessibly identifiable themes as mother and child or strong landscape forms - there is often a tension between the tender and the aggressive, between the animal and the human in his works, which seems to have no connection at all with the ordinary Yorkshire chap who conceived it.
But if Moore is set in context as a 20th-century artist - set for example against Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, or Salvador Dali on the one hand, or such pure Abstractionists as Piet Mondrian or Naum Gabo on the other - he can be seen as an integrator rather than an instigator. Synthesis looks to be his achievement - the ability to bring into one work disparate elements so that they balance rather than explode.
And if Moore is compared with Gaudier-Brzeska and Underwood, who by his own admission as well as by the evidence of actual sculptures had an effect on his primary development in the 1920s, then it is possible to define with more sensitivity the character and historical place of Moore's art.
The art world sees both the artists as lesser figures - Gaudier because of his career, which had the energy of a box of fireworks, was startlingly brief. He was killed in battle, in the French lines, in 1915. It has been pointed out that if Moore had lost his life at the age Gaudier did, there would have been virtually no work to hint what he might have become. Gaudier's energy was not just prodigious, it was the very essence of his art. The cut-short promise of his oeuvre - which consists of a comparati vely few sculptures and a host of drawings - is particularly tantalizing. His art was an extraordinary mixture of mature certainty and youthful indecisiveness.
Gaudier threw himself vigorously into an espousal of the "Vorticist" campaign for modernism, recognizing the machine is a symbol of the new century. This meant a dichotomy in his work: on one side a fluent naturalism, on the other a cubistic geometry of planes. There were signs that at just the time he went off to fight in the trenches, Gaudier was realizing the need to fuse these two kinds of energy in his growing vision, the organic and the geometrical. He wrote to Ezra Pound, who along with Wyndam Lew is was a leading proponent of Vorticism in the pre-World War I years, that he was planning an article on "The Need of Organic Forms in Sculpture."
Gaudier's sculpture "Bird Swallowing a Fish" of 1914 is a move in the direction of a synthesis, though the geometrically stylized fish presents a major swallowing problem for the more natural, if primitive, bird. Gaudier had always claimed emotion and instinct as his "inspiring force" and one biographer dubbed him a "savage" not without reason. But this particular sculpture was not spontaneous. It was carefully mulled over and planned and has a degree of balance that the sculptor seems likely to have bui lt on had he lived. Lewis used an apt phrase: "Brzeska's peculiar soft bluntness." It's a phrase which might have been applied later to Moore.
Gaudier had an intense interest in so-called primitive sculpture from a diversity of cultures. This side of him, too, must have appealed to Moore. Both artists devoted many hours to studying in the ethnographical galleries of the British Museum. Moore transforms but never hides the influence on him of Mexican, African, and Egyptian sculpture. He pointed to Roger Fry's essay on "Negro Sculpture" of 1920 as decisive in his development. In it Fry refers to the "disconcerting vitality" of African sculptures,
"possessing an inner life of their own." He also said that they "really conceive form in three dimensions." Moore was to repeat many times that exactly similar ideals applied to his own work.
Thoroughly investigated three-dimensionality concerned Moore deeply, partly for the reason that it was so integral an aspect of primitive sculpture. As "Upright Internal/External Form" of 1951 shows, he extended this by opening up (or delving into) the internal and well as fully exploring the external form in his sculptures. Somewhat fancifully we might say that by the time Moore made this piece, modern sculpture had developed to the point where "the bird" had swallowed "the fish." This work is a full in tegration of the organic and the abstract, the one feeding the meaning and imaginative possibilities of the other. It can be "read" in a number of ways. It is entirely Moore's vision, of course, but at the same time it can be seen as a development of sculptural possibilities which Gaudier and others had helped to open up.
Moore and Gaudier never met. Moore states that it was Gaudier's words (quoted in Ezra Pound's 1916 book on Gaudier) that inspired him. But Moore would also have seen the works reproduced in that book when he encountered it in 1922.
Underwood and Moore, however, did meet. Not much different in age, the relationship was teacher to student. Underwood was teaching life drawing when Moore was a student at London's Royal College. When Underwood suddenly left (after a clash with the principal), Moore was one of several students who went to his studio and asked him to continue teaching them. Underwood was unconventional. He emphasized form over contour in figure drawing, discouraged meticulous shading, and pointed out that form is constant , but the light that falls on it may vary.
All of this confirmed Moore's sculptural sense of the figure. It can't have been entirely a surprise when Moore accidentally discovered one evening in 1925 that Underwood was starting to make sculpture. Like Moore (and incidentally like Gaudier), Underwood naturally was a direct carver rather than a modeler. Moore suggested certain chisels might make Underwood's task easier. Underwood (perhaps conscious that he was meant to be the teacher) said he preferred the difficult tool he had chosen.
Underwood was a dreamer in a way the earthbound but humanistic Moore never was. He also deliberately kept himself and his work out of the limelight, unlike Moore. He didn't just study Aztec sculpture in the British Museum, he went on a trip to Mexico to see it in its habitat.
Moore did not go overboard in his appreciation of Underwood's influence on him. He was almost the only teacher from whom he had learned anything "useful," he said. At least one critic-historian has suggested that Moore might have been slightly more generous in his acknowledgement of the immediate influences of some of the modern artists he encountered as a student. It is actually difficult to tell how much he owed to Underwood's ideas and work, or even to what extent the student began to influence the te acher.
For a period they produced strikingly similar sculptures. However, to look at Underwood's remarkable elmwood "Regenesis" is to find certain things in common - including primitivism - but at the heart a vast difference.
Moore may have made "upright" as well as "reclining" figures in his sculpture, but the miniature totem of birds lifting up from the figure's mouth in Underwood's 1930 sculpture is an overt symbol of aspiration and regeneration. It has a kind of Blake-like optimism that is never found in Moore. Underwood clearly aims to reach higher than his materials. Moore, once described by John Russell as a "burrower," stayed close to the earth, exploring the ambiguity that exists somewhere between inert stone, wood, or metal and the living vitality of the human. But no birds ascend out of the mouths of his figures.