‘The ‘Mother and Child’ idea is one of my two or three obsessions, one of my inexhaustible subjects … [It] is eternal and unending, with so many sculptural possibilities in it – a small form in relation to a big form, the big form protecting the small one, and so on. It is such a rich subject, both humanly and compositionally, that I will always go on using it' (Moore, quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 213).
‘Sometimes I make ten or twenty maquettes for every one that I use in a large scale – the others may get rejected. If a maquette keeps its interest enough for me to want to realise it in a full-size final work, then I might make a working model in an intermediate size, in which changes will be made before going to the real, full-sized sculpture. Changes get made at all these stages’ (Moore, quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 217).
Conceived in 1975, Working Model for Reclining Mother and Child combines two of Henry Moore’s most celebrated motifs in a single sculpture – the elegant sinuous forms of the reclining figure, and the bodily expression of the intense bond that exists between a mother and her child. The artist found himself continuously preoccupied by these themes throughout his career, coming to see them as two of his fundamental artistic obsessions. As a result of this on-going fascination, both subjects came to be seen as the signature motifs of Moore’s oeuvre, shaping and influencing his unique vision of the human figure. Both themes had emerged in his works of the 1920s, with Moore carving his first version of the mother and child motif in 1922, followed just two years later by his inaugural reclining figure. Revisiting these subjects across the years in a variety of media and contexts allowed the sculptor to explore the many formal permutations that they had to offer, while also experimenting with the manner in which the nuances of a figure’s body language could evoke a variety of psychological states. In combining the reclining figure with the mother and child in the present work, Moore grants both themes a new aesthetic form while also instilling them with new layers of meaning and narrative interest. Dating from the height of his career, Working Model for Reclining Mother and Child demonstrates Moore’s mastery of the most technically complex expressions of form, and his ability to imbue his sculptures with levels of intense, symbolic meaning.
This work is the second model Moore made in preparation for his large-scale sculpture Reclining Mother and Child (1975-76), examples of which can be found in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, and the Ohara museum of Art in Kurashiki, Japan. At the heart of the sculpture lies a reclining female figure, a model of gently undulating, sinuous rhythms and volumetric richness, as she lifts a young infant before her, its angularity contrasting beautifully with the mother’s sensuous curves. Occupying the seminal position between sketch, maquette and fully realised work, the sculpture acted as an intermediate step in Moore’s creative process, allowing the artist to refine the idea proposed in the maquette before it reached the stage of full realisation, and to assess the suitability of the proposed material, bronze, to the design. Speaking in 1978, Moore detailed this process, explaining: ‘Sometimes I make ten or twenty maquettes for every one that I use in a large scale – the others may get rejected. If a maquette keeps its interest enough for me to want to realise it in a full-size final work, then I might make a working model in an intermediate size, in which changes will be made before going to the real, full-sized sculpture. Changes get made at all these stages’ (Moore, quoted in ibid., p. 217).
These models allowed Moore greater freedom to experiment with his subjects, granting him the opportunity to become increasingly inventive with his approach to their sculptural forms. Indeed, Moore explained that the ideas for fusion of the reclining figure with the mother and child, ‘came directly from sculptural maquettes I was doing’ (Moore, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore: Drawings 1969-79, Wildenstein, New York, 1979, p. 29). In Working Model for Reclining Mother and Child, this process of experimentation and refinement can be clearly identified in the number of subtle modifications that Moore introduces to the work at this stage of the design process. Compared with the small, plaster maquette the artist created in the first stages of the sculpture’s inception, the female form in the present work adopts a more relaxed, natural pose, while her general proportions are further refined by the sculptor. Perhaps most strikingly, the angle at which the mother holds her child up is straightened, generating a new dynamic between the two figures. Indeed, rather than the traditional protective or sheltering pose which marked so many of Moore’s versions of the mother and child theme, here the sculptor creates a scene in which the mother marvels at her young child, holding its small body before her so that she may gaze admiringly upon them. In this way, Moore creates a gentle and, above all, engagingly human work, which emphasises the strength of the relationship between mother and child and highlights the inherent bond that exists between the two characters.
The relationship between parent and child had taken on a new significance for Moore following his experiences as a war artist in London during the Blitz. Recording the impact of the conflict on the city’s civilian population, the artist was struck by the acts of intense love and protection he witnessed among people as they sheltered underground from the bombing. The observations he made during this period greatly informed his subsequent sculpture, lending the mother and child theme new levels of tenderness and emotion. Seeking to convey the essence of humanity, Moore selected this subject, which embodies one of the strongest and most unconditional loves known to man, to act as a universal symbol for all human relationships. Acting as a site for the expression of emotions and traits common to all of us, the theme came to dominate Moore’s subsequent output, appearing in hundreds of maquettes, drawings and prints, an attribute which further intensified following the birth of his own daughter, Mary, in 1946. In the present work, the child is fused with the female figure’s right arm, its back doubling as the mother’s hand. With this physical proximity of the two characters to one another, Moore celebrates the intimacy of their relationship, portraying the child as an extension of the mother. By uniting them in this way, the artist draws closer attention to the connection between the two figures, and invokes a striking expression of the tenderness which binds a strong adult to the form of a vulnerable infant.
There is a lyrical tenderness to the way the mother engages with the baby, while her relaxed pose lends the scene an atmosphere of serenity and tranquillity. The size of the infant suggests that this is one of the first moments between mother and child, perhaps even their first meeting, a detail which intensifies the emotive content of the work. Capturing the wonder the mother feels as she looks upon her child, Moore imbues the sculpture with a sense of the powerful, intense emotions that are rooted in parental love. It could be argued that the manner in which the mother holds the child before her, along with the extreme abstraction of its form, causes the infant to resemble an object, appearing almost like a mirror in the female figure’s hands. However, it is important to note that the child is not presented as a mirror image of the mother. Rather, the infant’s contours are strikingly different to those of the mother, its form highly angular and compacted in comparison. It is in this lack of resemblance that the integral meaning of the work reveals itself, as the child is portrayed as an independent, unique individual, whose identity is very different to that of its mother. Instead of seeing herself reflected in her child, the mother is able to view her child as its own unique individual, a person with its own form, destiny and identity. In so doing, Moore creates a highly nuanced vision of the mother-child dynamic, hinting at the psychological complexities that underlie their fundamental relationship.