Reclining Figure: Festival, 1951 is one of the most celebrated masterpieces of Henry Moore’s art. It was commissioned from the artist by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the 1951 Festival of Britain, where, as a focal point on the newly-built South Bank, it symbolised for many visitors the resilience and inventiveness of the British people in the wake of the Second World War. Like the occasion for which it was made, this famous sculpture - one of the finest and most ambitious of all the artist’s great series of reclining figures - is a work that marks a moment of triumph and culmination in Moore’s art as well as a new beginning.
Reclining Figure: Festival is the artist’s first, large reclining figure to have been made in bronze and in many ways represents the pinnacle of Moore’s repeated exploration, since the late 1920s, of the reclining human form and his pioneering attempt to integrate this form with a sense of both landscape and space. Moore himself claimed that Reclining Figure: Festival is, the ‘first sculpture in which I succeeded in making form and space sculpturally inseparable’ and singled it out as one of the most important sculptures of his entire oeuvre. ‘Certain of my works are more important to me than others’, he said, ‘and I tend to look on them as keys to a particular period. Ones I can quickly pick out are the 1938 Reclining Figure in Hornton stone, in the Tate Gallery; the large Elmwood 1939 Reclining Figure now in the Detroit [Institute of Arts]; the 1951 Festival Reclining Figure, and my first large bronze two-piece Reclining Figure, 1959’ (Henry Moore quoted in J Hedgecoe, Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 197).
Indeed, Moore seems to have known from the outset that Reclining Figure: Festival would prove to be a landmark work in the history of his art and, in 1951, in conjunction with the film-maker John Read, ensured that every stage of the genesis and realisation of this work was documented on film for what became the first of a series of ground-breaking documentary films by Read on the artist at work. This first 1951 film, made to coincide with the Festival of Britain and Moore’s first retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, was to prove one of the first major steps in building the artist’s public persona and his reputation as the greatest living sculptor of the Twentieth Century that Moore was to enjoy until his death in 1986. The long and fascinating process of making Reclining Figure: Festival forms the climax of this historic and pioneering film.
The present sculpture is one of an edition of five bronze casts and one artist’s proof of Reclining Figure: Festival that were made from Moore’s plaster original, now in the Tate Gallery, London. The first cast of the work that Moore made is the version that was displayed at the Festival of Britain in 1951. This cast was subsequently loaned to the Leeds City Art Gallery and placed in the grounds of Temple Newsam House. It proved to be such a controversial work of modernist art that during its time at Temple Newsam House it was vandalised with coats of blue paint. In 1956 this sculpture was removed and soon after acquired by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It now stands in the grounds of the Museum, outside the main entrance. The Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris also owns one cast, which is situated in the Jardins des Tuileries. Another cast was owned by the Moore Danowski Trust, and a further cast was sold in these Rooms, 7 February 2012, lot 23 (£19,081,250). Another plaster variant, made, with Moore’s permission, from the original in the Tate Gallery, is now in the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Moore and the Tradition of the Reclining Figure
With its rhythmic undulating forms articulating a seemingly fluid armature of both corporeal and landscape-like form within, around and over, other equally large, empty caverns, open hollows and interpenetrative voids of space, Reclining Figure: Festival is arguably Moore’s most masterful and elegant sculptural synthesis of solid and void. ‘The Festival Reclining Figure is perhaps my first sculpture where the space and form are completely dependent on and inseparable from each other,’ Moore said. ‘I had reached the stage where I wanted my sculpture to be truly three-dimensional. In my earliest use of holes in sculpture, the holes were features in themselves. Now the space and the form are so naturally fused they are one’ (H. Moore quoted in ibid., p. 197).
The complex, almost balletic interpenetration of material and space that combines together in Reclining Figure: Festival to form a single, united and yet still distinctly human image is something that marked both a peak and a turning point in Moore’s work - a moment that represented the ultimate attainment of the artist’s twenty-year pioneering exploration of the sculptural potential of the reclining figure tradition. In 1951, the theme of the reclining female figure had been, as it would continue to be, a lifelong preoccupation of Moore’s. With the possible exception of the, not unrelated, theme of the ‘Mother and Child’, the reclining female figure is the most obsessive and repeated subject in all his work. ‘There are three fundamental poses of the human figure’, Moore once explained. ‘One is standing, the other is seated, and the third is lying down … of these three poses, the reclining figure gives 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 eternity’ (H. Moore quoted in P. James (ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture, London, 1966, p. 264). While in almost all these variants, Moore perpetually explored a unique vision of the eternal feminine principle or the archetypal ‘Mother-Goddess’, it was only in his reclining female figures - in the image of a recumbent female who was part landscape, part figure - that Moore was able to develop a unique and radically new formal language that hovered, intentionally, on the borderlines between figuration and abstraction. As Erich Neumann so perceptively wrote of Moore in this respect, ‘Although he is, in the true sense, the ‘seer’ of an inner archetypal figure that we could call, for short, the “Primordial Feminine” or the “Great Mother”, it is clear, as perhaps nowhere in the history of art, that for Moore this archetypal image or “idea” is neither inside nor outside, but has its true seat on a plane beyond both’ (E. Neumann, The Archetypal World of Henry Moore, London 1959, p. 12).
This notion of Moore’s work positing the idea of a universal or archetypal feminine presence that is discernible only through a work’s combination of inside and outside, solid and void, abstract and figurative is one that, reiterates constantly throughout Moore’s great series of reclining female figures. It finds a natural expression in these works in the artist’s simultaneous articulation of interior and exterior form, of earth and sky, hollow and mound, of figure-as-landscape and of landscape-as-figure. And it is because of this innate ability of the reclining figure, more than that of any other sculptural form, to be more than one thing at a time, that Moore, almost paradoxically, found in this most classical and traditional of forms, his greatest liberation.
Indeed, it was precisely because the reclining figure was such a well-known and understood convention, Moore said, that it allowed him the freedom to depart from conventional modes of representation. Unlike the ‘Mother and Child’, for example, the reclining figure provided him with an open starting point for free-form sculptural experiments. ‘I want to be quite free of having to find a ‘reason’ for doing ‘Reclining Figures’ and freer still of having to find a ‘meaning’ for them’, he said. ‘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 ‘Bathers’ 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 it so that within it, within the subject that you’ve done a dozen times before, you are free to invent a completely new idea.’ (H. Moore quoted in J. Russell, Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 28)
Reclining Figure: Festival and The Festival of Britain
When it was created in 1951, Reclining Figure: Festival was Moore’s most radical interpretation of the reclining female figure to date. Its rhythmic, linear bronze forms, magically articulating an undulating figure with intertwining volumes of empty space established an entirely new direction in Moore’s art that went way beyond the controversy-causing punctured holes he had previously introduced into his stone-carved sculpture. The very first large reclining figure that Moore had ever made in bronze, Reclining Figure: Festival was not just one of the first large-scale sculptures he had made since the war, (when, for practical considerations, drawing had dominated his output), it also signified a major new departure. ‘It would have held one back to go on carving,’ Moore said about this period in his work. ‘My desire to understand space made the change to bronze necessary. One should not be dominated by the material’ (H. Moore quoted in Alan Bowness (ed.), Henry Moore: The Complete Sculpture: 1964-1973, Vol. 4. London 1977, p. 12)
Reclining Figure: Festival was commissioned from Moore in 1949 by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain which was to take place on the South Bank in London in 1951. The aim of the Festival was ostensibly to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and to signify Great Britain’s triumphant revival after the Second World War. In reality however, it was an exercise intended to lift the spirits of the then gloomy mood of a now rather drab nation, still-rationed and impoverished by the war, by putting on a display of its scientific, technological, industrial and cultural prowess. The theme of the Festival was ‘Discovery’ and Moore, as Britain’s greatest living sculptor, was not only given his first retrospective at the Tate Gallery in conjunction with the celebrations, but also a commission by the Art’s Council to create a major new work for it under the unspoken understanding that he might produce a sculpture of a family grouping in the spirit of the ‘Discovery’ theme.
By 1950, however, Moore, perhaps in the true spirit of ‘discovery’, had decided against a family figure in favour of creating another reclining female figure: one that would further the expanding concerns of his work. Towards this end, he paid little attention to the intended location for the sculpture at the Festival on London’s South Bank. As he later said, ‘I knew that the South Bank would only be its temporary home, so I didn’t worry about where it was to be placed. If I had studied a Festival site too carefully, the figure might never have been at home anywhere else. As it was, I made the figure, then found the best position I could. I was simply concerned with making a sculpture in the round. And it was out in the open most of the time I was working on it’ (H. Moore, ‘Sculpture in the Open Air’ 1955, quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, London, 2002, pp. 275-276).
When Reclining Figure: Festival was presented at the Festival, the sculpture was positioned prominently, within the centrepiece of the main Festival site on the South Bank, in front of the nation’s ‘Land’ or ‘Country’ pavilion. Because of its apparent figurative/abstract amalgam of figure and landscape, some observers saw its location in front of a pavilion dedicated to Britain’s agricultural history and the relationship between its people and the land as intentional. Moore himself, however, seems to have chosen the precise location of the work solely in accordance with how its forms functioned against the backdrop of the city skyline and the sky.
For Moore, the Festival sculpture represented his first successful resolution of a concern in establishing a completely balanced dialogue between form and space within the structure of the work itself that had preoccupied him for years and, which he seems to have realised through the making of this work, was now suddenly attainable with his move into bronze. ‘I became conscious of this aim halfway through the sculpture’, he said. ‘In earlier works, particularly in my carvings, when I wanted to make space in stone sculpture it had been more difficult. Making a hole in stone is such a willed thing, such a conscious effort, and often the holes became things in themselves. But then the solid stone around them sometime suffers in its shape because its main purpose is to enclose the hole. This isn’t a really true three-dimensional amalgamation between forms and space. I think this is the first sculpture in which I succeeded in making form and space sculpturally inseparable’ (H. Moore quoted in ibid., p. 276).
In order to accentuate this first successful resolution of solid and void and the unprecedented unity of its rhythmic unfolding of empty spaces that seemed to flow through the central body of the sculpture, Moore situated the figure high up on a raised one-metre-high plinth. This positioning allowed the figure’s undulating play of enclosing form and open space to be read against the London skyline while its small cup-shaped head appeared to be simultaneously gazing up at and/or screaming at the sky.
This most radical and noticeable feature of the work - its hollow architecture in which the main body of the figure is in fact articulated by a continuous empty space that runs from its hollow back through to its groin area - is attained by the unique way in which the top half of the figure rests like a bridge on its elbows. This surprising feature of the sculpture is one that in fact closely echoes the similarly inventive construction of a pottery Aztec head which Moore owned and, in 1960, in the documentary programme Monitor, pointed out to its presenter, Huw Wheldon, precisely because its highly inventive, ‘architecturally free’ and ‘open’ compositional structure was also based on just such a hollow.
As the critic David Sylvester wrote, after seeing Reclining Figure: Festival on view at the South Bank, ‘Reclining Figure has been worked out with superb logic and resourcefulness as a configuration of masses and voids, and the tunnel which cuts a passage through its length is the most ingenious variant of this idea that Moore has devised’ (D. Sylvester, ‘Festival Sculpture’, Studio, September, 1951, p. 74). For Moore himself, too, the intriguing mystery of this view of the sculpture through its back into an almost never-ending adventure of cavernous form was also, it seems, a particularly exciting discovery and one which he never tired of pointing out. ‘If space is a willed, wished–for element in the sculpture,’ he reflected in 1954, for example, ‘then some distortion of the form - to ally itself to the space - is necessary. At one time the holes in my sculpture were made for their own sakes. Because I was trying to become conscious of spaces in the sculpture - I made the holes have a shape in its own right, the solid body was encroached upon, eaten into, and sometimes the form was only the shell holing the hole. Recently, I have attempted to make the forms and the spaces (not holes) inseparable, neither being more important than the other. In the last bronze Reclining Figure, [Festival, 1951] I think I have in some measure succeeded in this aim. What I mean is perhaps most obvious if the figure is looked lengthways from the head end through to the foot end and the arms, body, legs, elbows etc., are seen as forms inhabiting a tunnel, in recession. Seen in plan, the figure has ‘pools’ of space’ (H. Moore, 1954, quoted in ‘Man’ reproduced in exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Ursprung und Vollendung, Mannheim, 1996, p. 119).
These ‘pools of space’ and the essentially hollowed-out aspect of Reclining Figure: Festival were also features of the sculpture that were made great use of in John Read’s 1951 film, Henry Moore. Recorded over a period of six months between October 1950 and March 1951, this was the first film of a living artist ever made in Britain and had a major impact on effectively launching Moore’s public persona and transforming him into a national and then international art star. The first of five such films which Read would make on the artist, it was first broadcast on April 30 1951 to coincide with the opening of both Moore’s retrospective and the Festival. In addition to showing Moore at work and in his studio, the film documents the making of Reclining Figure: Festival from its first conception in drawings through the entire making of maquettes to the plaster cast mould of the full-size work and its subsequent casting in bronze. As Read recalled, this process of making and the final display of Reclining Figure: Festival in the landscape in which it was made outside Moore’s house formed the climatic end sequence of the film where the novel open spaces of the work lent themselves to some pioneering cinematography. ‘By 1950, the full grace of this particular sculpture became apparent in the open air when the piece revolved in front of the camera’ Read recalled. ‘The strong shadows cast by the sun slipped over the flowing surfaces just as the shadows of clouds drift across hills and moors and follow their undulations. In the case of the full-scale version of this piece, it was possible to make the camera glide inside the sculpture, revealing another world of arches and caverns. It made a beautiful cinematic image, which created quite a stir at the time. After all no-one had seen inside a sculpture before.’ (J. Read quoted in D Mitchinson, Celebrating Moore London, 1998, p. 228) [Read’s film can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZAde-PBoD8]
String, the multiple viewpoint and ‘sculpture in the round’
Another radical and comparatively new invention which Moore employed in Reclining Figure: Festival was his addition of geometric lines in rhythmic patterns along the surface of the sculpture. These were added to lend emphasis to the curvature and directional thrust of certain forms and also to give expression and a hint of bodily features to other parts, of the work, such as, for instance, the figure’s breast and head. In the case of the small, cupped head of the figure for example, a drawn out pattern of lines articulates, like a Max Ernst, a pair of bird-like eyes and a sequence of trapezoid forms suggestive of teeth. These lines were made on the sculpture by aligning thin lengths of string to the plaster original before making the bronze cast. As Moore explained to Alan Wilkinson, this use of string derived directly from his drawing. ‘I don’t know if there’s anybody else who has used this kind of invention, but I invented at one stage a shorthand way of trying to show in a drawing the sectional line, the form, the shape, without doing shading…At one stage I thought the sculpture was a little bit, what, well I was dissatisfied with the shape being shown as clearly as I wanted and so I used this drawing, not trick, but method idea, on the sculpture and the strings had to be thin enough not to disrupt or confuse the surface. I mean you couldn’t put a thick rope over. Cotton was a bit too thin, and so I used very thin string. And to some extent I think it does add an interest and form, it does give the shape more insistence than it would do on an absolutely plain surface’ (H. Moore in conversation with Alan Wilkinson, c. 1980, quoted in Alan Wilkinson (ed.), op. cit., p. 276).
As with so many of Moore’s fully-rounded sculptures whose forms generate very different views, feelings and understandings, (when seen from different angles), the essential ambiguity inherent to this sculpture, is maintained, not undermined, by Moore’s use of string. In the case of the comparatively small but powerfully evocative head for example, the innate ambiguity of its cupped form - which seems to be both looking upwards, to be screaming and facing the viewer in a bird-like manner (depending on which angle you view it from) - is wholly maintained, if not indeed intensified, by the geometry of lines that Moore has drawn upon it. Its comparatively small scale, in comparison to the long sprawling body of the figure, is also wholly intentional and a common feature of many of Moore’s reclining figures. ‘It gives to the rest a scale,’ Moore said. ‘It gives to the rest a certain human poise and meaning, and it’s because I think that the head is so important that often I reduce it in size to make the rest so monumental’ (H. Moore in H. Bennett (ed.), Face to Face, Interviews with John Freeman, London, 1964, p. 32).
Somewhat Guernica-like, in its upturned cry or appeal to the heavens, it is this feature of Reclining Figure: Festival along with the almost skeletal, and in comparison with Moore’s earlier reclining figures, emaciated-looking form of the figure itself that has prompted many critics to interpret the sculpture as a war-ravaged figure and an image of suffering or torment as well as perhaps one of survival. For many, this aspect of the sculpture also prompted comparisons with the emaciated human figures of the Nazi death camps and with Moore’s own famous wartime drawings of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz. The exhibition of this figure centre-stage at the Festival of Britain in 1951, only seemed to reinforce this interpretation. Herbert Read, for example, saw in the sculpture’s ‘split head’ a sculptural parallel to the perpetual silent scream and anxiety expressed in Francis Bacon’s 1944, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. More recently, at Moore’s 1988 retrospective in London, Richard Cork picked up on this same aspect, writing: ‘Hiroshima had taught [Moore] that the sky could now unleash a destructive capacity more devastating by far than anything inflicted on London during the Blitz. Hence the apprehensiveness with which this fractured head looks upwards seeming to gasp for air.’ But he concluded, ‘in the end though, the Festival of Britain sculpture is a resilient image, braced for defiant survival. Its sinuous rhythms denote a woman whose pared-down structure belies her supple strength’ (R. Cork ‘An Art of the Open Air’ in exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore, London, Royal Academy, 1988, p. 20).
The Critical Reception and Legacy of Reclining Figure: Festival, 1951
Certainly Reclining Figure: Festival stands apart from the majority of Moore’s earlier reclining figures in this respect. The move away from carving, signified by this work, away from hollowing out forms in solid material, and the new more airy balance between form and space that Moore’s move into bronze also allowed him, had clearly led the artist away from bestowing his figures with the fecund solidity, permanence and mother-goddess-like mix of maternity and landscape that had distinguished so many of his earlier carved wood and stone reclining females. At the same time, the critics were undoubtedly right to see in this change not just a stylistic shift in response to the use of a new material, but also a thematic change, reflective, many felt, of a new post-war age of anxiety and perhaps also the beginnings of what Herbert Read would soon famously term ‘The Geometry of Fear’. As the German critic Will Grohmann was to point out, one of the most remarkable aspects of Reclining Figure: Festival was the number of different and often conflicting emotions and moods this sculpture provoked in the viewer depending on which angle they saw it from. ‘Its majesty is unmistakable’ he wrote. ‘It stretches straight up, rests upon the wedge of the arms and thrusts powerfully off with its shin bones; its vitality lies in the immense tension that runs from the base of the feet to the head, whose cleavage indicates conflict, the ‘age of anxiety’. The frightening figure reveals its meaning most clearly when seen from the side and back, for there the hollow shapes form the entrance to a kingdom of the dead.’ (W. Grohmann, The Art of Henry Moore London, 1960, p. 53)
Similarly, the Jungian analyser of Moore’s work, Erich Neumann (whom Moore himself once claimed to be so perceptive about his work that he stopped reading him for fear of never being able to make a sculpture again), also revelled in the multiplicity of interpretative views offered by this defining example of what Moore called ‘sculpture in the round’. For Neumann, Reclining Figure: Festival marked the culmination of the series of increasingly spectral images that had distinguished much of Moore’s work during the war years and been most strongly characterized by his bronze sculptures of heads and helmets. ‘The Reclining Figure from the year 1951’, Neumann wrote, ‘forms the transition stage between these spiritualized figures, whose plastic power does not lie in the use of large masses, and the reappearance of the feminine earth principle that runs through a number of Moore’s sculptures in recent years. Here again different views of the same work reveal conceptions that are almost diametrically opposed to one another as regards to content. The first view emphasizes, in its clear outlines and ponderous massiveness, the “closed” quality of organic form, and the great sweeping line sketches the picture of a woman who, notwithstanding a certain elegant beauty, is bound quietly and steadfastly to the earth. A rear view of the same sculpture shows us something completely different. Jagged, wild, charged with sinister energy, this recumbent figure is more like the destroying goddess of late 1939. But the combination of the two aspects in a single figure raises the artistic perfection of this late work far above the magnificence of its predecessor. The dual or multiple significance of Moore’s sculpture often makes it quite impossible for anyone to grasp the wholeness of a work from one photograph alone. This combination of multifarious aspects and contents in one and the same work, which becomes apparent only through intercourse with it, through perambulation around it as a thing in space, is one of the most important achievements in modern sculpture. The simplicity of earlier ages was manifest in the unity of impression which the work of art intended to convey. The complexities and ambiguities of our age find a new and completely adequate expression in Moore’s synthesis of multiple aspects of form and content in a single figure’ (E. Neumann, The Archetypal Henry Moore, London, 1959, p. 109).
Vilified by conservative critics and other opponents of modern art when it was first shown at the Festival of Britain, in 1951, Reclining Figure: Festival, which is now generally regarded by all admirers of Moore’s work as one of his greatest achievements, has continued, since this time to provoke a multiplicity of views and interpretations. It is surely one of the most written about sculptures in all Moore’s oeuvre. Yet these continuing attempts at interpretation are ultimately a testament to the originality and power of the sculpture itself, for they assert, as indeed Moore himself argued, that, ‘sculpture should always at first sight have some obscurities, and further meanings. People should want to go on looking and thinking; it should never tell about itself immediately ... In my sculpture explanations often come afterwards' (H. Moore, quoted in A. Bowness (ed.), op. cit., p. 17).