Conceived in 1953, Reclining Figure No. 2 is an example of one of the most prominent themes in Henry Moore’s career: the reclining figure. Moore had an ‘absolute obsession’ with the reclining figure, using it as a site of endless experimentation and innovation; as he stated in 1968, ‘From the very beginning 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’ (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot, 2002, p. 212). Propped up on her right elbow, appearing alert and attentive, Reclining Figure No. 2 belongs to a series of six works of this type – all of which recline in this pose – that Moore created between 1952 and 1954. Form and space coalesce in the abstracted and hollowed forms of Reclining Figure No. 2, creating a palpable sense of tension, force and vitality that defines the greatest of Moore’s sculptures from this post-war period.
For Moore, the enduring appeal of the reclining figure lay in the endless formal and spatial possibilities it held: ‘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… 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). After the Second World War, Moore made a radical breakthrough in his artistic conception of the reclining figure. The monumental Reclining Figure: Festival – a precedent for the present work – was conceived in 1951. The Arts Council of Great Britain had commissioned Moore to create a work to be exhibited at the Festival of Britain held in the summer of 1951. In contrast to the recumbent, rounded forms of Moore’s figures of the 1930s and 40s, this figure was reduced to its most elemental parts, a skeletal structure that resonates with an inner strength and vitality. The torso of the figure is hollowed away, creating a dynamic interplay between form and space. Moore would later meditate on this incorporation of negative space into the sculpture itself, stating, ‘[Reclining Figure: Festival] was perhaps my first conscious effort to make space and form absolutely inseparable. I became curious of this aim halfway through the sculpture… I think this is the first sculpture in which I succeeded in making form and space sculpturally inseparable’ (quoted in A. Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 276).
Moore continued to investigate this sculptural breakthrough, and the relationship between form and space is further explored in Reclining Figure No. 2. The figure’s torso and hips are projected forward, contorted and carved away creating a space between the plinth and the figure. Similarly, cavities are formed between the taut right-angled elbow, the legs and stiffly bent knees. This symbiotic relationship between form and space was one of Moore’s central and most enduring sculptural innovations, offering infinite views through and around the sculpture; Moore later stated that, ‘You can’t understand space without being able to understand form and to understand form you must be able to understand space’ (quoted in C. Lichtenstern, op. cit., p. 105).
The simplified organic structure of Reclining Figure No. 2 demonstrates Moore’s interest in the joints, bones and fissures of the human form and how these interconnected structures instigate movement and rotation. Stripped down to its most essential structure, the chiselled parts of the figure take on an organic vitality and energy, as if it could leap into action at any time, presenting a new, highly charged form of humanity. In the context of post-war Britain, these skeletal reclining figures were seen as both a reflection of the anxiety and tension wrought by years of war, and conversely, regarded as a presentation of human strength, offering hope to a fatigued and war-torn country and its people.