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Revisiting Henry Moore and Pompeii

Detail of plaster sculpture by Henry Moore

If you love sculpture with mass, form, volume and alive surfaces, consider making a pilgrimage to the Henry Moore room in Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. The intense physicality of Moore’s original plasters has stayed with me since my first visit in the early 80s. I love knowing that Moore helped design this space and the placement of the sculptures. You can feel his choices and angles as you look at each sculpture.

Galleries often display sculpture insensitively: placement that prohibits viewing from all sides, poor lighting, distracting reflective glass cases as barriers, lack of breathing space for the sculptures (see first photo below). Here, in peaceful natural lighting, the encounter between you and each sculpture is immediate and intimate.

Most of the plaster sculptures were created in the 1950s, and cast in bronze decades later. If you consider Moore passé, look again. In 1966 Bruce Nauman created five works, dedicated to Henry Moore. Nauman was responding to younger artists (and some of Moore’s former assistants) who had publicly denigrated the British sculptor’s work as old-fashioned. “They should really hang on to Henry Moore,” Nauman wrote, “because he really did some good work and they might need him again sometime.”

Nice going, Bruce, perhaps the time has come, or has already come and is back again.

Admiring a small Egyptian plaster head, Moore once said, “If that plaster has lasted for three thousand years, so should my plasters.” Speaking as a sculptor, I must say how much I love plaster. Not just because it is a useful material to use – especially for types like myself, who want to keep changing forms as I work. With plaster, you can model, carve, cut off and add parts until you get it “right.” I also love looking at plaster sculptures – there is a lightness in color and the surface handling – as if the sculptor’s hand had just been there. In a previous post about Rodin’s and Altmejd’s plaster sculptures, I mention the wonderful plaster originals of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, known to us in bronze. I could “see” them more clearly in plaster, as if lifted out of the heavy grandiosity of bronze.

Thinking of the years spanning my high-school crush on Moore to the present day, I could not sum up his importance better than this excerpt from the exhibition catalog of Body & Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art, by Richard Calvocoressi, Director of The Henry Moore Foundation: “Whether our attitude to Henry Moore is reverential or ironic, we cannot ignore him. Of all sculptors, he showed us that we are embodied beings, we live in bodies, we feel and touch, and we all occupy, or displace, space.”

The day following my re-acquaintance with AGO’s permanent Moore gallery (yes, I’m a delinquent blogger, this took place in December 2015) I grappled with Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano at the Royal Ontario Museum, now at Montreal’s MFA. “Grappled,” because once past the exhibition’s educational sections, I was startled by my own reactions to the cast plaster bodies of Pompeii. Keep in mind that these figures are very familiar to me, along with the Bog People. In the 70s and 80s these images were influential as I sculpted fragmented figures in states of transformation, alluding to fossils and archaeological artifacts. I had also paid homage at the ruins of Pompeii twice – in 1977 and in 2001. I experienced the remains of these bodies, once encased by molten lava, within the context of the original volcano site.

This time, seeing these figures caught in their death throes, placed on sculpture bases with hundreds of people gawking and shuffling by – I felt sick! Forced myself to take photos because I knew I’d write about this. The rawness, pathos, and reality of these human lives caught in their last moments, isolated in an institutional setting, seemed so wrong. Tempting to compare these rough plaster bodies cast from natural molds of hardened lava to the highly composed and textural plaster figures of Henry Moore. But I won’t. Perhaps with age my respect for the preciousness of life has made me more sensitive. There is the delight of artifice and the humbling of mortality.