When Auguste Rodin died at the age of seventy-seven on 17th November 1917, Henry Moore was a nineteen-year-old soldier serving on the front in France. Moore’s wartime experience would end when he was demobilised after a gas attack and it was at this point his life as a sculptor began. He attended art school in his native Leeds; while browsing the shelves in the reference library, he came across a book of conversations between Rodin and Paul Gsell:
I remember in it somewhere Rodin saying that when he got stuck with modelling a clay sculpture, he would sometimes drop it on the floor and have another look. Now this was for me, as a young sculptor, a tremendous revelation of how you can take advantage of accidents, and how you should always try and look at a thing over again, with a fresh eye.
This is the thing the two sculptors share, the need to look over and again, to bring to their forms a fresh eye. And it is compelling to want to compare the two great sculptors, both of whom were so in tune with the shapes and contours of the body; however, going around the current Moore Rodin exhibition at Moore’s house and studio in Perry Green, what is most interesting is the contrast. Rodin’s project was to capture the human form faithfully in bronze and clay. His figures become symbols of what we aspire to and exert upon the earth – beauty, power, passion, love. ‘I invent nothing, I rediscover,’ he said. Rilke talked about Rodin’s figures as ‘strange monuments of the momentary’, and that idea of the monument is central to Rodin. We are not common, we exert our presence on the world. This is a celebration of the individual, each man a miracle.
Whereas Moore’s figures are not representative. They embody ideas, concepts, they grow from the landscapes in which they are placed (I’ve always thought Moore’s figures really come into their own outdoors, particularly in rural landscapes where he was most at home, and where they merge with the contours of the hills). They are not about the individual as much as all humanity. For it wasn’t the First War, the one in which he fought, that formed Moore, but the Second, the war that forced him and his family to flee London for Perry Green, where he remained for the rest of his life. That was the war that touched him, and his drawings of groups of Londoners sheltering together from air-raids in the Underground are what I think of when I think of Moore. Humanity, what it is to be human; even in his individual figures there is this sense of all of us, moving in all directions at once.
Rodin died at the very moment when it became possible to imagine dimensionality in art, Cubism breaking a figure into facets of itself, and Moore picks up the baton. By putting the two artists together what we see is a progression. That is not to say that Rodin was reactionary; his work begins to push at the twentieth century well before it arrived (it is nearly impossible for us to view his work today and recall the shock with which it was received). Moore acknowledges this debt, and says that all of his generation were influenced by Rodin in some respect – the great master.
What is always exciting for me is going to a place where an artist worked. Having visited Rodin’s house a couple of years ago (and having recorded the experience in a previous post), it was a great pleasure to finally visit Perry Green. As we walked around the grounds, I thought it was strange that the gently rolling and fairly sedate landscape of Herfordshire was were Moore spent most of his life – I still equate him with the rugged and rough hills of West Yorkshire – but looking again at his undulating forms in situ, perhaps there was something after all in this landscape that softened him.