Essays by James Hyman

Henry Moore and The Geometry of Fear

Henry Moore and The Geometry of Fear

 
 

Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear is the first book on this subject. It presents work by many of the most important British sculptors of the Twentieth Century including Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull.

The book contains essays by Margaret Garlake and James Hyman, numerous full colour illustrations and installation photographs of the 1952 British Pavillion at the Venice Biennale when many of these artists received their first major international acclaim.

ISBN 0-9540606-1-X
48pp

This publication is now sold out.

TEXT EXTRACT:

`These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance.
Here are images of flight. of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.
.Their art is close to the nerves, nervous, wiry. They have seized Eliot's
image of the Hollow Men... They have peopled the Waste Land with iron waifs.'


Herbert Read, New Aspects of British Sculpture, 1952
1. A New Realism of the Imagination
Fifty years ago this year the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale presented a major exhibition entitled New Aspects of British Sculpture. Outside the pavilion the visitor was greeted with two works. A major sculpture by Henry Moore, winner of the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the first post-war Venice Biennale of 1948, and a complimentary form by Reg Butler. Both men presented sculptures whose accentuated verticality emphasised their relationship to the standing human form. Moore's etiolated Double Standing Figure suggested a less voluptuous, fecund or verdant view of the human form than many of his contemporaneous works whilst Butler's Woman (1949) which, at over two metres high, was the artist's first major figure, made reference not just to man but to machine, with the suggestion of a cyclopean figure keeping under surveillance all before it.

Such imaging was complemented by the sculpture and related works on by paper inside the pavilion by Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull.

This essay and the exhibition that it accompanies, Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear, gives prominence to this art historically important moment. It includes works shown in Venice such as Robert Adams Divided Pillar (1950), Geoffrey Clarke's Complexities of Man (1951) and William Turnbull's Horse (1950). The present exhibition also seeks to evoke the display of these works in the British Pavilion, presenting sculptures on plinths pushed away from the walls on which are hung related works on paper.

For many critics this new generation of sculptors was reacting against Henry Moore. As Robert Melville wrote, in contrast to Moore, `they have turned to modelling, manipulating and assembling techniques, to lighter and more sinewy materials. They have replaced the craft of the stone-mason with the craft of the blacksmith, the industrial skills of the welder and the model and pattern maker.The outstanding adepts of these techniques are Adams, Butler, Paolozzi, Turnbull, Chadwick, Clarke, Armitage, Sarah Jackson. How many sculptors make a school? `

However, to present these young artist's as a group and to characterise this group as antithetical to Moore is to view both them and their elder reductively and monolithically. Besides the fact that Bernard Meadow's had been a studio assistant to Moore in the 1930s and was indebted to what he learnt there, the `geometry of fear' sculptors were extremely diverse as was Moore. Indeed after the war Moore worked through multiple themes and forms, several of which did ally him to the work of these young sculptors. In Moore's oeuvre the 1940s and early 1950s were some of the most exciting, inventive and invigorating of his career. They not only witnessed a new emphasis on social subjects such as the Family Group, the Mother and Child and the Reclining Figure but also reflected more anxious concerns.

Moore's Animal Head, is both animate and deathly and bears an expression which from one angle seems agonised and from another appears to be grinning. Its boulder like weight recalls one of Picasso's most powerful statements about death his massively powerful bronze Tete de Mort of 1943. In other works this concern with mortality combined with Cold War anxieties about man's predicament, notably in the Helmet Head series and sculptures on the theme of the Fallen Warrior.

Having previously worked in two modes, the abstract and the surreal, Moore now put such means at the disposal of new realist priorities. As Sylvester argued in a major two-part essay on Moore published in 1948, surrealist devices were not an end in themselves; they were a useful tool in the creation of a new vision of man. Transformation need not lead away from the subject. On the contrary distortion had the potential to bring the viewer closer to it. Moore's work was not based on `gratuitous deformation' but `stands or falls by its realism - by which I mean its power to evoke the physical properties of the object.'

Similarly the deformation undergone by the figures of the `geometry of fear' sculptors, with the exception of the more architectural concerns of Robert Adams exemplified by one of his works for Venice, Divided Pillar, was principally read as an engagement with realism.

The exhibition in Venice was a sensation. As the Daily Telegraph asserted: `the British pavilion has received the compliment of being declared the most outstanding in the exhibition.' Even the partisan Italian Press appears to have been enthusiastic: `the young English [sic] artists have secured the leading place in Europe.'

Certainly, the exhibition succeeded in directing the international spotlight on London. Accolades came not just from Britain and Europe but also from America. Pre-eminent among champions was Alfred Barr, director of the most important modern art museum in the world, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who asserted that: `it was the group of young sculptors that provided the greatest surprise of the whole Biennale. Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Paolozzi and others aroused not only international admiration but -what is more conclusive - a wide spread desire to buy'.

Responses to the exhibition were framed by the catalogue text by the most established British critic of the day Herbert Read. Although recognising the differences in the work of the young sculptors exhibited, Read's eloquent text none the less cloaked them in a post-war, existential garb, that suggested that they reflected a shared anxiety that Read associated with contemporary experience and in doing so forged an `iconography of despair'. In a reference to the figuration of these sculptors and the preference of many of them for welded iron, Read described their figures as `iron waifs' whose forms represented a `geometry of fear'. For Read `their art is close to the nerves, nervous, wiry' and sought the `avoidance of massiveness, of monumentality'.

The origins of this `geometry of fear' sculpture, as with the concurrent paintings of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland, may be traced to the fertile dialogue between Paris and London in the first years after the Second World War.

Two new galleries were instrumental in establishing this bridge. Erica Brausen's Hanover Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Each was an important venue for exhibitions of new sculpture and painting, especially post-surrealist visions of man and each showcased artist's who would be exhibited in Venice. Exhibitors at the Hanover preceding Venice included senior figures such as Moore, Giacometti and Marini, as younger sculptors that included Butler, Turnbull, Paolozzi, while at the ICA manifesto exhibitions championed a tormented post-war sensibility. From March-April 1950, the ICA exhibition London-Paris. New Trends in Painting and Sculpture included Adams, Butler and F.E. McWilliams and in January 1952 Sixteen Young Sculptors, staged in January 1952 under the guidance of David Sylvester which emphasised the British assimilation of French sources, especially the surrealism of Giacometti, the welding of Gonzalez and the construction of Picasso> Including Adams, Butler, Paolozzi and Turnbull and suggested the way that this was being put to wards what Sylvester elsewhere termed `a new realism of the imagination'.

2. Psychological Space
An engagement with Modernism led these artists's to evolve a radical new vision of man, the creation not of Modernist abstraction but a Modernist realism. Inspiration came from art journals such as Cahier d'Arts, which had recently resumed publication after the interruption of the Second World War. Its photographic spreads of work by, among others Picasso, Giacometti and Gonzalez, had a powerful impact. No less important was the cultural journal of the 1940s Horizon, which contained important illustrated essays on, among others, Giacometti, Bacon and Paolozzi. Nor should one underestimate the impact of direct example and personal contact.

At the forefront of this was the use of shared visual languages, a concern with the form in space and its movement, whether actual or implied. There was common ground between the organic languages of the `geometry of fear' sculptors and the more skeletal work of Gonzalez, Picasso and Giacometti of the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly the impact of a surrealist vocabulary of biomorphic or zoomorphic forms is strong in Paolozzi's Parisian table top sculptures such as Table Sculpture (growth) (1948) show the influence of Picasso's Anatomy Drawings (1933) and Giacometti's La Table (1933) and his other major Parisian series using a rod, including Two forms on a Rod (1948-49) , relate closely to other early works by Giacometti such as Homme et Femme (1928-29).

Such forms were shared too by Reg Butler and in a catalogue text, `Microcosmos of a Sculptor', for Butler's 1949 exhibition at the recently opened Hanover Gallery in 1949, Sylvester drew attention to the animism of these sculptures: `you'll think you have run into some hiding place of undiscovered insects, posturing and gesturing in a vain but devastating impersonation of the human race. Beings, which ridicule the human, race no more and no less than it deserves [...] beings affirming the tragic absurdity of existence.' Movement, whether actual or implied, was thus used by Sylvester to suggest that a work was not just mobile but that it was alive.


Although the Monument was attacked critically and physically for its remoteness, as an abstraction that denied the horror it was supposed to embody, Butler was championed for his realism. In early literature on these artist's critics wrestled with the figurative as well as abstract elements to these artists work. Philip Hendy for example wrote that Butler's work represented ` a new kind of sculpture by a new kind of artist . strongly humanistic. but somewhat despairing . he believes. the human form has to be translated into a new symbolism. For the artist, however, debates about abstraction versus figuration had lost their meaning in his attempts to forge a new language to convey contemporary experience: As Butler wrote in a letter of 1952: `You must forgive me, but I can't work up any real gusto at the thought of helping to flog that poor old horse, the "abstract" v. "realistic" issue. It's the very last thing I want to be self-conscious about these days.'

In Butler's closely related Machine (1953) the potential for movement and the use of a space to relate the subject to its environment both recall Giacometti's innovative use of the base to situate his sculptures as in The Square (1948-49), which had been exhibited at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1952. Butler integrates man and machine, depicting a male figure who may or may not be the master of the machine to which he is tethered, the lightness of the rods and the sprightliness of his physic contrasting with the massiveness of the base.

Geoffrey Clarke's unique welded iron figure entitled Complexities of Man (1951), which was one of the major works at the Venice Biennale in 1952. For one of Britain's leading young critics and promoters of an international avant garde, `Britain's New Iron Age' was a reason for celebration: Discussing Complexities of Man, Alloway quoted Geoffrey Clarke's statement that: "the base of the rods represent the physical . the inner tops of the rods represent mental activities . Some are blocked meaning that some of the mental or physical senses have never been used.'

The result stands in time and ambition in tantalising proximity to Butler's work. It looks back to Butler's sentinels of the late 1940s as well as anticipating his Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, in which Butler, like Clarke before him, places a towering form on a heavy boulder.

This was a more symbolically ladened image than much of Clarke's contemporaneous work, which shared with Paolozzi an interest in tribal art, but did so with a lightness of touch that contrasts markedly with the massiveness of Paolozzi's forms.

Several British artists spent formative years in Paris immediately after the Second World War and upon their return to London made a powerful impact. Prominent among them was Eduardo Paolozzi. Having been at the Slade from 1945-47, Paolozzi left prematurely to go to Paris with the money he had made from his successful first exhibition at the Mayor Gallery in 1947 . He lived there, initially in a room vacated by the sculptor Raymond Mason a contemporary at the Slade, from the summer of 1947 until 1949.

At that moment, in collages indebted to ethnography and surrealism, Paolozzi was engaged in constructing a new post-war vision of man based on an assault on his self-imaging: in Fairground (October 1947), exhibited at the artist's Mayor Gallery show of 1948, a surrogate figuration suggestive of African nail-riven fetishes replaces civilisation with savagery. As Paolozzi subsequently recalled, this work `was part of a series of images inspired by French playgrounds. I spent my first summer in Paris after the Slade in a large wooden studio at Denfert-Rochereau where there seemed to be a permanent summer fairground, and lots of shooting booths.' That summer of 1947, Paolozzi also regularly visited the Musee de l'homme where he regularly drew from the works on display, producing drawings and watercolours such as Two Studies for Sculpture (1947), which resembles a xx mask.

This was a crucial moment in Paolozzi's development and ideas that germinated then would remain central to his concerns ever after. Especially prescient are Paolozzi's overworked photographic collages of 1947 in which he challenged the very fundamentals upon which Western man based his self-identity. Paolozzi's Hermes des Praxiteles aus Olympia (1947) embodies the past, the present and the future of Western man: the ideal of a classical marble torso, the contemporary reality of flesh and blood and the mechanical future of the cyborg. However, the limbs of the classical torso are broken, the machine has no apparent function and the figure is covered in bodily stains. In such works Paolozzi may have been inspired by such Surrealist precursors as Max Ernst's collage novel, Une Semaine de Banté, which he admired, but he replaced the surrealist's unfolding psychosexual dramas with a focus on the treatment of the body that eschewed individualisation and dispensed with narrative.

Concurrently William Turnbull, a sculptor friend of Paolozzi's from the Slade, was also making pioneering sculptures. Having visited Paris in 1947 Turnbull returned for a longer period in 1948. There Turnbull visited Brancusi in his studio and also met Giacometti and their impact was profound and lasting, not just formally but conceptually. Whilst for many of these sculptors the lessons learnt from France seemed to reside in a vocabulary of sculptural forms, for Turnbull it was also conceptual. His acquisition of Sartre' essay, Humanism and Existentialism (1946), whilst in Paris in the late 1940s and appreciation of Sartre's reading of Giacometti in his essay for Giacometti's show at Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1948, led Turnbull to understand the working process as a method of continual discovery, a refutation of a priori aesthetic values.

In a catalogue text for Paolozzi and Turnbull's joint show at the Hanover Gallery in 1950, David Sylvester developed a phenomenological reading of the artwork to emphasise the figurative as well as abstract components of this work as manifest in sculpture. For him `Turnbull and Paolozzi are perhaps the most notable exponents, among the younger generation of European artists, of the new method of composition informing the later work of Klee and Masson among others (including Victor Pasmore), and the group sculptures of Alberto Giacometti.' His catalogue essay gave Sylvester an opportunity to evoke the experience of their work: `to enter Turnbull's world is to fly like a bird among branches or to swim under water among the inhabitants, mobile or stationary, of the sea.' Paolozzi, in contrast, `presents a more definite figuration [...] Whereas Turnbull's elements are the spatial ones of air and water, Paolozzi's is the earth [...] we do not contemplate them from the heights: we descend on them to walk over their hills and through valleys.'' This may have been a fanciful reading but it is suggested by the works on show.

Paolozzi's atavistic Two Forms on a Rod (1948-49), contrasts with Turnbull's delicate mobiles, inspired by fish in an aquarium, and his jaunty Acrobat (1951), inspired by his recent visits to Giacometti's studio where he witnessed the fragility of plaster and indebted to the linear ideograms of movement in space he discovered in Klee's Pedagogical Notebooks. The sculpture was based on drawings, a watercolour and a mixed media painting on paper of 1947. These show a circus high-wire act involving a figure on a monocycle holding an umbrella. The resulting sculpture, Acrobat, has a similar lightness of touch yet humour and colour are overlaid with anxiety and austerity. Forms are reduced to a bicycle wheel and an upright figure, whose spread limbs open up Giacometti's hieratic single figures whilst still suggesting a potential for calamity that recalls Giacometti's Chariot. As with all of Paolozzi and Turnbull's sculptures in the show, the vulnerability of the acrobat was increased by the expedient use of plaster not bronze and by the precarious use of insubstantial plinths. For Reyner Banham Turnbull's indebtedness to Giacometti `signals his readiness to make the essential next step in English [sic] sculpture - a full scale return to the human form.'

Similarly, Horse, one of the works Turnbull exhibited in Venice, reveals not only the stimulus of Giacometti in its etiolated weather-beaten limbs but also a spatial sensibility derived from Klee.

3. The Patina of Pathos
The concerns with `psychological space' that were a feature of so many of the sculptures in Venice soon became overlaid with a prioritising of the works surface or `skin'. Giacometti's example became overlaid with that of Jean Dubuffet and above all, Germaine Richier. Sculptors and painters from Chadwick and Paolozzi to Auerbach and Kossoff opened out their forms to emphasise surface and texture.

In doing so they followed a lead provided by Richier in whose work the actions on the surface of her sculpture were related to the harsh treatment of the human body. In an essay for the catalogue of her Hanover Gallery exhibition of 1955 Sylvester made bold claims for the artist: `Nobody, perhaps, occupies so central, so crucial, a position in contemporary sculpture as Germaine Richier.' Sylvester presented her as a crucial influence on young sculptors and suggested that she had influenced painters, too, in the way that she manipulated clay `as if it were a substance akin to oil paint' and demonstrated the status of `the human image over and above the need for an abstract harmony of form.' A key for Sylvester was Richier's approach to the subject's `skin', a feature emphasised by the accompanying illustrations by Brassai: `the surface does not overlay the form, it is the form ... a surface which lives a life of its own, presenting a texture without any correspondence to the various textures of the thing it represents.' In a reading that drew heavily from his understanding of Bacon and Giacometti and that anticipated his championing of Auerbach just a few months later, Sylvester made immense claims for the contemporary resonance of Richier's sculpture: `the assertion of the human image does not depend on creating - in the old Humanist tradition which some young artists are trying so pathetically and sentimentally to revive - fine, noble effigies of unadulterated man. [...] The assertion of the human image is achieved through its denial [...] a human image challenged, battered, ruined, and still obstinately human.'

Indeed by the time of Paolozzi's exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in 1958, the surfaces of his figures such as Robot (1956) and the British Council's The Philosopher (1957) had become so machine-like, with their embedded cogs and screws, and the forms so battered that their embrace of technology, that the effect was perceived as destructive not constructive. In interpreting these sculptures in negative rather than in positive terms critics made explicit what was already latent in Paolozzi's collages of a decade earlier. Robert Melville wrote that in Paolozzi's sculptures `robots' had been turned into `active fetishes' that possessed `a hint of the kind of charred figure which many of us visualised when some of the victims of naphtha bombs were rumoured to be still standing upright on the battlefields of Korea.'

Complimenting Richier's example was that of César's whose exhibition at the Hanover in 1957 similarly drew attention to the exaggerated surfaces of the sculptures. The action on the surface of the figure characterise key British sculptures of the mid and later 1950s. It links the torsos of Paolozzi's robots to Turnbull's standing woman, Meadow's bulky seated figures and, perhaps above all, Chadwick's scaly creatures such as Bird.

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