"I often think that one thing that makes a work of art really live in a lasting way," says Richard Morphet of London's Tate Gallery, "is that it brings together opposites you wouldn't expect to find coexisting."
Mr. Morphet is talking about a Henry Moore sculpture, "Four-Piece Composition: Reclining Figure," of 1934. It was added to the Tate's collection in 1976.
Carved in Cumberland alabaster ("a beautiful color, and a stone with something almost edible about its appearance!" Morphet comments), this work has special meaning for Morphet. He wrote about it at length in the Tate's catalog of acquisitions. As Deputy Keeper of the Modern Collection, Morphet spent more than two hours with Henry Moore discussing it. A "wonderful experience," he says.
Morphet (now Keeper Emeritus of the Tate's modern collection) indicates some of the work's coexisting opposites: He finds, for instance, that it has a "reassuring stability," but is also "unavoidably disturbing." It is "in a very modern idiom, and yet has the feeling of being very ancient." Also, "it's so markedly abstract yet so insistently representational," and "it is so small in size yet potentially vast in scale."
Typical of many Moore sculptures, it works as both landscape and as human body. "His genius was again and again to convey both in a single sculpture," Morphet says.
The sculpture is also a work linked to two camps. At the time, the modern-art world was somewhat split between abstraction and surrealism. But, Morphet says, "Moore didn't feel that he had to give his allegiance wholly to either wing, and his work draws richly on both."
Another two-sidedness is that while this sculpture is "peculiarly British" in its dedication to "the doctrine of 'truth to materials' applied to stone from the artist's own country" and in its "sense of ancient occupied landscape," it is also "acutely responsive to innovation abroad." Morphet mentions, for example, "the way Picasso was prepared in paintings and sculptures to dismember and rearrange the figure." Giacometti and Arp as well were concerned with multipart works based on the human body, he adds.
"But while there is this swift assimilation of discoveries on the Continent, Moore transposes the whole thing into a statement that is distinctively his own."
Moore's vision is epitomized by this mid-1930s work. It is "prophetic of his work to come" in being a "reclining figure" yet "an extreme example of the figure's separation into as many as four parts." In doing this, "Moore was opening up the sense of sculptural space. But he also knew, of course, that a dismembered body is inherently shocking; in 1934 it must have seemed outrageous.
"Moore himself identified the parts of the body represented," Morphet says. The head (and, subsumed into it, the upper part of the body, including the arms); the body and one of the legs (the long, low element at the back in the photo above); the other leg with a thigh (at the left); and then "the small, ball-like object. This is the umbilicus. The umbilicus was particularly important for Moore as the individual's link with the rest of humanity. Moore reinforced the bodily references by incising lively lines and circles into the stone."
READING the sculpture as representing bodily parts "coexists curiously with other readings from quite different areas of experience. Each of the four forms has the character of something to be used domestically, or in sport. The head is like a vase, and also like a headrest. There's also a footrest."
At the same time, the sculpture conveys "an irresistible sense of play."
The leg and thigh element "is almost like the end of a golf club; you certainly seem to have a boomerang; and the umbilical element is like a ball, ready for some game."
Morphet is also "reminded by the leg and thigh elements of the cliff at Etretat [in France], which was painted by Courbet, Monet, and lots of others."
He is sure that the "awareness of the body" this piece convey expresses Moore's personal experience. It is thus "autobiographical; this feeling removes the whole thing instantly from the realm of art theory or preoccupation with idiom. You know it's a lived response to being in the world."
Morphet also relates - and contrasts - the sculpture to two contemporaneous British works in the Tate: Barbara Hepworth's "serene, harmonious" "Three Forms" in white marble; and a painting with multipart sculptural forms in a landscape, Paul Nash's "Equivalents for the Megaliths."
"All three works have a quality almost of dream," Morphet says.
Finally, he values the Moore for its "inviolable, powerful mystery," which he says no amount of analysis can fathom. "With its four elements set together on their containing surface, it is like a small stage on which a drama is being enacted, or the performance of a concentrated piece of chamber music. One never tires of it."
* This Moore sculpture is featured in 'The Tate 100,' one of the centenary displays at the museum beginning May 26.