Better stones and gardens; Henry Moore's sculpture gets the outdoor showing it deserves
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 November 2007)

RICHMOND, England - Now that a visitor can see the whole vast project installed, it seems obvious that one of the best places in the world to see a couple of dozen big Henry Moore sculptures is Kew Gardens, the elaborate public park formally called The Royal Botanic Gardens and celebrated for two centuries as the heart of horticultural Britain.

After all, Kew by tradition treats its plants like art objects and Moore sometimes spoke of his sculptures as if they were plants. Other sculptors described releasing the shape that lay hidden within, say, a block of stone. Moore, on the other hand, thought of art as something compelled by nature to grow. "A sculpture must have its own life," he said. "It should always give the impression of having grown organically, created by pressure from within."

At Kew, horticultural specimens have their own provenance and often their own legends. There's an enormous chestnut-leaved oak, for instance, that arrived in Kew as a seed from the Caucasus in 1843. Planted in 1846, it now stands over 30 metres tall, spreads its boughs across 30 metres and, after 161 years, grows at what the chroniclers of the arboretum lovingly describe as "an alarming rate."

A Corsican pine, which a Kew botanist collected in the south of France in 1814, has lived a peculiar drama of survival. A small aircraft smashed into its upper crown early in the 20th century and on two occasions it has been struck by lightning, an outrageous affront to popular wisdom. But it still grows, showing only a few scars on the main trunk. Many another tree is so gnarled and bent that it looks as if a sculptor, maybe a Surrealist, had invented its shape.

The German mother of George III established Kew Gardens in 1759 as a small park created on rational 18th-century lines laid down by Capability Brown and other stars of landscape design. Under Queen Victoria it grew almost to its present size, 368 acres.

And this winter, until March 30, it contains a rich, dense and altogether magnificent collection of the work of Henry Moore (1898-1986). Spread around the grounds, separated so that each piece has room to breathe and visitors can examine each work from all sides, are 28 Moore sculptures, all of them from his last three decades, all of them bronzes except one huge white fibreglass piece. Most are borrowed from the Moore Foundation at his old home, Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, which Moore set up to promote and manage his work for all eternity, if possible.

Despite the Foundation's efforts, his reputation has faded slightly in recent times -- this is the first big Moore show in the London area in 30 years. Perhaps people felt they had seen a great deal of him and knew him all too well. For a long time he was the favourite of politicians and tycoons hoping to give distinction to their buildings.

His popularity led to his tiny but memorable place in Canadian public life as the only artist ever to influence (maybe even decide) an election. In Toronto in 1966, an anti-Henry Moore candidate, William Dennison, defeated the pro-Henry Moore mayor, Phil Givens, over the issue of a Moore in Toronto's civic square. Givens got the Moore installed in the square, but for the rest of his life said the sculpture defeated him. The welcome many people gave his work left Moore with pleasant feelings about Toronto, expressed in the large gift of his work that remains one of the most impressive sections of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In his last years, Moore lacked support from younger British sculptors.

No School of Moore appeared, perhaps because he developed his style so thoroughly it was hard to imagine doing anything more with it. To be influenced by him was to look like a mimic, so sculptors of the following generation felt they had to define themselves against Moore, ignoring (and sometimes denigrating) his focus on nature. It wasn't until the appearance of Anish Kapoor, 56 years younger than Moore, that his influence could reappear, in the hollow but mysterious spaces within Kapoor's work.

Moore drew some of his inspiration from pre-Columbian South American art, but much more from natural forms. Landscape in the most general sense mattered to him; he once said he couldn't read on a train because he was afraid he would miss something outside the window. More important, he brought into his studio, and examined for long periods, the bones of animals, flintstones, shells, tangled roots, pebbles picked up on a beach, tree branches and even trunks. Bones mattered more than anything else, and in many of the pieces at Kew we can see bone-shapes reproduced, modified and extended.

Oval with Points, one of the best pieces at Kew, grew out of contemplating an elephant's skull. He said that after he gazed at the skull for a while he began to see "great deserts and rocky landscapes, big caves on the sides of hills, great pieces of architecture, columns and dungeons."

He probably made more use of snails than any other artist before or since. He studied their protective shells and began creating sculptures within sculptures, often mother-and-child shapes that show a child protected inside a mother. At Kew, his enormously complicated Large Upright Internal/External Form, nearly seven metres high, shows that influence. It began as a model carved in wood 21cm high, then became a small plaster cast version that was enlarged by his assistants in blocks of polystyrene. Further altered by Moore, the polystyrene chunks went to a foundry to be made into a bronze. Before the bronze went out into the world, Moore took cheese graters and files to scratch patterns onto the surface, his way of leaving his signature and offsetting the industrial tone of the metal.

"I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know," he said. At Kew Gardens he's been granted his wish, posthumously. The show revives his reputation, demonstrates that he's at home in the landscape, and shows that he deserves his status as one of the most engaging and powerful sculptors of the 20th century.

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