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Modern forms and tender words

HENRY Moore was, in many ways, bigger than life. Not only was he England's best-known, and, very probably, its finest 20th-century artist, he was also one of international modernism's major figures, a sculptor of extraordinary accomplishment, a superb draftsman, and a print-maker of considerable achievement. But just as important, he embodied a tradition that held art to be a matter of commitment and conscience as well as of originality and expression. And by example, he underscored his belief that the artist should remain a part of, and create for, society rather than alienate himself from it.

He was, in short, a complete and well-rounded human being who happened to be a sculptor at heart. But what a sculptor he was! From the very beginning, from the days when he searched for a style that would distill and represent the best of European, non-European, and ``primitive'' sculpture, to his final years as the world's most sought-after creator of public monuments, almost everything he did was characterized by clarity, integrity, vigor, and warmth.

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He was the great mediator and consolidator of modern sculpture, the bridge between Brancusi's formal absolutism and the traditional Western belief that man was the measure of all things. He took modernism's most revolutionary and advanced ideas as to what constituted sculpture, related them to what he had seen of the world's greatest art during his travels, and then brought all that together and fused it with his own creative humanistic vision and practical studio experience.

What resulted was, with few exceptions, both dramatically modern and warmly human, and could be appreciated both as a formal exercise and as a symbolic embodiment of human attrib-utes and values. While this did not sit well with certain purists, who felt that any hint of representation indicated a loss of creative integrity, the art world as a whole soon fell under his spell -- and the public gradually followed suit.

Although he was included in the 1936 exhibition of ``Cubist and Abstract Art'' at New York's Museum of Modern Art, it wasn't until that museum's major retrospective of his sculptures and drawings in 1946 -- which was also seen in Chicago and San Francisco -- that Americans became familiar with his art. From then on, however, his popularity here knew few bounds, with numerous public and private commissions testifying to how well architects, museum officials, and collectors responded to his work.

The 1946 exhibition was also notable for its inclusion of a number of Moore's shelter drawings made during World War II while on assignment as an official war artist. These were smallish images on paper, executed in a variety of mediums including chalk, watercolor, pencil, and ink, of scenes he witnessed in London's underground bomb shelters. The critical and public response to these drawings was overwhelmingly favorable, for Moore had captured the war's chilling effect upon the civilian population in a manner that was both timeless and immediate.

It is easy, in the light of his sculpture's impact and importance, to forget how magnificent a draftsman he was. Anyone who has studied his drawings, however, knows that that is precisely what he was. Who can forget, for instance, the ghost-like figures of his shelter series? Or his delicately tinted chalk, wash, and charcoal studies for sculpture, especially those celebrating the themes of mother and child or the family?

And who has not been impressed by his ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary in his sketches of such things as hands, feet, tree stumps, rocks, and clouds?

Here again, his humanism shines through, as well as his sympathy for all living things. The art world was startled in the early 1970s by the appearance of numerous drawings of sheep. He explained why he had done them: ``I began drawing the sheep, just for the pleasure I get out of drawing for its own sake. At first, I saw each sheep only as a big ball of wool with a head and four legs. But gradually, as I got interested, I began to look more intensely -- which is what drawing from life always makes you do. As I continued working, I came to love the sheep, and began to think also about their biblical associations. When the lambing began, I saw the mother and child relationship, which has always been an obsessive subject of mine. Drawing the sheep became, for a month or more, my chief occupation.''

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What strange words to hear from a leading modernist! Especially one whose work was described at one time as ``immoral'' and ``worthy only to be thrown on a garbage heap.'' Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a similar statement by any of his major contempo-raries. Who else, except possibly Chagall, would have used the word ``love'' as he did? Or viewed the birth of lambs within a biblical/maternal context? And, lest his tender words create any misunderstanding, it should be emphasized that they come from an artist as ``tough'' and uncompromising in purely formal matters as anyone of his time.

We shouldn't, however, in Moore's case, be surprised to hear such sentiments expressed. Nor should we be surprised to find them translated into drawings, prints, small bronzes, and huge public sculptures. It's just the way he was, and thanks to the clarity and integrity of his art, it's how, in all probability, he'll be remembered.

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