In 1949, Henry Moore received an invitation from the Arts Council to create a sculpture for the Festival of Britain, which was to be held in 1951. Moore ignored the Arts Council's original suggestion that he carve a family group symbolizing 'Discovery' - the festival's theme - instead choosing to create what is now regarded as one of the most outstanding examples of the reclining figure in the whole of his prodigious oeuvre: Reclining Figure: Festival. Moore himself wrote of the extraordinary significance this sculpture held for him, declaring: 'Certain of my works are more important to me than others, and I tend to look on them as keys to a particular period. Ones I can quickly pick out are the 1938 Reclining [Recumbent] Figure in Hornton stone, in the Tate Gallery; the large elmwood 1939 Reclining Figure, now in the Detroit Museum [Institute of Arts]; the 1951 Festival Reclining Figure' (J. Hedgecoe, Henry Spencer Moore, London, 1968, p. 197).
The importance of Reclining Figure: Festival lies not only in the significance of the commission itself but also because it functions, as Moore recognized, as a 'key' to this period of his work. It represents the culmination of ideas Moore had developed on the theme of the reclining figure in the previous decades, whilst concomitantly inaugurating a new working method and ushering in stylistic innovations. This new working method, one which would henceforth shape Moore's approach to sculpture, involved the progression from maquette, to working model and subsequently to the large scale work; the stylistic innovations explored in Reclining Figure: Festival were a new equivalence of form and space and the introduction of raised tracery-like lines upon the surface of the sculpture.
A year before Moore received the commission for Reclining Figure: Festival he had been awarded the international prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale. Consonant with Moore's status as the greatest living British sculptor, it was decided that a major solo retrospective exhibition of his work would be held at the Tate Gallery in London to coincide with the opening of the Festival of Britain. The Festival itself was conceived as a proud display of Britain's scientific, technological, industrial and cultural achievements. Ostensibly marking the centenary of The Great Exhibition of 1851, the real objectives were to demonstrate Britain's revival to the world and to lift spirits in a rather gloomy and drab post-war country; it was to be a 'harbinger... of a whole way of more contemporary living' (D. Kynaston, Family Britain, 1951-57, London, 2009, p. 7). Fine art and sculpture played an especially prominent role in disseminating one of the Festival's principal messages - that of Britain's cultural resurgence. Moore's work was accorded a major role within this programme, his Reclining Figure: Festival sited prominently in front of Edward Brian O'Rorke's Country Pavilion, which was located within the Festival's centrepiece - the South Bank Exhibition. Situated within this modern environment, symbolic of a 'new Britain springing from the battered fabric of the old', Moore's sculpture resonated well with what was described at the time as the Festival's 'determinedly modernist' bias (B.E. Conekin, "The autobiography of a nation": the 1951 Festival of Britain, Manchester, 2003, p. 51). Here, Reclining Figure: Festival became a major attraction and talking point, eliciting a great deal of response from the public - it is estimated that a total of 8.5 million visitors visited the Festival - and the contemporary press alike.
As Moore himself made clear, Reclining Figure: Festival was conceived without reference to its intended location: 'I knew that the South Bank would only be its temporary home, so I didn't worry about where it was placed. If I had studied a Festival site too carefully, the figure might never have been at home anywhere else ... I was simply concerned with making sculpture in the round' (Moore, quoted in A. Wilkinson, op. cit., Toronto, 1987, p. 136). The process of making this 'sculpture in the round' was famously recorded by John Read in his groundbreaking documentary on Moore - the very first documentary film made about a living artist for British television. In this film, the stages of Reclining Figure: Festival's creation, from sketch through to the final casting of the bronze are shown. It thus serves as an historical record of exceptional importance by visually illustrating the precise manner in which Moore conceived and executed the present sculpture.
For Reclining Figure: Festival, Moore initially created a sheet of preparatory sketches where ideas for the sculpture were worked out. He based two small maquettes on these ideas and then a subsequent larger working model. Moore then used this working model to produce a full-size plaster version - now in the collection of the Tate - from which the final bronze sculpture was cast. As Alan G. Wilkinson has observed, although Moore had used maquettes before, this may constitute the very first instance of a sculpture developing from maquette, to working model, to the large scale work (see A. Wilkinson, Christie's sale catalogue, 20th Century British Art, 6 June 2008, lot 63). Whilst Moore had used sketches to generate the original idea for Reclining Figure: Festival, this was a practice which would, from this point on, assume less importance. This was bound up with the greater sense of three-dimensionality for which Moore was now striving and, in this quest, he deemed working simply from drawings as less satisfactory.
It was this new heightened concern with three-dimensionality and the fusion of space and form which separated Reclining Figure: Festival from Moore's recumbent figures that had gone before. 'The Reclining Figure: Festival', wrote Moore, 'is perhaps my first sculpture where the space and the form are completely dependent on and inseparable from each other. 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 form are so naturally fused they are one' (Moore, quoted in J. Hedgecoe, op. cit., 1968, p. 188). This unprecedented unity between solid and void meant that the empty spaces flowing through the sculpture now assumed as much importance as the solid form itself, something which was clearly communicated in the work's original installation at the Festival. There, raised on a one metre high plinth - higher, as pointed out by Christa Lichtenstern, than has become customary - the viewer could look through the piece to its interior where the forms inhabit 'a tunnel in recession' (Moore, quoted in C. Lichtenstern, Henry Moore, Work - Theory - Impact, London, 2008, p. 101). It is this unification of the bronze with the surrounding empty space which gives this attenuated sculpture its great sense of presence, with its thrusting and undulating forms conveying the 'tension, force, and vitality' which Moore had sought to create (Moore, quoted in ibid.).
Ridges, creating geometric patterns across the surface of the sculpture, enhance this sense of 'tension, force and vitality.' To produce this novel effect, Moore affixed pieces of string to the plaster before casting it in bronze. Moore explained that the strings 'had to be thin enough' so as 'not to disrupt or confuse the surface' (Moore, quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot, 2002, p. 277). This innovative technique may have developed out of the incised lines which appear in a number of his sculptures from the 1930s; the so-called 'sectional lines' in many of his drawings, and the use of string in his series of stringed figures and objects from 1937-38. Almost vein-like, these raised lines in Reclining Figure: Festival, which not only evoke an inner life-force but also enhance the sculpture's undulating rhythm, are particularly noticeable in the way they emanate from the incised lines of the figure's head. Lichtenstern has suggested that the lines might serve a spiritual function, indicating the 'split head's psychological openness to influences "from on high"' (C. Lichtenstern, op. cit., 2008, p. 102).
Commentators, both at the time it was first exhibited and today, have interpreted Reclining Figure: Festival in different ways. For some, its haunting skeletal form embodies a sense of anxiety, created as it was, in the wake of the war. For others though, it is a celebration of humanity's survival, the sculpture's form and distinguished lines denoting strength. These various interpretations are themselves reflective of Moore's later comment 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 all about itself immediately... In my sculpture explanations often come afterwards' (Moore, quoted in A. Bowness, ed., Henry Moore: Complete Sculpture, vol. 4, 1964-1973, London, 1977, p. 17).
Reclining Figure: Festival was cast in bronze in an edition of five plus one artist's proof. One of these bronze casts is in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh and a second is in the collection of the Musé national d'Art moderne, Paris.