The Reclining Figure was Moore’s principal and enduring subject. It gave him the freedom, compositionally and spatially, to ‘invent a completely new form-idea’. The similarity between the undulating forms of a reclining figure and the hills and dips of the landscape – always an inspiration for Moore – is particularly evident in this work. Although Moore settled in Hertfordshire, he insisted that the references to landscape in his work were always to Yorkshire, where he felt it was still possible to see the landscape ‘as primitive man saw it’. This reclining figure is especially important as, not only is it related to Moore’s greatest works, his elmwood sculptures of the 1930s, but, not being in wood, Moore was also able to incorporate a hole in the torso (see image at end of factsheet).
In 1924, Moore began to explore the theme of the reclining figure, and he soon began to see parallels between this motif and the landscape. The reclining figure propped up on its elbows with raised knees emerged as a central motif in Moore’s work during the late 1920s.
“There are three fundamental poses of the human figure. One is standing, the other is seated, and the third is lying down ... But of the three poses, the reclining figure gives 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 eternity”.
The earliest of these sculptures, which Moore made between 1926 and 1930, are carved in stone or cast in bronze or concrete and have an especially abstracted and solid quality that was influenced by pre-Columbian art.
The origins of Moore’s fascination with the subject of the reclining figure cannot be pinpointed to a single definitive source. For example, in the catalogue to Moore’s 1968 exhibition at the Tate Gallery, images of a reclining Chacmool (see above), a rain spirit of the ancient Toltec-Mayan culture and Michelangelo’s carvings of allegorical figures in the Medici Chapel in Florence were reproduced under the heading ‘comparative material’. David Sylvester maintained the importance of Michelangelo’s work to Moore, in particular the sculpture Dawn c.1520. Sylvester argued that even when Moore’s figures became more abstract they nonetheless had ‘poses which are the prerogative of the Mediterranean tradition’.
During the 1930s, Moore began to explore the impact of more flowing contours and open forms. On the one hand, reclining figure can be seen as a graceful female body, with a fully recognizable head, neck, shoulders, and breasts, leaning on strong arms and with largely abstracted legs. Yet, it can also be interpreted as hills, valleys, and rock formations. Treating the female form like the earth from which, in myth, it had been moulded, the sculptor transformed female curves and cavities into a metaphor for terrestrial hills and dales. Like many pioneers of twentieth-century art, Henry Moore drew greater inspiration from the primitive, archaic and natural than from classical sources, lending his sculpture a timelessness that guaranteed its endurance in an age of changing fashions.
Reclining figure has close associations with Moore’s great masterpieces of the 1930s, his monumental large reclining figures in elmwood, and especially with his reclining figure in elmwood of 1935-6, his seminal public commission, Festival, 1950 and UNESCO Reclining Figure, 1957-8. He only made six of these large elmwood figures between 1935 and 1978 and they are among his most important works.
Moore’s desire to open out the sculpture through the use of holes had presented technical problems when working in stone and wood that were only resolved by his turn to metal casting in 1936–8. He observed in 1960 that working in this way allowed sculptors to make ‘spatial forms’ as in this Reclining Figure 1936=37.
In 1935, the critic Geoffrey Grigson had used the term ‘biomorphic’ to describe a type of art that suggested an organic quality or drew upon memories of naturally occurring forms such as pebbles and bones. And by 1936 the curator Alfred H. Barr had ‘identified biomorphic abstraction as the most significant new development in international abstract art, and named Moore as its paradigmatic representative’. Moore was leading the way and said:
Pebbles show nature’s way of working stone. Some of the pebbles I pick up have holes right through them ... A piece of stone can have a hole through it and not be weakened – if the hole is of a studied size, shape and direction. On the principle of the arch, it can remain just as strong. The first hole made through a piece of stone is a revelation. The hole connects one side to another, making it immediately more three-dimensional. A hole can have as much shape-meaning as a solid mass. Sculpture in air is possible, where the stone contains only the hole, which is the intended and considered form. The mystery of the hole – the mysterious fascination of caves in hillsides and cliffs. The forms of the human body seems at one with the surrounding environment. Reclining Figure is both human and geological, both figure and landscape.
Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, circa 1960.