The human figure provided Henry Moore with endless inspiration throughout his career. Standing, reclining, depicted in pairs or as individual entities, male and female figures dominate the sculptor’s work, serving as the basis for his innovative formal explorations. Conceived in 1984, Moore’s striking Head depicts the head, elegant neck and shoulders of a figure. With a remarkable simplicity of means, Moore has imbued the stylised, simplified features of the head with a powerful vigour and proud sense of expression as the figure glances over its shoulder into the distance.
For Moore, the head was the fundamental and most decisive element of the human figure. In many of his reclining figures, the head often appears smaller and less significant in comparison with the monumental, undulating curves, forms and facets of the body. However, for Moore, this element was absolutely essential; he stated, ‘Some people have said why do I make the heads so unimportant. Actually, for me the head is the most important part of a piece of sculpture’, he stated, ‘it gives to the rest a scale, it gives to the rest a certain human poise, and meaning’ (Moore quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot, 2002, p. 219).
The isolated depiction of the head and profile appears in numerous guises throughout the sculptor’s career. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Moore executed a series of stylised, primitive masks and heads, simplifying the facial features to a minimum and in some cases, using the same circular holes that pierce all the way through the surface as in Head. For Moore, the sculptural heads, such as the present work, were not portraits that conveyed the individual, unique traits of the sitter, but instead, through the exploration of the relationship of forms, served as an encapsulation and embodiment of humanity as a whole. Moore explained, ‘You don’t need to represent the features of a face so as to suggest the human qualities special to a particular person. My own aim has not been to capture the range of expressions that can play over the features but to render the exact degree of relationship between, for example the head and the shoulders; for the outline of the whole figure, the three-dimensional character of a body, can render the spirit of the subject treated. When you observe a friend in the distance, you don’t recognise him by the colour of his eyes…but by the effect made by his figure – the general disposition of his forms, the proportion and set of one mass to another’ (loc. cit.).
The play of surfaces in Head is characteristic of Moore’s late work. The smooth, flattened planes of the figure’s face contrast with the rougher areas of textured surface, imbuing the piece with a dynamic sense of tactility which is heightened by the rich, glowing red brown patina of the work. Though the figure’s face is perfectly symmetrical – the eyes, nose and lips correspond on each side of the face – the contrasting textures and smooth planes that constitute the head, profile and bust introduce the sense of asymmetricality that was at the centre of Moore’s sculptural practice. ‘Nature may appear symmetrical sometimes, but it never is’, Moore once stated, ‘Everybody’s face, for instance, is asymmetrical. If you took the two halves of a person’s face and reversed them, you’d get a different person’ (loc. cit.).