Moore came relatively late in his career to the idea of the standing figure, but when he took up this subject in 1950, he quickly made up for lost time in a series of works that occupied him through the middle of the decade and thereafter. The presence of such emphatically vertical forms–in Standing Figures and Upright Motives–when viewed amid the many reclining and seated figures Moore typically created during his lifetime, indicates a strikingly assertive, even confrontational attitude in the artist’s intentions. The present Three Standing Figures, 1953, is among the most stridently surrealist in aspect of Moore’s sculptures since the end of the Second World War. These women, goddesses who appear to step forth from the deepest regions of a primal collective consciousness, are mysterious and haunting in their joint presence, especially in the bold and unexpected forms that Moore devised to render them.
The grand achievement in ancient classical sculpture stemmed from the impetus to represent the standing nude figure, male and female. The sculptors of the Renaissance and Baroque eras strove to emulate this heroic tradition in their efforts. Moore envisioned the figure from other sources of inspiration, chiefly in nature, with the result that his reclining figures resemble the rolling and flowing forms of landscapes and rivers, while the seated figures retain the more compact, massive character of great stones and hillside rock formations.
There was, in fact, a practical reason to work close to the earth, so to speak. Moore, while carving in stone and wood during the pre-war years, was well aware that a standing figure in these materials was structurally weak at the ankles, which required that special care be given to adequate support and balance when visualizing and creating the figure. A reclining or seated figure, on the other hand, resting on any kind of base or flat surface, is normally solid and stable throughout its shape.
Realizing the figure in bronze, as Moore increasingly worked during the post-war period, overcame such limiting considerations in treating an upright posture. Sculptures in bronze could be scaled, moreover, to impressive heights, while at less weight than in stone. From drawings he had done in recent years, including those of standing figures in the wartime Shelter series, Moore created Standing Figure in 1950, 87 inches tall (221cm; Lund Humphries, nos. 290 and 290b). The marble version incorporates stone bracing at the ankles, while the bronze version does not; the latter is more open above the base. Sir William Kreswick installed the bronze cast he purchased atop an outcrop of rock on a hill near his sheep farm in Scotland. “I went up there,” Moore later wrote, “and was thrilled with the beautiful landscape and how well he had sited ‘Yon Figure’ (the sculpture’s local name)” (A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore, Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 275). Moore placed two casts of Standing Figure side-by-side, shifted to face in different directions, to create Double Standing Figure, also in 1950 (Lund Humphries, no. 291). He especially enjoyed viewing the vast sky through the open spaces in these large standing sculptures.
After modeling in 1953 a series of table-top sized standing figures cast in bronze (Lund Humphries, nos. 316-320 and 320a), and carving in elm wood the sixty-inch Standing Girl (no. 319), Moore turned to the present three-figure configuration. “I often work in threes when relating things,” he said (ibid., p. 285), as he did in many of the wartime Family Groups and in later three-piece Reclining Figures. From his 1951 sketchbooks, in which numerous drawings show his growing interest in standing figures, Moore selected a large sheet containing three upright nudes (A. Garrould 51.24, HMF 2720; Art Institute of Chicago). From these studies he modeled the women in the present sculpture, taking special pleasure in elaborating their heads, which more resemble winged headdresses, such as those seen in ancient Minoan and Middle Eastern art.
Who are these bizarrely configured women? During 1947-1948 Moore carved in stone a life-size group of three draped, standing women, their eyes turned to the sky, whom commentators liked to describe as the Three Graces—the Greek Charites. “Then Eurynome, Ocean’s fair daughter, bore to Zeus the Three Graces,” Hesiod wrote in Theogony, “all fair cheeked, Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and shapely Thalia.” These deities personified, respectively, beauty, joy, and flowering. Moore, having toured Greece in 1951, may have decided to revisit this subject, but with a novel, sharply modernist stylistic twist, in the present sculpture.
Other candidate threesomes, also from ancient mythology, are the Moirai (the Fates), which appear in two drawings from 1948 and 1950, the Erinyes (the Furies, goddesses of vengeance), and the Horae (the three Mediterranean seasons). They may be the three goddesses present for the Judgement of Paris: Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Alternative attributions should include the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “The weyward Sisters, hand in hand,” whom the Bard derived from the Fates of old.
In these three women we find “the whole of nature—bones, pebbles, shells, clouds, tree trunks, flowers—all is grist to the mill of sculpture,” as Moore enumerates some of the natural sources that inspired his forms. “It’s a question of metamorphosis. We must relate the human figure to animals, to clouds, to the landscape—bring them all together. By using them like metaphors in poetry, you give new meaning to things” (A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., 2002, pp. 221-222). Moore’s surrealism, a lingering fascination from his sculpture of the 1930s, is at this stage more directly rooted in real, familiar things than in a consciously stylistic, Picasso-esque manner.
When François Mitterand presented the Legion of Honor to Moore in 1985, he asked him which French sculptor had influenced him the most. “Rodin, of course,” Moore replied. “A more recent sculptor?” Mitterand inquired. “Giacometti,” Moore said, “but he was Swiss, of course” (quoted in R. Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore, New York, 1987, p. 414). The subjects of these two sculptors, the greatest of the 20th century, overlap only in the standing figure, Giacometti’s signature forte, while Moore is acknowledged as the modern master of the reclining and seated human form. The standing figures of these sculptors are alike only in the attenuation of the body, and in the mythic, goddess-like aura of the subject. There is in every other respect a world of difference, illuminating, complementary, but ultimately incomparable.
Other casts of the present sculpture are located in The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, The Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan and Kunsthalle Hamburg.