Reclining Woman: Elbow is one of Moore's final monumental sculptures, created when the artist was eighty-three years old. Roger Berthoud, the sculptor's biographer, declared, "the imposingly sensual Reclining Woman: Elbow" was "arguably Moore's last significant new sculpture" (in op. cit.,, New York, 1987, p. 402). The superlative beauty and power that Moore invested in this valedictory Reclining Woman sums up six decades of the sculptor's unflagging capacity for thematic variation and formal invention, and stands as an ultimate monument to his consummate mastery of a subject which had engrossed him throughout his career. Moore wrote, "From the very beginning the reclining figure has been my main theme. The first one I made was around 1924, and probably more than half of my sculptures since have been reclining figures" (quoted in J. Hedgecoe, Henry Moore, New York, 1968, p. 151).
"The human figure is the basis of all my sculpture," Moore stated, "and that for me means the female nude." He enumerated the three basic poses of the human figure: standing, sitting and lying down. In the vast majority of his works the female figure is seen sitting or reclining, a preference that initially stemmed from his desire to work in stone, for the practical concern that a standing figure in carved stone is structurally weak at the ankles. "But with either a seated or reclining figure one doesn't have this worry. And between them are enough variations to occupy any sculptor for a lifetime." He noted, moreover, that "of the three poses the reclining figure gives the most freedom, compositionally and spatially. The seated figure has to have something to sit on. You can't free it from its pedestal. A reclining figure can recline on any surface. It is free and stable at the same time. It fits in with my belief that sculpture should be permanent, should last for an eternity. Also, it has repose" (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., op. cit., p. 86).
David Sylvester observed that most of Moore's reclining women were nudes, "but, though they lie with knees apart or thighs apart, their overall pose doesn't betoken the availability commonly implied in reclining female nudes" (in Henry Moore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1968, p. 5). Since the time of Ingres, Delacroix and Renoir, the tradition of the reclining female figure in European painting has been inextricably tied to the Orientalist convention of the odalisque, the nude or partly clad but always voluptuous harem girl, playing her part in a deliberately titillating show of veiled or blatant eroticism. Moore's conception of the reclining woman, even when nude, runs counter to this tradition. Moore stated, "I am not conscious of erotic elements in [my work], and I have never set out to create an erotic work of art... I have no objection to people interpreting my forms and sculptures erotically... but I do not have any desire to rationalise the eroticism in my work, to think out consciously what Freudian or Jungian symbols may lie behind what I create" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 115).
This disavowal of erotic intent, a rare admission in an important modern artist, was not the consequence of any latter-day Puritannical streak in Moore's make-up. Rather, it seems, he was disinclined to reduce human sexuality--and more specifically, the especially sensitive issues concerning female sexuality--to prurient fetishistic content, which would only serve to demean his subjects. Albert Elsen noted that Moore "always honors and never humiliates his feminine subjects. They are sensual but not flagrantly or even coyly erotic" (in Modern European Sculpture 1918-1945, New York, 1978, p. 50). No other great artist of the 20th century was as sympathetic as Moore to the complex and multi-dimensional lives of women and respectful of their all-important role in human society. Surely none other expressed--so powerfully, convincingly and sensitively--his awe and veneration of their miraculous life-giving and nurturing powers. The Reclining Women were Moore's powerful monument to Woman as all women. Moore favored the "Rounded forms [that] convey an idea of fruitfulness," and in this light Will Grohmann called attention to the fact that his women express a universal significance:
"These reclining women are not the reclining women of a Maillol [see lot 67] or a Matisse [fig. 1]: they are women in repose but also something more profound the woman as the concept of fruitfulness, the Mother Earth. Moore, who once pointed to the maternal element in the 'Reclining Figures', may well see in them an element of eternity, the 'Great Female', who is both birth-giving nature and the wellspring of the unconscious. To Henry Moore, the 'Reclining Figures' are no mere external objects, he identifies himself with them, as well as the earth and the whole realm of motherhood (in The Art of Henry Moore, London, 1960, p. 43).
Even in repose, the horizontal format of the reclining women fosters the illusion that plastic energy is being transmitted from one end to the other along the length of the form, and in giving shape to this internal power Moore has transformed the figure and created an equivalency with the larger natural landscape. David Sylvester believed that an archaic and deeply-embedded vein of mythical inspiration manifest itself in Moore's reclining figures. He wrote, "Personifications such as river-gods of nature's flowing energy are traditional pretexts for sculptures of reclining figures. Moore's figures, of course, represent nothing but themselves, but are made to look as if they themselves had been shaped by nature's energy. They seem to be weathered, eroded, tunnelled-into by the action of wind and water Moore's reclining figures are not supine; they prop themselves up, are potentially active. Hence the affinity with river-gods: the idea is not simply that of a body subjected to the flow of nature's forces but of one in which those forces are harnessed" (in Henry Moore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1968, p. 5).
The great precedents for the reclining female nude in European sculpture are Michelangelo's figures representing Day and Night (fig. 2) that adorn the Medici chapel in Florence, works which also strongly influenced both Maillol and Matisse. The most direct sources, however, for Moore's vision of the female figure were the sculptures of ancient and primitive cultures, from the Paleolithic period, Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, archaic Greece and Italy, as well as African tribal art (see note to lot ___WOOD FIGURE 1932). In contrast to the brooding drama in Michelangelo's Renaissance figures, the reclining form in these ancient arts usually represents the figure in repose, engaged in quiescent contemplation of the world, the heavens, and human destiny. Moore was especially drawn to the stone carvings of the Toltec, Mayan and Aztec societies of Pre-Columbian Central America. He especially admired Mexican carving for its "vigorous simplicity, power, almost fierceness... Mexican stone sculptures have largeness of scale & a grim, sublime austerity, a real stoniness. They were true sculptures in sympathy with their material & their sculpture has some of the character of mountains, of boulders, rocks and sea worn pebbles" (unpublished notes, 1925-1926, in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., p. 97).
The key work of Mexican sculpture for Moore was the reclining Chacmool, the Toltec-Mayan Rain Spirit discovered in Chichén-Nítza (fig. 3). The artist's own recollection of where and when he first encountered this revelatory sculpture differs from other evidence; in any case it appears that he saw a plaster cast of the original stone carving in Paris at the Trocadéro (now the Musée de l'Homme) in 1922, and he came across the Chacmool once again a few years later in Berlin when he saw the work illustrated in a German book on Mexican art. "It was the pose that struck me--this idea of a figure being on its back and turned upwards to the sky instead of lying on it side... Its stillness and alertness, a sense of readiness--and the whole presence of it, and the legs coming down like columns" (quoted in ibid., p. 98). Moore's appreciation of the Chacmool had the effect of liberating him from a sense of obligation to depicting the figure in any realistic or conventional manner. The Chacmool's strange conjunction of head, torso and limbs inspired the sculptor to create seemingly unlimited and expressively pointed variations on the body in a recumbent pose. The influence of the Chacmool is readily apparent in the so-called Leeds Reclining Figure, 1929 (Lund Humphries, no. 59; fig. 4), and may be seen to resonate, in varying ways, in almost every reclining woman that Moore made thereafter, including, in this catalogue, Two Piece Reclining Figure: Armless (lot 18) and the present Reclining Woman: Elbow.
Sylvester has noted "Moore's avowed and manifest insistence on asymmetry," a guiding principle which stemmed from the sculptor's interest in the Chacmool. "A reclining figure is asymmetrical from every angle," Sylvester explained. "In insuring that it is, Moore creates an opposition between the two halves which tends to undermine their continuity" (op. cit., p. 6). The female theme may have been Moore's essential inspiration, but the engine which drove his work from day to day was his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for plastic invention and variation. The tensions and oppositions inherent in the asymmetrical reclining figure were ideally suited to this approach. Moore declared:
"I want to be quite free of having to find a 'reason' for doing the Reclining Figures, and freer still of having to find a 'meaning' for them. The vital thing for an artist is to have a subject that allows him to try out all kinds of formal ideas--things that he doesn't yet know about for certain but wants to experiment with, as Cézanne did in his 'Bather' series. In my case the reclining figure provides chances of that sort. The subject matter is given. It's settled for you, and you know it and like, so that within it within the subject that you've done a dozen times before, you are completely free to invent a completely new form-idea (quoted in J. Russell, Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 48).
Moore's pre-war reclining figures display a balance of formal elements that manifest, in Elsen's words, "a quiet majesty, an aloofness and serenity" (ibid.). The experience of the Second World War, and the profoundly felt shelter drawings he made during the London Blitz, led Moore to introduce a more anxious and unsettled attitude into his post-war sculpture, especially in those works in which he divided the reclining figure in pieces (see lot 18). Here, however, nearing the end of this magnificent line of recumbent women, Moore returned to a more classically whole and integrated expression of the female form, as seen in the earlier UNESCO Reclining Figure, 1957-1958 (Lund Humphries, no. 416; fig. 5). This late reclining woman, however, is less abstract, and while she is still impressively domineering in her massiveness, her sensual appeal is warmly inviting. This woman has taken on her ancient role as a beneficent and life-affirming fertility goddess--she is the very earth itself. In Cézanne's great bather paintings the nude and landscape enter into a synergistic pictorial bond, and in a late Degas pastel the form of a reclining woman may be detected in the topography of a coastal landscape (fig. 6). For Moore, woman is landscape, landscape is woman, and the reclining figure evokes the rolling hills, fields and vales of the sculptor's adopted home of Hertfordshire. Wilkinson stated, "One of Moore's greatest contributions to the language of twentieth century sculpture has been the use of the human figure as metaphor for landscape" (in "Henry Moore's Reclining Women," National Gallery of Canada Annual Bulletin, vol. 1, 1977-1978).
There are three openings in the form of this reclining woman, one contained within the shape of her arm, bent at the elbow, on which she leans and amazingly appears to support her massive weight; another is the space between the lower legs at the foot of the sculpture. And there is, of course, the large hole that separates her thighs, to which the viewer's eye is instantly and deliberately drawn. The hole is a signature element carried forward from some of Moore's earliest works (see lot __). Here the hole connotes negative space--or as Moore put it, "a shape which could have turned into a solid form if I had thought of it the other way around"--and, taking the artist's permission to interpret these forms as we are so inclined, it may serves as a visual metaphor for a sexual orifice, the opening of the birth-canal, or the womb; or in terms of the landscape, it is a cave opening, the shape of a pond, or merely the amplified shape of a smooth pebble. Moore wrote in 1937, "There's no doubt a deep psychological explanation for the fascination of the hole" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., 2002, p. 207).
Of all Moore's subjects, only the Reclining Woman could bear the weight of these many inferences, and sustain the profound and far-reaching metaphor by which our bodies, as the sculptor tells us, become the world. While other themes came, went and returned in Moore's work, Russell rightly asserted that "the obsession with the Reclining Figure has stayed with Moore forever" (op. cit., p. 48). Moore wrote:
"Our own bodies, our own make up, have the greatest influence on art... For me everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies. From our mother's breast, from our bones, from bumping into things, we learn what is rough and what is smooth. To observe, to understand, to experience the vast variety of space, shape and form in the world, twenty lifetimes would not be enough. There is no end to it" (quoted in ibid., pp. 220 and 221).
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Nu couché I (Aurore), 1907. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 November 1999, lot 6. BARCODE 25994933
(fig. 2) Michelangelo Buonarrati, La Notte, 1520-1534. Tomba dei Giuliano dei Medici, Capelle dei Medici, Florence. BARCODE 25249798
(fig. 3) Chacmool figure, Mayan-Toltec limestone carving, circa 900-1,000AD. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. BARCODE 25994827
(fig. 4) Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1929. Leeds City Art Gallery and Temple Newsam House. BARCODE 25994902
(fig. 5) Henry Moore, UNESCO Reclining Figure, 1957-1958. UNESCO Headquarters, Paris. BARCODE 25994872
(fig. 6) Edgar Degas, Paysage, circa 1890-1892. Private collection. BARCODE 25994971