Kinder Sculpture


Jun 2010 Journal

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Art notes (review)

The majesty of Henry Moore’s sculptures is beyond dispute, but their cavernous quality reveals something anguished and fragile. Some were made to grace England’s bland, reconstructed post-war cities, but were often stolen or defaced, as though their very refinement made them unfit for purpose. Now, over 150 works by this twentieth-century master, the first in over two decades, are shown in Tate Britain’s comprehensive new exhibition until 8 August.

Moore’s oeuvre reflects his concern with maternal relationships, war and nature. His vivid drawings of skeletal Londoners sleeping in Tube stations during the Blitz became official war art, a response to his experiences on the western front as well as the trauma of the Second World War.

In the 1920s, Henry Moore was drawn to early non-Western cultures, particularly Egyptian, Peruvian, African and Oceanic art. He was attracted to its innate vitality, evident in his maternal pieces, which demonstrate a raw tenderness. Often the mother is depicted looking away but the two shapes are always integral, created with a primitive robustness. He worked in marble, alabaster, English stone and, later, in elm, especially for his famous recumbent figures, allowing the rough grain of the wood to symbolise a return to the earth. The darkness of the 1930s began to invade his work, generating less literal, erotic figures sometimes constricted by strings. He returned to mother-child subjects in some of his Blitz drawings.

African masks and primitive sculptures which so influenced the young Henry Moore, as they did Matisse, Picasso and Epstein, barely convey the true provenance of African art. Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa (British Museum until 6 June) features nearly 100 naturalistic local sculptures of exceptional quality, rarely seen in the UK. Loaned from Nigerian museums in part celebration of this year’s 50th anniversary of African independence, the work invalidates the fond Western myth of African primitivism. The talents of these west African artists have been favourably compared to - and often exceed - those of Western artists and are considered to rank among the most sophisticated in the world.

Since the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese explorers discovered local art by the indigenous Yoruba people of west Africa, these found their way into European collections and Parisian antique shops. But between 1910 and 1938, life-like sculptures were discovered in Ife, signifying not just a highly developed artistic culture, but a flourishing and cosmopolitan city-state. Its tradition dates back to 800 AD, flourishing between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.

Ife was an influential trading nation, refining its naturalistic sculpture in stone, terracotta, brass and copper-alloy to create a unique African style. Terracotta heads depicting royalty betray facial striations, made in copper, bronze, terracotta, and a process called lost wax. Its culture was an oral tradition based on myths and worship. Old age and sickness were shown alongside youth and beauty. Excavations have revealed many shrines and white quartz pebble pots used for liquid libations. The crowned heads, or Olokun, remain iconic symbols of Nigerian national identity and appear everywhere.

Gloria Tessler

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