‘Nature may appear symmetrical sometimes, but it never is
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’
Henry Moore: Heads and Masks of the 1920s and 30s: The Fourth ‘Fundamental Obsession’
In the history of modern sculpture, heads and masks, from Rodin’s bronze The Man With the Broken Nose, 1863-64, his studies of heads for The Burghers of Calais, 1884-85 and The Monument to Balzac, 1897, to Picasso’s Cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909 and Head of a Bull, 1943, assemblage of a bicycle seat and handle bar, with many great sculptors in between – Degas, Matisse, Brancusi, Gabo, Lipchitz, Giacometti, Moore and Hepworth – have been one of its most fertile motifs, with an astonishing diversity of styles and materials: clay, plaster, wax (Degas’ originals), stone wood, marble, sheet iron and bronze.
If, as Henry Moore explained in discussing his 1943-44 Hornton stone Madonna and Child, Church of St Matthew, Northampton (LH 226), the two dominant motifs or subjects of his work were at the time ‘...the ‘Reclining Figure’ idea and the ‘Mother and Child’ idea. (Perhaps of the two the ‘Mother and Child’ has been the more fundamental obsession)’ (A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot, 2002, p. 267). The third at this time, which he does not ever mention or single out, must surely be human heads and masks, with heads of animals and reptiles an intermittent preoccupation throughout his life, from the 1921 boxwood Small Animal Head (LH 1a) to the bronze Animal Turned Head, 1983 (LH 892). It is worth remembering that the first sculptures Moore saw as a young lad were the carved corbels representing grotesque human beings and animals, and the two effigy figures at St Oswald’s Church, Methley, a mile and a half west of Castleford. In 1979, Moore described what for him was the third recurring theme, ‘… Interior-exterior forms’ adding that, ‘Some sculptures may combine two or even all three of these themes’ (ibid., p. 212).
Of the ninety-seven sculptures executed between 1920 and 1929, masks and human, animal and reptile heads were the subjects of thirty-four of them, of which twenty two were carvings in various materials: wood, marble, stone, slate, alabaster, serpentine, verde di Prato and rock salt. Indeed, the three earliest recorded works are Head, c. 1920, sycamore wood (LH Od), Portrait Bust, 1921 (clay, destroyed, LH 1) and Small Animal Head, 1921, mentioned above. During the first ten years of Moore’s career, in terms of subject matter, I would nominate heads and masks as unquestionably the ‘fundamental obsession’. As Moore pointed out, which is also true of course of heads, ‘Masks isolate the facial expression, enabling you to concentrate on the face alone’ (H. Moore, quoted in J. Hedgecoe (ed.), Henry Spenser Moore, London, 1968, p. 56).
Diverse influences are reflected in the distinctly African Head of a Girl, 1922, wood (LH 4), the powerful Pre-Columbian features of the alabaster Head, 1923 (LH 10) and the Cycladic inspired Two Heads, 1924-25, Mansfield stone (LH 25). The verdi di Prato Head and Shoulders, 1927 (LH 48) anticipates to a remarkable degree the present work, in the way in which the sharp form of the nose divides the face into two Cubist inspired planes, with the left side receding, and with the two totally different forms of the eyes. In the present work a small raised circle with a tiny central hole forms the right eye, while the left eye is raised above the receding concave left side of the face, with a much larger hole within an incised circle. In their minimal treatment of the eyes, often no more than a small hole within an incised circle, as in Barbara Hepworth’s white alabaster Sculpture with Profiles, 1932 (Tate) there is a remarkable affinity between the carving of Moore and Hepworth of the early to mid-1930s, as well as with the circular eyes in a number of Ben Nicholson’s paintings of the early 1930s, such as 1933 (St Remy, Provence) (private collection). I wonder if Moore was aware of Giacometti’s Surrealist carvings of the late 1920s? The right eye of Head is remarkably similar to the raised circular eye form, with its small hole off centre at upper right, in Giacometti’s marble Woman (Femme), 1928, The Alberto Giacometti Foundation. An interesting study would be to focus on the diverse treatment of the facial features in Moore’s carvings of the 1920s and 30s, of which one of the most original is the slate Head, 1930 (LH 89) in which both eyes are defined by a single hole.
It should not be forgotten in discussing the Hopton wood stone Head that the head is in fact a partial figure, of which the best know examples in modern sculpture were Rodin’s heads, and the enormously influential headless figures and the smaller, modelled fragments of the human body: arms, legs, hands and feet. As Albert E. Elsen astutely remarked, ‘Rodin often defended his partial figures by pointing out that neither the public nor his critics took offense at the sculptured bust, which was in truth a fragment’ (A.E. Elsen, Rodin, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1963, p. 174).
No discussion of Moore’s sculpture of the 1920s and 30s, including of course the present work, would be complete without emphasising the sculptor’s belief in the moral superiority in direct carving in stone, wood and other materials, the almost sacred doctrine of ‘truth to materials’, which was the antithesis of Rodin’s practice of modelling in clay or plaster, with the completed work destined for a foundry to be cast in bronze. In A View of Sculpture, 1930, his first published article, Moore stated that the modern sculptor recognises ‘...the importance of the materials in which he works, to think and create in his material by carving direct, understanding and being in sympathy with his material so that he does not force it beyond its natural constructive build, producing weakness; to know that sculpture in stone should look honestly like stone…’ [my emphasis]. Of the material of Head Moore wrote: ‘I went to the stone quarries in Derbyshire and bought a lot of random blocks of Hopton Wood stone. I had room and space enough at Burcroft [his cottage near Canterbury] to let the stones stand around in the landscape and seeing them daily gave me fresh ideas for sculpture’ (H. Moore, quoted in J. Hedgecoe (ed.), Henry Spenser Moore, London, 1968, p. 95).
One of the most striking features of Henry Moore’s heads and masks of the 1920s and 30s is the very marked contrast not only between the differently shaped, asymmetrical features of eyes, noses and mouths on the left and on the right sides of the face, but also in their relationship to each other in three-dimensional space. In Head as mentioned above, the forms of the eyes are remarkably different. The thin, incised mouth – lips rarely feature in Moore’s sculpture – creates an austere, rather stern expression. The left side of the face recedes deeply behind the gentle curved plane of the right side, an obvious debt to Cubism. I am reminded of discussing with Henry Moore the double image of the head in his 1928 life drawing Seated Woman, (HMF 604), who suggested that the source was the head of the Virgin in the Michelangelo cartoon The Holy Family with Saints (British Museum) in which the right side of the head has been brought around into the picture plane.
The three guiding principles of Henry Moore’s sculpture of the 1920 and 30s were truth to materials, ‘…the intrinsic emotional significance of shapes instead of seeing mainly a representational value…’ and asymmetry (ibid., p. 187). ‘Perfect symmetry is death’, as Moore wrote in his notes for A View of Sculpture’, 1930. Head embodies these core, almost sacred beliefs in Hopton wood stone.
We are very grateful to Alan Wilkinson for preparing this catalogue entry.