Henry Moore

Large bad statue


Public art. As a concept, we should embrace it: art for everyone, in an open and democratic space; its purpose to brighten our day, or provoke comment, or simply make us look at our familiar cityscape anew. And there have been many brilliant examples in London. The fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square (where the giant blue cock, the subject of a previous post, is still crowing); Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner; Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park (which was promptly closed as soon as the big event was over; I am looking forward to its reopening); absolutely anything by Moore or Hepworth.


So when the powers that be get these things right, they are extraordinary and vital additions to the environment. But when they get them wrong …

I have always hated Maggie Hambling’s ‘bench’ sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde. I compare this to Wilde’s grave, designed by the great Jacob Epstein, which must be one of the most beautiful and appropriate memorials ever created – with Epstein’s stylised male angel in flight, his wings like a ocean spreading behind him. To be fair to Hambling, I have mentioned her Scallop in a previous post, a tribute to Benjamin Britten and Aldeburgh and Peter Grimes, a remarkable piece which is for me wholly successful. But there are several things that work against her Wilde. Firstly, the strange composition, with Wilde’s bronze head emerging from a dark granite block that’s more like a grave – its role as a bench is not apparent, nor is the cold hard granite particularly inviting as a seat. The location doesn’t help – in a thoroughfare behind St Martin’s, across from Charing Cross Station; not a place many people think to stop (apart from the winos who congregate around the tube station exit). The head itself resembles a twisted mass of spaghetti or a horror movie zombie. It’s a strange, misguided piece.


But not as shocking as Meeting Place, the monstrous sculpture of two lovers embracing, like Rodin’s Kiss re-envisioned by Jack Vettriano. It is too huge to ignore, spoiling the beautiful lines of the magnificent St Pancras Station. There was a story that Ruskin used to make a long and indirect detour in his daily walk to avoid having to look at Keble College in Oxford (which offended his architectural sensibilities); no such opportunity for innocent commuters. I was coming off the train, having spent a lovely weekend in Paris, only to encounter the ghastly sight – it’s practically the first thing you see when you arrive in London on Eurostar. Antony Gormley (whose works of public art are always appropriate and resonant – just look at the way people have embraced his Angel of the North or his figures on Crosby Beach) has referred to it as ‘crap’. The sculptor is Paul Day – not exactly a household name – but a quick look on Wikipedia shows that he has other public works on display in London and Brussels. When his monumental piece for St Pancras was unveiled, he came out fighting:

This is not an art work that is going to be selected for the Turner Prize. It isn’t a Damien Hirst sculpture of a pregnant woman stripped down to the constituent parts. It is diametrically opposed to that sort of art. It isn’t about a cynical world view or the artist’s glory.

Some will say it is a chocolate box sculpture. But I don’t want it to be bound by the prevailing view of art. Meeting Place is an appeal to universal values.


I don’t see how a sculpture of a pregnant woman, by Damien Hirst or anyone else, represents a ‘cynical world view’. Also, I would be interested to know what the ‘prevailing view of art’ is exactly, at least as far as Day is concerned. He seems to be defending his own work, and at the same time attacking what he considers to be modern, and therefore not appealing ‘to universal values’. It’s like Munnings attacking Picasso (and who is the more famous of the two today?). Day’s attitude infuriates me, even more than his terrible sculpture, the idea that he’s presenting what people want, a radical campaigner in his extraordinary Daily Mail-type conservatism. Talk about ego …

Speaking of which, what government department, what small group of individuals with clearly no taste but plenty of opinions (and a control of the purse strings – Day’s piece cost £1 million), was actually responsible for choosing it?


Although I am interested in what is contemporary in art, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I would want Hirst’s pregnant woman encountering me in the train station. It goes without saying that public art should be appropriate to its surroundings. Further along the concourse at St Pancras is a work which is not shouting its value systems at its viewers. It is a conventional, figurative piece of sculpture which is also never going to be up for the Turner, but it is a perfect little celebration of one person – the poet John Betjeman – who, as the laureate of both the Northern suburbs of London and the great Victorian structures of the city, would be delighted to find himself, a compass point, in the middle of the throng, his raincoat catching the breeze like a sail.

Anthony Caro, 1924-2013

It is interesting how reputations are set once an artist dies. Anthony Caro, who died last Wednesday, was described in various obituaries as ‘Britain’s greatest sculptor’ and ‘one of the finest artists of his generation’. Sometimes the loss of a great figure creates hyperbole, but in the case of Caro, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he changed the course of sculpture in this country.

From the moment Caro decided not to become an accountant, as his father wanted, and to go to art school, he was single-minded in his pursuit of what came before, as a way of working out what to do next. He learned much from painters, specifically from Picasso and Matisse, who challenged the two-dimensional space of the canvas. It was only after he became an assistance to Henry Moore, perhaps Britain’s greatest sculptor of his day, that he really received the education he desired. Moore threw books at him, showed him classical sculpture, African tribal work, anything that would be useful for the younger artist. But the main thing Moore gave him was the ability to see sculpture removed from the plinth, removed from the gallery altogether. And that’s where Caro took off:

What we wanted to do at that time was to make sculpture work as something in its own right, not as something that depended on its likeness to nature. We wanted to make it more fully abstract, just as music is abstract. But sculpture’s materiality always tries to suck the sculpture back into the world of things. It was for this reason we had to open sculpture up. Our intent was to repudiate the object – and naturally our starting point was painting, Cubism and Matisse. Abstract sculpture began to take charge of the space it occupied, first by standing on the same literal ground as we do, then by bringing the floor itself to bear on the work, and later by taking into its realm table height and the wall.

Caro wasn’t interested in casting. He was interested in taking already-existing materials (as all artists seem to do now) and working them into a particular form. He was interested in colour – his love of Matisse showed him that colour can pitch nature into an entirely new perspective, and there he met abstract expressionism and later pop art head on. He made sculptures that were entirely themselves, which occupied a particular space, and resonated. He was interested in scale, how we measure up to things. He said:

Public sculpture identifies place. It gives the city-dweller a sense of ‘being somewhere’. And so it has to call to its surroundings and to the public. It can – and I believe nowadays it often should - invite participation. How a sculpture is seen by the viewer is always of extreme importance …

I thought of this just a few weeks ago when I was at the Museo Correr, for the Biennale’s Caro retrospective – what was the be his final show. There was a room of early drawings, which I had never seen before, and which gave a sense of the sculpture playing with ideas of weight and depth on paper.

Caro’s work, which was always playing with the new, but with a nod to the old, looked right at home in the hard and shining marble and terrazzo of the Correr. I watched a couple walk around and around one of the larger free-standing pieces that filled an entire gallery, trying to find the welding marks. They finally concluded, as one must, that the sculpture does not come apart, it is not a flat-pack assemblage. And then they turned to the guard and asked how they managed to get it into the building (the Correr’s temporary galleries are on the 4th floor of the palazzo), and the guard pointed to the large double window. And we all had an image of this great flying bird, something fantastic, scaling the heights of the edifice, with all of San Marco watching in amazement. We know the works weigh tons, but they also feel weightless, light, effortless, flowing.

Leaving the Correr and coming into the pristine square of San Marco, I was left with a celebration of form and shape – abstract, yes – but always placing us in the frame somehow, that idea that we should not simply be spectators, but participants. And that is immensely uplifting in an age where so many things are presented to us virtually, on screen. I’ll finish with these words from Caro himself:

All the artists I believe in are some sort of optimist. Optimism of this sort, like serenity, is hard won. Art is a religious activity – it’s about living. Decay and dying are something else. I can’t allow myself self-pity or a morbid attitude. There’s too much left to do in the studio. That’s the source as well as the place for my optimism.

Moore / Rodin


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. 

New year’s resolutions?

The sculptor Henry Moore was perhaps most eloquent on the subject: ‘I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the year’s’. For the artist or writer, it is virtually impossible to set such restrictions on how to create, for so much of our practice is based on (I hate this word) inspiration. Inspiration is just a heightened term for not really knowing what is going to happen next, when suddenly, it just happens. There are writers who swear by schedules: you must be at your desk at a certain hour for a certain length of time, and in that time, you must produce a certain number of words; so that writing becomes like any office task. And that discipline works for some writers, although I would imagine it is more suitable for prose writers than for poets. Definitely not suitable for me; I have never been a disciplined writer. When I was working on my (still unpublished) novel, I would find twenty reasons not to be writing, perhaps because it felt too much like hard work. I have always responded best to spontaneity, writing myself to an answer when I didn’t know the question in the first place. In his poem ‘Lesson’, Eamon Grennan describes that moment:

and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

I wish I could sit down at my desk every morning and start writing and know that by the time I get up again I will have something meaningful, something worth pursuing. Poets seem to be particularly slow and inconsistent workers in the artistic world. I have several theories about that (all of which apply to me): poets have short attention spans, they are lazy, they are not good at closure, their negativity leads them to believe that nothing they write is of any poetic merit (and that no one is reading their work anyhow, so what’s the point of continuing?).

But one thing is true for all of us. Time is the enemy of art. There is never enough of it. As Hippocrates said, ‘ars longa, vita brevis’. Editions of collected works by dead poets depress me, especially thin ones. There will never be more. I see myself in terms of page numbers. Neil Rollinson has a great poem about his anxiety over the open brackets after his birth date in anthologies. But at the risk of sounding terminally gloomy at the beginning of this new year and new decade, I recognise that Time is also what links me to the poets and artists I love who’ve come before (and those who will come after) and what lives of me in print will live beyond me (even when the brackets are closed).

And so, I will start the year with a quote from WG Sebald, which should stand to remind me why it is I do sit down at this desk every day (but not always at the same time), why the effort is worthwhile:

It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.

The image is by Jasper Johns