Responding to a sound nearby, a person entering the room perhaps, this young woman has turned her head to gaze upon her visitor, while beginning to raise her arm in greeting. Reclining Figure of 1982 is Henry Moore’s definitive, culminating statement of this recumbent pose, restful but animated with anticipation, which had fascinated him for nearly sixty years. In 1923, while a student in London, Moore purchased a recently published German book on Mexican art, and was immediately drawn to an illustration of the Chacmool, a thousand-year-old sandstone carving of the Toltec-Mayan rain spirit, displayed today in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. He came across a plaster cast of the original sculpture two years later while visiting the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (today the Musée de l'Homme) in Paris. "It was the pose that struck me”—Moore later recalled to Alan Wilkinson—“this idea of a figure being on its back and turned upwards to the sky instead of lying on its side...its stillness and alertness, a sense of readiness—and the whole presence of it, and the legs coming down like columns” (Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 98).
The Chacmool, Moore told Wilkinson, was “undoubtedly the one sculpture which most influenced me in my early work” (ibid.). Indeed, the power of this pre-Columbian carving guided Moore throughout his career, with the result that the female figure in various states of repose became this sculptor’s primary, signature theme. The present Reclining Figure, together with Reclining Woman: Elbow, 1981, and Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, 1983 (Lund Humphries, nos. 810 and 822) are Moore’s final, monumental representations of his lifelong dedication to this idea.
Moore began modeling maquettes and the interim-sized working models for Reclining Figure in 1975 (Lund Humphries, nos. 673-677). These initial essays bear the subtitles “Angles” (facing left, focusing on the upright upper body and elbow) and “Prop” (facing right, with a stanchion-like device that supports her raised arm, not present in the final version). While the upper body of each woman appears unclothed, a skirt-like curtain of fabric is stretched between her legs, above the ankles and beyond her spread knees.
“The human figure is the basis of all my sculpture,” Moore declared, “and that for me means the female nude.” In the great majority of the sculptor’s 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 carved standing figure is structurally weak at the ankles. “But with either a seated or reclining figure one doesn’t have this worry,” Moore explained. “And between them are enough variations to occupy any sculptor for a lifetime... Of the three poses the reclining figure gives the most freedom, compositionally and spatially. The seated figure must 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" (D. Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture, with Comments by the Artist, London, 1981, p. 86).
Since the time of Ingres, Delacroix, and Renoir, and during the 20th century in the art of Maillol and Matisse, the tradition of the recumbent female figure in European art has been related to the Orientalist fantasy of the odalisque, the nude or partly clad but always desirable harem girl, playing her part in a show of veiled or overt eroticism. Moore's conception of the reclining woman, even when unclothed, runs counter to this conception. "I am not conscious of erotic elements in [my work], and I have never set out to create an erotic work of art,” Moore stated. “I have no objection to people interpreting my forms and sculptures erotically...but I do not have any desire to rationalize 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., op. cit., 2002, p. 115).
“Moore always honors and never humiliates his feminine subjects,” Albert E. Elsen stated. “They are sensual but not flagrantly or even coyly erotic” (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 supremely important roles in human society. Surely none other so consistently and monumentally expressed his awe and veneration of their miraculous life-giving and nurturing powers.
“These reclining women are not the reclining women of a Maillol or a Matisse,” Will Grohmann wrote. “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” (The Art of Henry Moore, London, 1960, p. 43).
Moore’s treatment of the horizontal configuration, even when the reclining subject is in state of serene repose, suggests that plastic energy is being transmitted from one end to the other along the length of the form. David Sylvester believed that an archaic and deeply-embedded vein of mythical inspiration is manifest in Moore's reclining figures. “Personifications such as river-gods of nature’s flowing energy are traditional pretexts for sculptures of reclining figures,” he wrote. “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... 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” (Henry Moore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1968, p. 5).
For Moore, woman is landscape, landscape is woman—his forms in his reclining figures evoke the rolling hills, fields, and vales of the sculptor's native Hertfordshire. “One of Moore’s greatest contributions to the language of twentieth century sculpture,” Alan Wilkinson claimed, “has been the use of the human figure as metaphor for landscape” (“Henry Moore’s Reclining Women,” National Gallery of Canada Annual Bulletin, vol. 1, 1977-1978).
“I want to be quite free of having to find a ‘reason’ for doing the Reclining Figures,” Moore declared, “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 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 J. Russell, Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 48).
Of all Moore's subjects, only the Reclining Woman possessed the plasticity of form, as well as the thematic significance, that 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, John Russell rightly asserted that “the obsession with the Reclining Figure has stayed with Moore forever” (ibid., p. 48).
Of the ten casts of the present sculpture, three can be found in public institutions including, The Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham; The Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny and The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Caracas.