Truly great sculptors are very few and far between. If you can click off the names of 10 great sculptors from antiquity to the current day, you are likely in the throes of studying for an art history test or you are a sculptor.
Considering the dozens of great and recognizable art movements — the “isms” — of the 20th century, it’s rather shocking how few modern sculptors bubble up to the top of the art historical canon. Other than Brancusi, Giacometti, Henry Moore and Picasso (yes, Picasso may have been the most influential sculptor of the 20th century), there are very few obvious choices.
British sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) was one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the last century. And like so many of the greatest sculptors from Michelangelo on, Moore made drawings. Lots of drawings. Lots of great drawings.
Particularly for sculptors who do figurative work (like Moore), drawing isn’t just a way of marking down ideas; it is a method for delineating curves and forms. The relationship between painting and drawing might seem more obvious, but painters often use drawing as a way to map out a painting with an eye to composition or structure.
But for figurative sculptors, drawings are a way to establish critical contours around which a sculpture is formed.
This is absolutely true of Moore’s work, and it is one of the reasons why Bowdoin College’s new exhibition — “Henry Moore — The Drawings: Works on Paper from the Henry Moore Family Collection” — is so exciting. It reveals the visual thought process of one of our culture’s greatest artists.
Moore could really draw, and his style, even for quick sketches, is vibrant and astonishingly lucid. If you know his work, the drawings reinforce how Moore’s priorities come across perfectly in all of it. If you haven’t seen many of his pieces in person (they are rather dispersed throughout the world), Bowdoin’s exhibition is a tremendous introduction.
One of my favorite drawings is an image of an old man from 1921. It is a quick and tiny sketch, but its realism leaves no doubt about Moore’s ability and facility. As well, it shows Moore, even at a very young age, had unusually easy access to the emotional and psychological qualities of his subjects.
Moore would fill pages with versions or varying viewpoints of what could become a sculpture. Many of these are titled (or referred to as) “ideas for sculptures.” There are at least 12 such sheets in the show, with anywhere from four to 14 images placed in grids. Many are recognizably Moore: small heads on heroically-scaled figures, families, reclining figures, arching organic lines, bold contours and solid volumes.
Others could be by Giacometti or some creepy Surrealist: grids of human heads, for example, filled with machines — uncanny and deeply disconcerting. I have to admit, I am glad Moore never really dedicated himself to sculpting such work. As full-size, figurative work, it would be terrifying — the stuff of nightmares.
Moore’s technique is so strong that there is little obvious difference between his sprinted sketches and what seem to be finished drawings. His use of pencil, ink, wash, watercolor and chalk varies widely and yet not obviously; all of the drawings are cool and subdued. His color sense is never jarring or explosive. All of the drawings are presented with a feel for contour, and many swell with a compelling sense of volume.
In several drawings from the 1920s and ’30s, Moore uses one of Picasso’s signature techniques in which a person’s face is seen in profile and then extended so that half appears frontally. For Picasso, the trick is all about graphic and pictorial logic, but in Moore’s hands, it comes across as a tool for sketching sculpture.
“Seated Woman” (1948) might not be the strongest drawing in the show, but it reveals a great deal about Moore’s sculpture, and is extremely interesting on its own. A woman wearing a toga-like tunic sits on a Roman bench. The bench is on a wooden floor and placed against a bare wall. The monochromatic woman appears gigantic. Her curved volumes are marked as though by white and yellow jigsaw cuts. They make her a sculpture even though she is seated in an architectural space. Even her gestures are those of a sculpture rather than a person.
The effect is astonishing but clear: Moore made sculptural objects for us to encounter. She has no life but that which we project into her.
Moore’s work is ultimately in the service of the viewer’s visual (and bodily) experience. It only functions through what we see. It only matters when encountered by the audience. It is only art when experienced as culture by a viewer. His sculpture might seem heroic or even, at times, grandiose, but his drawings reveal a deeply respectful human sensitivity.
I already thought Moore was one of the greats, but Bowdoin’s show makes me like him even more.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]