This Reclining Figure of 1969-1970, measuring 11¼ feet (133 in./337.8 cm.), is length-wise the largest single-piece sculpture on this theme that Moore ever created and had cast in bronze. There are, of course, monumental sculptures comprised of two, three and four pieces that are even larger (e.g., Lund Humphries, nos. 629 and 655; figs. 1 and 2), and the largest bronze of all, regardless of subject, is the unique cast of Large Divided Oval: Butterfly, 1985-1986 (Lund Humphries, no. 571b), which extends more than 26 feet (800 cm.) from side to side. This Reclining Figure may embody as massive a scale as Moore felt he could feasibly realize in bronze as a cohesively integral, single-piece recumbent figure.
There is arguably, moreover, no single-piece sculpture in Moore's monumental late oeuvre that surpasses this Reclining Figure in the natural flow of its undulating, organically inspired female features, convulsive and sensual by turns, which nonetheless resolve into that ultimate sense of balance and repose we regard as an enduring hallmark of this sculptor's achievement. Here is a classic instance of Moore's intention to avoid purposely the fundamentally symmetrical appearance of the human body. No such regularity is discernible here; indeed, from any point-of-view one might choose from one moment to the next, Reclining Figure takes on an entirely different and always asymmetrical aspect.
The reclining female figure here incorporates a series of contrasting forms that commences with the tuber-like twin vertical points of head and arm at that spring from the earth at one end, and then follow along the twisting boa-like course of her torso, marked with protrusions in the forms of her breasts and pelvic bones. The figure takes a bend in direction at the plateau of her thighs, and then arrives at a precipice beyond which her lower legs suddenly descend, planting her firmly into the ground from whence she first emerged. "The organic forms of sex and fertility unite with an architectural structure epitomised by the mechanical strength of the curve," Giovanni Carandente has written. "The sculpture is imbued with vigour, monumentality and inner energy, and its form is posed within the fluctuating movement of its profile. The dialogue between empty and occupied space gives the piece dynamism and agility" (in D. Mitchinson, op. cit., p. 297). Despite its considerable weight, this sculpture appears to rest easily and with remarkable delicacy on four points only: the figure's arm, the underside of its mid-section and two legs.
This Reclining Figure is a veritable massif of a sculpture, and if such landscape terms by way of comparison most quickly and aptly spring to mind, this was absolutely Moore's intention. In a 1941 conversation with the painter Graham Sutherland and the celebrated art historian Kenneth Clark, Moore said, "[The poet] Wordsworth often personified objects in nature and gave them the human aspect, and personally I've rather done the reverse process in sculpture. I've often found that by taking formal ideas from landscape, and putting them into my sculpture I have, as it were, related a human figure to a mountain." Sutherland shared Moore's view: "In a sense the landscape painter must also look as the landscape as if it were himself--himself as a human being" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, pp. 126-127).
"The human figure is the basis of all my sculpture," Moore declared, "and that for me means the female nude. 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 have been reclining figures (quoted in J. Hedgecoe, Henry Moore, New York, 1968, p. 151). He described the three basic poses of the human figure: standing, sitting and lying down. That in the vast majority of his works the female figure is either seated or reclining is a preference that initially stemmed from the sculptor's desire to work in stone, for the practical concern that a standing figure in carved stone is structurally weak at the ankles. "But with either a seated or reclining figure one doesn't have this worry," Moore explained. "And between them are enough variations to occupy any sculptor for a lifetime." He noted, moreover, that "of the three poses the reclining figure gives the most freedom, compositionally and spatially. The seated figure has to have something to sit on. You can't free it from its pedestal. A reclining figure can recline on any surface. It is free and stable at the same time. It fits in with my belief that sculpture should be permanent, should last for an eternity. Also, it has repose" (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., op. cit., p. 86).
"With one exception [the reclining figures] are women," David Sylvester has written. "Most of them are nudes, but, though they lie with knees apart or thighs apart, their overall pose doesn't betoken the availability commonly implied in reclining female nudes (Henry Moore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1968, p. 5). Since the time of Ingres, Delacroix and Renoir, and more recently Matisse, the tradition of the reclining female figure in European art has been inextricably tied to the Orientalist convention of the odalisque, the nude or partly clad but always voluptuous harem girl, playing her part in a deliberately titillating show of veiled or blatant eroticism. But as Albert Elsen has pointed out, Moore "always honors and never humiliates his feminine subjects. They are sensual but not flagrantly or even coyly erotic" (Modern European Sculpture 1918-1945, New York, 1978, p. 50).
If Moore's conception of the reclining woman, even when nude, runs counter to the orientalist tradition, it is not because of any latter-day Puritanical streak in his make-up, but for the reason that more than any other great male artist of the 20th century Moore was sympathetic to the complex and multi-dimensional lives of women. He was especially respectful, even in awe of their all-important role in human society as the bearers of miraculous life-giving powers. "These reclining women are not the reclining women of a Maillol or a Matisse," Will Grohmann has written, "they are women in repose but also something more profound...woman as the concept of fruitfulness, the Mother Earth. Moore, who once pointed to the maternal element in the 'Reclining Figures,' may well see in them an element of eternity, the 'Great Female,' who is both birth-giving nature and the wellspring of the unconscious... To Henry Moore, the 'Reclining Figures' are no mere external objects, he identifies himself with them, as well as the earth and the whole realm of motherhood" (The Art of Henry Moore, London, 1960, p. 43).
Even in repose, the horizontal configuration of the reclining women gives rise to the sensation that plastic energy is being transmitted from one end to the other along the length of the form--very discernible indeed in the present Reclining Figure--and in shaping this internal power Moore has transformed the figure, forging an analogy--an equivalency--with the natural landscape, and the even greater idea of the very earth itself. David Sylvester believed that an archaic and deeply-embedded mythic vein of inspiration is manifest in Moore's reclining figures. "Personifications such as river-gods of nature's flowing energy are traditional pretexts for sculptures of reclining figures," he wrote. "Moore's figures, of course, represent nothing but themselves, but are made to look as if they themselves had been shaped by nature's energy. They seem to be weathered, eroded, tunnelled-into by the action of wind and water... Moore's reclining figures are not supine; they prop themselves up, are potentially active. Hence the affinity with river-gods: the idea is not simply that of a body subjected to the flow of nature's forces but of one in which those forces are harnessed" (op. cit., exh. cat., 1968, p. 5).
For Moore then, woman is landscape, landscape is woman. The reclining figure evokes the natural forms of the rolling hills, fields and vales of the sculptor's native Yorkshire. Wilkinson stated, "One of Moore's greatest contributions to the language of twentieth century sculpture has been the use of the human figure as metaphor for landscape" ("Henry Moore's Reclining Women" in National Gallery of Canada Annual Bulletin, vol. 1, 1977-1978). This was "an idea which helped to make him famous," John Russell observed. In certain sculptures "Moore has produced an imaginary landscape that happens to relate at every point to the human body, to human emotional states, and to aspects of human experience" (op. cit., pp. 44 and 206).
No less than his own Wordsworthian feelings for nature and the landscape, Moore drew upon precedents in late 19th century painting. In 1959 he purchased Cézanne's Trois baigneuses (Rewald, no. 361; fig. 3). "It's the only picture I ever wanted to own," he commented. "It's the joy of my life... The type of woman he portrays is the same kind that I like" (quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, New York, 1996, vol. 1, p. 240). There is a late Degas pastel in which the form of a reclining woman may be detected in the topography in landscape of coastal bluffs (fig. 4). While working on a two-piece Reclining Figure, Moore mentioned that "the leg end began to remind me of Seurat's Le Bec du Hoc [De Hauke, no. 158], which Kenneth Clark owned. I had seen it on numerous occasions and have always admired it (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., op. cit., p. 153; fig. 5). The pairing of legs bent at the knee in the present Reclining Figure may bring to mind the Manneport, the dramatic natural arch on the Normandy coast at Etretat, which Monet frequently featured in his paintings (e.g., Wildenstein, no. 832; fig. 6).
Of all Moore's subjects, only the Reclining Woman could bear the weight of these many inferences and allusions, and sustain the profound and far-reaching metaphor by which our bodies, as the sculptor tells us, become the world. It is for this fundamental reason that, while other themes came, went and may have returned in Moore's work, Russell rightly asserted that "the obsession with the Reclining Figure has stayed with Moore forever" (ibid., p. 48). Moore declared: "The whole of nature--bones, pebbles, shells, clouds, tree trunks, flowers--all is grist to the mill of a sculpture... It's a question of metamorphosis. We must relate the human figure to animals, to clouds, to the landscape--bring them all together. There's no difference. By using them like metaphors in poetry, you give new meaning to things" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., p. 222).
Against the backdrop of twentieth century modernism, an art born of the ever-quickening pace of life and social change in the great cities, Moore made his mark as the pastoral sculptor par excellence. His forms trace the curvature of the landscape, the flow of a river and the growth of plants, and suggest the poetry inherent in all these things. Evidence of this achievement is especially apparent when his monumental sculptures have been installed in outdoor environments, such as regaled those who viewed Moore in America at the New York Botanical Gardens in 2008. Moore's great forms were always pliant and metamorphic, but when sited in the greater landscape they appear to draw up and extract, Antaeus-like, even greater strength and powerful expression from the earth beneath them. Having imbued his sculptures with "permanence," that they may "last for an eternity," Moore in his work seems to make time stand still. As we may find in the surfaces of his sculptures the semblance of both the polishing erosion and deepening furrows left by the endless passing of seasons, we should contemplate in these forms those elemental and eternal cycles of life and death, as the ancients knew, accepted and from which took comfort. In a statement Moore gave for an article printed in 1930, at the very outset of his career, he expressed the belief that "A limitless scope is open to him [the modern sculptor]...":
"His inspiration will come, as always, from nature and the world around him, from which he learns such principles as balance, rhythm, organic growth of life, attraction and repulsion, harmony and contrast... Each sculptor differs in his aims and ideals according to his different character, personality and his point of development. The sculpture which moves me most is full blooded and self-supporting, fully in the round, that is, its components are completely realised and work as masses in opposition... It is not perfectly symmetrical, it is static and it is strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains. It has a life of its own, independent of the object it represents" (ibid., pp. 187 and 188).
(fig. 1) Henry Moore, Large Four Piece Reclining Figure, 1972-1973. Sold, Christie's, New York, 2 May 2006, lot 31.
(fig. 2) Henry Moore, Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped, 1975. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 November 2003, lot 35.
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Trois baigneuses, circa 1875. Formerly in the collection of Henry Moore.
(fig. 4) Georges Seurat, Le Bec du Hoc à Grandcamp, 1885. Tate Gallery, London.
(fig. 5) Edgar Degas, Paysage, circa 1890-1892. Jan Krugier and Marie Anne Krugier-Poniatowski Collection, Geneva.
(fig. 6) Claude Monet, La Manneporte, Etretat, 1883. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.