August 8, 2010

Art Review: Moore exhibit reveals a great artist's visual thought process


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.

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“Henry Moore: The Drawings” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick

Images courtesy Henry Moore Family Collection and Hauser & Wirth, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

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“Helmet Heads,” 1949, pencil, chalk, charcoal, wax crayon, watercolor, ink and gouache

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"HENRY MOORE -- THE DRAWINGS: Works on Paper From the Henry Moore Family Collection" (organized by Hauser & Wirth New York, London, Zurich, in collaboration with the Moore Family)

WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick

WHEN: Through Oct. 3

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; until 8:30 p.m. Thursday;1 to 5 p.m. Sunday

COST: Free

PUBLIC RECEPTION: 5:30 p.m. Friday

INFO: 725-3275;

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.

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Additional Photos

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“Seated Woman” 1948, pencil, wax crayon, ink and wash


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