JEAN WATT discusses how the stability of public sculpture can provide some comforting tangibility in a time where our reality is more virtual than we could have ever imagined.
How to write about something which feels like a secret I want to keep to myself? I’ll give it a go.
Henry Moore’s Two-Piece Reclining Figure No.5. is a bronze sculpture in the gardens of Hampstead Heath’s Kenwood House. A figure made up of two parts, it is as if it has been cracked in half, with a head, shoulders and torso in one piece and legs in another. The curved shape of an abstracted body dips and rolls, arches and bulges, and then is sliced abruptly down the middle. A tree rises up behind, spied through the empty gap between its two halves. The split body itself is like two chopped trunks.
The piece was made between 1963-4, one of Moore’s many post-war abstract bronzes. Within his immense body of work, the theme of the reclining figure, as well as the mother and child, is endlessly repeated. Here, the figure is bulky and boulderous, as if two great rocks have been eroded by the wind to reveal the misshapen forms of a body: evidence, of course, of Moore’s lifelong love affair with nature. ‘Sculpture is an art of the open air’, the artist said in 1951. Standing before this work, it is hard to disagree.
So, what is it about this Moore that feels important now? Important to me? I think it has something to do with its weightiness. At the moment, I exist mostly in a virtual world, strapped to my screen in order to stay connected to my university life (and social life, ha!). It’s a strange feeling, existence mediated through a screen. Sometimes I feel like all people see of me is a kind of projected floating head à la Wizard of Oz, but really, pull back the curtain and I’m a tiny human being! With legs, and stuff! Anyway, I digress. I think the point I’m trying to make is that I miss the tangible. I miss the physical world, the experience of hugging a friend or grabbing on to a bus pole. This heavy, glossy Moore feels like a magnet that’s drawing me back to it, as much as it can.
There is so much comfort in this enormous heaviness. It amazes me that the piece was made as a prototype for a larger reclining figure, set to be twenty-eight feet long and seventeen feet high. It is hard to imagine the potential massiveness of this later work, over double the size of what already feels giant. But, actually, I suppose it isn’t that giant. It’s giantness is magnified by its surroundings; the rolling hills of the heath and beyond, which it oversees. Standing next to it, Highgate curling away in the distance, I feel like I’m towering alongside it.
Its surface is equally miraculous. The bronze is a blackened green; when the light hits certain parts it seems almost emerald. Pockmarks and scratches mar the entirety in a crisscross of scarred texture. As you walk around it, it seems to shift with you, shadows cast across the surface changing the shape and colour constantly.
Despite my love for this figure, I do have one gripe which I can’t ever push fully from my mind. The pedestal. It confuses me to no end, this big, rectangular block surrounded by a sad, low fence which seems only to deaden the luxurious forms which stand upon it. Perhaps there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this mounting, such as ease of transportation or protection, as the work is a prototype. But, take some of Moore’s other works, like Large Two Forms (1969) or Sheep Piece (1971-72), also two-part sculptures. Nestled directly into the grass, like bowling balls that have been dropped from a great height and left behind, nature shooting up around them. Admittedly, these are later works, perhaps reflective of Moore’s eventual rejection of the pedestal, emblematic of Modernist sculptural ideals. But, the fence! I can only assume it aims to deter small children from running and jumping on it, sitting among the fragmented pieces of a colossal body. Why not let them jump? Sit among the pieces of a giant.
Henry Moore OM, CH, Two Piece Reclining Figure No.5, 1963-4, cast date unknown, archival photograph outside Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, Germany. 237.5 xm x 368.3 cm x 198.8 cm. Image courtesy of The Henry Moore Foundation.
Moore marks much of the English landscape, most notably in the gardens at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green. But, there is also much to see in London, particularly London’s parks. So if, like me, you’re trapped here, there’s The Arch (1979-80) in Kensington Gardens, Three Standing Figures (1947-48) in Battersea Park, Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge (1961) in Greenwich Park, amongst many others. These massive, surging forms can maybe offer some kind of relief, a return to the physical world.
If I’ve learned anything over the past months, it is that sometimes a certain thing starts to feel like the only thing anchoring you to the ground. And without it, maybe you’d float away. As I walk down the wide avenue in front of Kenwood House, amongst the throngs of people out on their government-sanctioned walks, this Moore feels like one of those things. Grounding and heartening, quiet and slight. Well, now I’ve told you about it, maybe it can stop you floating away too.
Featured image: Henry Moore OM, CH, Two Piece Reclining Figure No.5, 1963-4, cast date unknown. 237.5 xm x 368.3 cm x 198.8 cm. Image courtesy of On the Grid: Kenwood House.