In Focus

Henry Moore: A Modernist's "Primitivism"

The following is a 2001 essay by Alan Wilkinson published in Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century. _While the aesthetics of various cultures from the Americas, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa had significant influences on the development of modernist abstraction, the modernist use of the term "primitive art" to refer collectively to works from different time periods, cultures, and contexts is inherently problematic. _

"The term 'Primitive Art' is generally used to include the products of a great variety of races and periods in history, many different social and religious systems." [1]

In his drawings and sculpture, and in his writings and interviews, Henry Moore's dialogue with primitive art, as he used and understood the term, is unique in the history of modernist primitivism. During the 1920s and 1930s, and sporadically during the 1940s and 1950s, the influence of primitive art—prehistoric fertility goddesses, African, Oceanic, Peruvian, and above all, pre-Columbian sculpture—had a more sustained impact on Moore's work than on the work of any other major 20th-century painter or sculptor. With artists such as Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brancusi, Jacques Lipchitz, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Alberto Giacometti, there is little or no documentary evidence as to specific examples of primitive art with which they were familiar and which may have informed their work directly or indirectly. Moore, on the other hand, especially in his notebook drawings of the 1920s, provides us with an extensive and invaluable record of specific sculptures and artifacts which he had seen on his many trips to the British Museum, and in a number of books on primitive art. I have identified drawings in the notebooks of the 1920s of prehistoric European, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Cycladic art, as well as the far more numerous copies of African, Oceanic, Peruvian, Northwest Coast, and Inuit artifacts and sculpture. These drawings not only document those sculptures which Moore particularly admired to the extent that he felt compelled to record them in his notebooks; but in a number of instances, they also reveal the exact sources in primitive art for specific sculptures, thereby revealing the creative process itself, that is to say, the way in which a work has been assimilated and transformed, as Epstein commented, "according to the personality of the artist. A complete re-creation in fact though a new mind."[2]

Moore first became aware of primitive art in 1920 when he read Roger Fry's Vision and Design (1920) during his last year at the Leeds School of Art. Certain passages in the chapters "Negro Sculpture" and "Ancient American Art" not only prepared the young Yorkshire sculptor for the great ethnographic collections of the British Museum but also shaped his ideas on two important concepts: direct carving and the full, three-dimensional realization of form.

In his article "Primitive Art" (1941) Moore takes us on a guided tour of the British Museum and describes his reactions during his first visits in 1921 to the collections of prehistoric, Egyptian, Sumerian, archaic Greek, African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian sculpture. No other artist has provided us with such a detailed record of his encounter with primitive art. Moore explained why he particularly admired pre-Columbian sculpture, which was the most important formative influence on his work of the 1920s:

"Mexican sculpture, as soon as I found it, seemed to me true and right, perhaps because I at once hit on similarities in it with some 11th-century carvings I had seen as a boy on Yorkshire churches. Its "stoniness," by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power in that loss of sensitiveness and its astonishing variety and fertility of form-invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture." [3]

Moore's response to the pre-Columbian sculpture he had seen in the British Museum was almost immediate–as immediate as it could have been, given the demands of the academic curriculum during his first year at the Royal College of Art. In the summer of 1922, Moore executed his earliest carving inspired by pre-Columbian art, the Portland stone Mother and Child, which is, as John Russell has suggested, very close to the squatting pose and blocklike massiveness of the Aztec stone seated man, circa 1400-1500 CE, in the British Museum. Several of Moore's stone heads and masks of the 1920s are almost pastiches of their pre-Columbian prototypes. The 1923 alabaster Head is remarkably similar to the head of a man in the Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna, which is illustrated on page 10 of Ernst Fuhrmann's Mexiko III (1922). He may well have seen a copy of this publication at Zwemmer's bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Moore's little marble Snake of 1924 was undoubtedly inspired by the coiled serpents of the Aztecs. With these three works, all one can do is suggest what appear to be obvious affinities between the Moore carvings and examples of pre-Columbian sculpture. We have no way of knowing whether the artist was actually inspired by the Aztec seated man, or by a specific mask or coiled serpent.

The Chacmool reclining figure in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, was, Moore told me, "undoubtedly the one sculpture which most influenced my early work." I would add that it was the one sculpture that most influenced his lifelong obsession with the reclining figure theme. [See, for example, 1965.2] When I asked him why the Chacmool had made such a powerful impact on him, he replied: "Its stillness and alertness, a sense of readiness–and the whole presence of it, and the legs coming down like columns." I can think of no other single work of primitive art that has had such an overwhelming and sustaining influence on an artist as the Chacmool had on the sculpture of Henry Moore. Indeed, I do not think that he ever forgot the pose, the rhythms, and the massive weightiness of the pre-Columbian stone carving, nor the sense of watchfulness and alertness that the head conveys.

In the history of modernist primitivism, Moore's borrowings from primitive art, perhaps more than the work of any other major artist, refute Robert Goldwater's contention that "direct formal adaptations have been few, and except perhaps for Brancusi himself, very little modern sculpture even recalls the general proportions and rhythm of any specific tribal style." [FN]. Moore's notebooks of the 1920s and 1930s not only recorded numerous examples of primitive art with which he was familiar, but in a number of instances the drawings also document the transformation of identifiable sources into ideas for specific sculptures. Through his writings, we experience those sculptural characteristics of primitive art that Moore so admired, its truth to the material, and its extraordinarily varied, conceptual re-creation of the human figure. In my many discussions with Moore about prehistoric European, African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian sculpture, I cannot recall a single instance when he veered from his fascination with the formal, three-dimensional qualities of the works, as well as the often staggering technical brilliance with which the artists manipulated their materials.

[1] Philip James, ed., Henry Moore on Sculpture (London: Macdonald, 1966), 155, originally published as "Primitive Art" in The Listener, 24 August 1941.

I fully realize how problematic the usage of the term "Primitive Art" is. Nonetheless this loaded phrase held very specific, nonderogatory meanings for Moore and his contemporaries in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

[2] Jacob Epstein, interviewed by Arnold Haskell, in Arnold L. Haskell, The Sculptor Speaks (London: William Heinemann, 1931), 96.

[3] James, 159.

Adapted from

  • Alan Wilkinson, "Moore: A Modernist's Primitivism," in Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century, ed. Dorothy Kosinski (Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 32-41.

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