For a full sixty years, from the mid-1920s through Moore's death in 1984, the reclining figure represented the sculptor's dominant subject, offering him an ideal vehicle for formal invention and thematic variation. "From the very beginning," Moore reflected in 1968, "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 then have been reclining figures" (quoted in A.G. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 212). Christa Lichtenstern has written, "The reclining figure formed a kind of vessel into which Moore poured his most important poetic, compositional, formal, and spatial discoveries. The farthest-reaching developments in his art are thus reflected in such figures" (C. Lichtenstern, Henry Moore: Work, Theory, Impact, London, 2008, p. 95). Moore's preference for the recumbent human form was founded on the myriad formal and expressive possibilities that it afforded him. A standing figure is structurally weak at the ankles, and a seated figure is inseparable from its pedestal; in contrast, Moore claimed, a reclining figure "gives the most freedom, compositionally and spatially... A reclining figure can recline on any surface. It is free and stable at the same time" (quoted in D. Mitchinson, op. cit., p. 86). Moreover, the tensions and oppositions inherent in the asymmetrical reclining figure were ideally suited to Moore's seemingly inexhaustible capacity for plastic experimentation. He declared, "The vital thing is for an artist to have a subject that allows [him] to try out all kinds of formal ideas... 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 it, so that within the subject that you've done a dozen times before, you are free to invent a completely new form-idea" (quoted in A.G. Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 95).
The present Reclining Figure was conceived in 1956, at the very height of Moore's career. He had been awarded the International Prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and by the early 1950s was widely hailed as Britain's most important living artist. During the pre-war years, Moore's reclining figures had displayed a balance of formal elements, with all four limbs evenly grounded; they projected, in Albert Elsen's words, "a quiet majesty, an aloofness and serenity" (Modern European Sculpture 1918-1945, New York, 1978, p. 50). The powerful experience of the Second World War led Moore to explore progressively more unstable and asymmetrical positions, dramatizing the tension inherent in the reclining figure by shifting its weight to one arm or leg. In particular, his profoundly felt Shelter Drawings of 1940-1941, depicting people packed side-by-side in the tunnels of the Underground during the London Blitz, revealed to him increasingly urgent emotional possibilities in the recumbent form. The pose of the present sculpture is unusual among Moore's reclining figures in that the woman is seen lying not on her back or side, but in an interim position, perhaps in the act of rising from a face-down position, as if she had been sleeping on her stomach. Seemingly alerted by some sound or approaching person, she plants her bent left arm on the ground beneath her for support and pushes down on her right arm to raise her head and torso (compare fig. 1, the famous Greek sculpture of a wounded warrior from the pediment of the temple at Aegina); her bent right leg is slung in front of her, the hip and thigh elevated, the knee and shin pressed to the ground. The sculpture gives the powerful effect of an awakening sleeper, her body suddenly resurrected from a state of dormancy, tensing itself for further movement. The pose recalls that of the prone woman in the foreground of Tube Shelter Scene, 1941 (Drawings, AG 41.58; fig. 2), who apprehensively lifts her head and upper body from under her blanket, bracing herself against the reverberations of the aerial assault. Moore wrote, "One of things I would like to think my sculpture has is a force, is a strength, is a life, a vitality from inside it, so that you have the sense that the form is pressing from inside to burst or trying to give off the strength from inside itself" (quoted in D. Mitchinson, op. cit., p. 130).
Moore explored related poses in several sculptures from the same period. In Reclining Figure No. 4, 1954, the position of the arms is closely comparable to the present Reclining Figure, but the torso is more upright and the knees both point upward; the result is a sense of greater repose (Bowness, vol. 2, no. 332; see Christie's, New York, 4 May 2010, lot 23). After adjusting the pose to heighten the sense of dynamism, producing the present composition, Moore subsequently raised the figure into an upright position, in which it appears to climb a vertical surface. As documented in photographs (fig. 3), he placed a cast of the present Reclining Figure on end, with the feet pointing downward, and proceeded to copy it at approximately the same scale in elm wood (Upright Figure, 1956-1960; Bowness, vol. 3, no. 403; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Moore explained, "This elm wood sculpture began as a reclining figure, but there came a stage when to get at some parts and to see it while I was carving, I put it upright, and it became instead of a static figure one that was actually climbing--a figure in action, and I like this. It gave me some completely fresh thoughts about it... It's an ascending figure going up into the sky" (quoted in ibid., p. 136). Finally, in 1956-1957, Moore made Falling Warrior, which depicts a male figure in the dramatic moment preceding his death; the motif of the bent right arm and the partially elevated torso have been retained from the present sculpture, but the figure is now in the act of falling rather than rising (fig. 4, with Upright Figure set down its original reclining position). The various sculptures thus constitute a thematic sequence, expressed through variations on the same basic reclining posture: the female Reclining Figure represents the phase of awakening, the more ambiguously gendered Upright Figure embodies the heroic ascent, and the male Falling Warrior signifies the tragic end of this archetypal human quest.
The archaic and deeply embedded vein of mythical inspiration manifest in this sequence of sculptures is underscored by the equivalency that Moore creates between the recumbent figure and the natural landscape. As the sculptor himself proclaimed, "Sculpture is a mixture of the human figure and landscape, a metaphor of the relationship of humanity with the earth" (quoted in A.G. Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 289). Although his reclining women are almost always nude, they eschew any reference to the titillating and erotic Orientalist convention of the odalisque; instead, they hark back to the ancient tradition of the reclining figure as a personification of nature's flowing energy (nymphs, river gods, nature deities, etc.). Maillol too created his reclining women in these allegorical roles, but in contrast to Maillol's idealized figures, Moore's women seem to have been hewn from the rough matter of the landscape itself. David Sylvester has written, "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, tunneled into by the action of wind and water. The first time Moore published his thoughts on art, he wrote that the sculpture which moved him most gave out 'something of the energy and power of great mountains'... Especially in sculpture, a figure which is to be the equivalent of a landscape is apt to have a horizontal pose. But the primary intention is 'energy and power': Moore's reclining figures are not supine; they prop themselves up, are potentially active. The idea is not simply that of a body but of one in which those forces are harnessed" (Henry Moore, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1968, p. 5).
The present sculpture was cast in an edition of eight, other examples of which are now housed at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; University of East Anglia; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; PepsiCo World Headquarters, Purchase, New York; Palm Springs Desert Museum; and Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena, California. There also exists a small maquette for the sculpture (1955, length: 6 inches; Bowness, vol. 3, no. 401), which was cast in an edition of ten.
(fig. 1) Dying Warrior, from the east pediment of the temple of Aphaia on Aegina, Greece, circa 480 BC. Glyptotek, Munich.
(fig. 2) Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Scene, 1941. Private collection.
(fig. 3) Moore carving Upright Figure, 1956-1960, using Reclining Figure, 1956 (the present sculpture) as his model. Photograph courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation.
(fig. 4) Upright Figure, 1956-1960, and Falling Warrior, 1956-1957, in Moore's studio. Photograph courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation.