Henry Moore

Reclining Mother and Child (1961) | Family Group (1949) | Mother and Child (1931)

Henry Moore, Family Group, 1949

Part Five Chapter 3

And then your mother led you to the Henry Moores: Reclining Mother and Child (1961), Family Group (1949), and another Mother and Child (1931).

̶  ‘Henry Moore was obsessed with the theme of mother and child’, you read aloud.

Nika is embarrassed, saddened, she wants to walk away: She stands firm and holds her ground because you are strong enough to stay.

̶  Why? you ask your mother.
̶  Because, from a compositional point of view, it’s a very rich subject.
̶  Did he have a lot of children?
̶  Just one. A daughter, Mary.
̶  Like us! says Nika, aiming her complicit eyes at you.
̶  Yes, like us!

Nika throws her arms around you; your laughter harmonizes with hers.

Henry Moore, Mother and Child, 1931

Henry Moore, Reclining Mother and Child, 1961

While Catherine speaks of the relationship between small and large forms, of position and balance, domination and tension, all you feel is emotion. As you circle the sculptures, something in you is stirred—despite your pride in your independence—by the tenderness in these depictions.

̶  Which one do you like best? Nika asks.
̶  This one, you say, pointing to the Reclining Mother and Child.
̶  Why? your mother asks.
̶  Because of the big hole in it.


That evening, after supper, Zoran taught you some card tricks. You mastered them, but it only made you miss your father more. You said goodnight early to everybody, and as soon as you were in bed you fell into a sleep in which you soared in space like Brancusi’s birds and walked through the streets of New York, hand-in-hand with Nika and Henry Moore.

By Rudolf Arnheim

In the works of Henry Moore’s recent style, the trunk of the figure is often pierced and subdivided in such a way that instead of a compact volume one sees a configuration of slimmer units. For instance, the chest may be given as a large hole, which is roofed by the shoulders and flanked by the upper arms. What is the artistic purpose of this peculiar procedure?

The human figure has always presented the sculptor with a compositional problem. The body consists of a heavy trunk and the much slighter appendices of the arms, the legs, and the head. Since the artist’s task is not to copy what he sees but to create a whole pattern of unified form, he must find a way of imposing unity on so heterogeneous an object. How can he organize the trunk and the limbs in one integrated composition?

A valuable monograph could be written on the various ways in which different styles of sculpture have coped with the problem. Some fused trunk and limbs into one volume. Others reduced the trunk to stick-like slimness, thus assimilating it to the limbs. Again, limbs could be made short and plump to match the trunk. Intermediate volumes also can be introduced to bridge over the difference between the bulky and the slim. When the artists came to handle the human body more freely they sometimes eliminated the problem by cutting off the limbs and the head. Henry Moore’s solution is of a similarly radical nature. By transforming the heaviest volume, the trunk, into a configuration of narrower shapes, a common denominator has been found for the whole figure. The beam-like or ribbon-shaped units which represent arms and legs differ little from those which are found in the area of the trunk; and the holes that pierce the body resemble those between the legs or between the arms and the torso. In some of the reclining figures, a surprising symmetry is produced by the correspondence between the frame of the pierced chest and a similar frame formed by the two legs. Ingeniously balanced, the figure reposes on its horizontal base.

Henry Moore, Reclining Nude, 1950

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1945

Uniformity of the parts is one method among others to accomplish unity. Without ever getting repetitious, Moore stresses uniformity, not only in the roughly equal size and proportion of the units, but also in their shape. More and more has he come to eliminate the distinctive formation and detail of faces, hands, feet in favor of some over-all shape characteristics. Wherever we look we notice strongly dynamic form: the tranquillity of the cylinder, cube, or sphere is avoided in favor of conic or pyramidal shapes, which grow smaller or bigger, and egg-shapes, which drive in a definite direction. Moore enhances uniformity and vigorous mobility also by avoiding clear delimitation of parts. Even though precisely articulated, the units flow into each other. Even the dead-ends of the hands and feet are eliminated. They merge with each other or stream back into the body of the figure, thus permitting the circulation of energy to continue unchecked.

This stress of the interdependence of things, their mutual influence, the indivisible unity of the whole is likely to reflect the artist’s conception of the world. But the structural pattern which conveys this meaning is possible only at a high level of formal development. True, no work of art lacks an intimate interdependence of parts, but it is well known that at early levels of conception, for instance in the drawings of young children, the complex patterns of a human figure or an animal are built of geometrically simple units, which are kept apart through explicit outlines. Gradually, these subdivisions disappear and the whole is conceived as one complex unit. Only at a late state of this process of growth, which has a parallel in the developmental laws of human thinking, can the complexity of dynamic interchange be grasped through scientific or artistic patterns. One can express this also by saying that stylistic structures like the one created by Henry Moore approach the representation of the irrational. This is a romantic tendency, which shies away from the defined and congealed. Moore’s romanticism cherishes the mysterious intangibility of what grows, changes, and interacts. Herbert Read has aptly analyzed his romantic attempt to derive an image of man from the organic and inorganic formations of nature.

The equalization of the parts, obtained by the breaking-up of the trunk, tends to minimize the biological difference between the limbs as executors of voluntary action and the trunk, which is more directly connected with the vegetative, instinctive functions. A uniform overall-principle of life seems to govern the whole figure in all its parts. This playing down of the late cerebral developments of homo sapiens in favor of more universal forces of nature is again a romantic trait of Henry Moore’s art. One notes in this connection that the horizontal position, which he uses so frequently, devaluates the importance of the head and stresses the abdomen as the compositional center. The heads are small. That is, the role of the brain carrier is reduced. These faceless heads do no thinking or feeling of their own; at most, they occasionally turn around to gaze with the simple steadiness of grazing cattle. Similarly, the tentacles of the hands and feet are planed down, fused, tied together. One has only to think of the alert faces and telling gestures of the terracotta figures which rest on Etruscan coffins in almost the same position to realize the difference. The grace and intelligence of Moore’s work is all in the form pattern which characterizes the whole figure with no distinction of any specific part.


 This is Part One of Rudolf Arnheim’s essay. The full essay can be found on JSTOR.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure: Holes, 1976-78