With its rhythmic, undulating curves and soft, asymmetrical organic forms, Reclining Figure: Umbilicus is an encapsulation of the theme that dominated Henry Moore’s long and prolific career: the reclining figure. For Moore this theme was, in his own words, ‘an absolute obsession’, and served as the site of some of his greatest and most daring formal innovations. Conceived in 1984, Reclining Figure: Umbilicus dates from the late phase of Moore’s life, exemplifying the quintessential qualities of the great sculptor’s distinctive style. Composed of sensuous, biomorphic forms, in Reclining Figure: Umbilicus, Moore has transformed the human body into an arrangement of abstracted parts, encapsulating the sculptor’s unique ability at balancing abstraction and figuration and expanding the expressive potential of the human form. Propped up on her elbows, the female figure’s head, enlivened with the just-visible, delicate contours of her facial features, is turned slightly as she languorously reclines, appearing alert and at the same time, magisterial, as she presides over the surrounding space.
Since his earliest days as a sculptor, Moore had looked to the reclining figure as one of his primary sources of inspiration, and this subject came to dominate his work. ‘From the very beginning’, Moore stated, ‘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’ (Moore quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot, 2002, p. 212). At first, Moore immersed himself in primitive, archaic, often non-western art, taking inspiration from South America and Africa. He was particularly interested in the Mayan sculpture, a large reclining nude called Chacmool from Chichen Itza (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City), using the large, simplified and stylised forms, as well as the twisting, raised posture as the basis for his earliest reclining figures. Having at the beginning of his career rejected the work of European Antiquity, Moore later turned to the classical sculpture of Greece and Rome as another vital source of inspiration. Absorbing the immense variety of stylistic and formal interpretations of the reclining nude and combining elements from a wide range of sources, Moore forged his own unique sculptural language which is exemplified in the abstract forms of Reclining Figure: Umbilicus.
For Moore, the intense focus on this single, central artistic motif enabled him to experiment with an array of formal and spatial possibilities. He described the enduring appeal of having this singular subject: ‘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 form-idea’ (Moore, quoted in C. Lichtenstern, Henry Moore: Work-Theory-Impact, London, 2008, p. 95).
More than the standing or seated figure, the reclining figure provided the greatest compositional freedom for Moore and was the ideal vehicle for his artistic endeavours. ‘[The reclining figure] is free and stable at the same time’, Moore explained, ‘It fits in with my belief that sculpture should be permanent, should last for eternity. Also it has repose’ (Moore quoted in A. Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 218). With this motif, Moore was able to continually experiment with the relationship between form and space, mass and weightlessness, figuration and abstraction, and, crucially, achieve his desire to impart solid, inert materials with a dynamism and energetic vigour. As Christa Lichtenstern has described, ‘The reclining figure…formed a kind of vessel into which Moore poured his most important poetic, compositional, formal and spatial discoveries’ (C. Lichtenstern, op. cit., p. 95). Reclining Figure: Umbilicus, with its combination of soft hollows, sensuously curving protrusions and the arches of space that lead the eye through the sculpture, exemplifies Moore’s unique conception and complete mastery of the reclining figure.
It was with this quintessential subject that Moore achieved a seminal breakthrough in the years following the Second World War. In 1951, Moore conceived Reclining Figure: Festival, which portrayed the female figure in its most elemental form. Stripped back and skeletal, this work resonated with a resounding inner strength and vitality. In Reclining Figure: Umbilicus however, an abundant sense of sensuality and fullness abounds. Indeed, the rhythmic undulations and curving forms of the figure’s torso, bent legs, bust and shoulders evoke the organic forms and rolling natural contours of the landscape. As David Sylvester has written, ‘[Moore’s figures] 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, tunnelled-into by the action of wind and water’ (D. Sylvester, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 5). The harmonious equivalence between nature and the human form was something that Moore had examined throughout his career, particularly in his two- and three-piece reclining figures that he had begun in the late 1950s and early 1960s. ‘I rather believe’, Moore stated, ‘that through the image of the human figure one can also express non-human issues, such as landscape’ (C. Lichtenstern, op. cit., p. 95). By distorting and abstracting the forms of the horizontally reclining human figure, Moore opened up the visual associations of his work, creating a poetic and powerful visual expression of the shared organic vitality between the landscape and the human form.
The sense of life and energy that flows through the organic forms of Reclining Figure: Umbilicus was for Moore, one of the most important aspects his work and lay at the very heart of his artistic practice. In an article of 1930, entitled ‘A View of Sculpture’, Moore wrote: ‘The sculpture which moves me most is full blooded and self supporting, fully in the round, that is, its component forms are completely realised and work as masses in opposition, not merely indicated by surface cutting in relief; it is not perfectly symmetrical, it is static and it is strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains. It has a life of its own, independent of the object it represents’ (Moore quoted in A. Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 188). Conceived many years later, Reclining Figure: Umbilicus can be seen as a complete encapsulation of Moore’s vision of sculpture: at once figurative and abstract, with its flowing lines, rolling curves and polished surface, it conveys a sense of poetic grandeur and monumentality, features that characterise the greatest of the sculptor’s iconic reclining figures.