Large Totem Head reflects Moore's sustained appreciation of non-Western sculpture for its extraordinarily varied and conceptual rendering of the human figure. In addition to the African, Oceanic, Cycladic, and pre-Colombian artifacts that the sculptor consulted at the British Museum and in books by art historians such as Carl Einstein and Leo Frobenius, Moore also expanded his knowledge of these cultures though contact with English surrealists in the 1930s. For example, the recessed, oblong eyes and narrow vertical nose of the present work reveal the influence of Dogon masks from Western Sudan, which Moore saw in a special edition of the surrealist journal Minotaure that was dedicated to African expeditions undertaken by the Ethnological Institute of the University of Paris from Sakar to Somalia. The illustrations in this report, which included numerous pictures of Dogon masks in particular, ultimately inspired Moore to transforms the physiognomic hollows and projections of this particular visage into a grand sculpture with exotic monumentality that recalls enigmatic monuments of ages past such as the totem-heads of Easter Island. Discussing this mysterious quality of his works, Moore stated: "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. Initially both sculpture and painting must need effort to be fully appreciated, or else it is just an empty immediacy. In fact all art should have some more mystery and meaning to it than is apparent to a quick observer" (quoted in D. Mitchinson, op. cit., p. 204).
The rectangular eyes and slim nose of the Dogon mask is a formal schema that reappears in various media within Moore's oevure. The first manifestation of this matrix surfaces in his colored lithograph Spanish Prisoner, 1939, which the artist created to raise money for Republican internees in France; the incarcerated man's face takes on the qualities of a Dogon mask, but with a nose that includes three bars. In 1963, Moore reprised this theme in his sculpture The Head: Boat Form (Lund Humphries, no. 509), which is regarded as the maquette for the present sculpture. There is virtually no difference between the two bronzes, save for their orientation, yet the repeated shape and its various ethnographic implications emphasizes the importance of eternal sculptural forms to Moore, as well as their acquisition of human meaning. Underscoring the visual primacy of non-Western artifacts, Moore stated: "Primitive art is a mine of information for the historian and the anthropologist, but to understand and appreciate it, it is more important to look at it than to learn the history of primitive peoples, their religions and social customs. Some such knowledge may be useful and help us look more sympathetically. But all that is really needed is response to the carvings themselves, which have a constant life of their own, independent of whenever and however they come to be made, and remain as full of sculptural meaning today to those open and sensitive enough to receive it, as on the day they were finished" (quoted in J. Hedgecoe, Henry Moore: A Monumental Vision, Cologne, 2005, p. 46).