Carved in 1931, this unique alabaster bust is a wonderful example of Moore's early primitivist work. In 1924, Moore became intrigued by the Mexican masks housed at the British Museum and the theme of the face as a metonym for the soul and personal identity would become a pervasive theme in his work. Head showcases both his passion for natural forms and his ethos of direct carving; with its refined and delicate contour, this elegant bust recalls the simplicity of non-Western masks, while also referencing the organic qualities of new Modern Western sculpture, Surrealists like Alberto Giacometti and the impossibly smooth surfaces of Constantin Brancusi. For Moore, the human head was an important origin of artistic inspiration, and he claimed the head as "the most expressive part of a human being" (Henry Moore in David Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture with comments by the artist, London, 1981, p. 45).
In creating Head, Moore also chose to include one of his trademark structural innovations: the hole. "A piece of stone can have a hole through it and not be weakened--if the hole is of studied size, shape and direction...The first hole made through a piece of stone is a revelation. The hole connects one side to the other, making it immediately more three-dimensional" (Henry Moore, "Notes on Sculpture," in Henry Moore; Sculpture and Drawings, New York, 1949, p. xli). Moore integrated the hole in many of his most iconic sculptures, including his famed Reclining Figures, in order to articulate shape and depth. The use of a hole at the nape of the figure's neck alludes to three-dimensionality without disrupting the placid smoothness and solidity of the alabaster. Moore wrote:
The year 1931 was very important for me because I became more conscious of forcing forms in depth. It is easy to carve both sides of a sculpture, but I had a real desire to make a three-dimensional form by thinking of it also from within, and not only as a solid object like a tree trunk. The division between the breasts and the hands, even going right through to the other side of this girl figure, was the beginning of the 'hole' period for me. I had used holes before, in 1928, making an eye that goes right through the head of the sculpture, but not for a three-dimensional form reason (quoted in J. Hedgecoe, Henry Moore, New York, 1968, p. 63).
With a small hole, Moore converts his reductive, virtually abstract Head, into a symbol not only the simplicity of human expression, but most basic realism of the human form. With its organic curvatures and slim incised lines, especially the curvy line that traverses the center of the face and neck, Head is designed to be subtle, enigmatic, almost totemic.
Moore's devotion to direct carving, the method he employed in creating this work, was founded on the belief that the sculptor, using his own hands, should allow the inherent nature of his material to shape the character of the subject he created. In Head, Moore emphasizes the smoothness of the alabaster in the shape he conceived, one that mimics a pebble shaped by natural forces. A great admirer of organic selection and formation, Moore manifested his devotion to nature in this sculpture.
In the early 1930s, Shuzaburo Yasuda, the first owner of this work, studied sculpture at the Tokyo National College of Art. In 1936 he traveled to the United Kingdom where he visited Henry Moore's studio in Hempstead, forging a friendship that would last through the war.