No. 63vo1.12June/July 1995 Journal of the Representative body for Professional Artists in Ireland ISSN 0790-5858
Association of Artists in Ireland 803 Liberty Hall, Dublin 1 Telephone 01-8740529Art Bulletin June/July 1995
An extract from Fuller Versus Moore: Reflections on an Interpretation by Bernd G. Rosenheim
CONTEMPORARY ART AND RECENT CRITICISM
Peter Fuller's contempt of critics and, to a large extent, of sculpture after Moore, which he expresses in his book Henry Moore. An Interpretation, is justified in many respects. And I do not hesitate to include all the other current arts, which are internationally acknowledged as "relevant". With only a few exceptions this art is ideological. Its authors believe they have a "message", which is mostly a social critique, and which they would be better to leave to political commentators. Or it is tautological, that is to say: absolutely meaningless, stating: "Here I am, therefore am I." None of these artistique attitudes - and this is what alone counts - expresses itself in an artistically relevant language. The only unanimously accepted criteria in recent criticism, which certainly are easily understandable, are all kinds of "newness". Such products are praised by independent institutions and critics, who know only one fear: to be considered backwardlooking rather than on "the heights of modernity".
Just to give but one example: what competence have art-critiques and institutions who celebrate clowns like Gilbert and George as "important" artists ? There are worse examples, and this is true not only for Britain but for the whole international art-world. The negative critiques about Moore are based on nothing but fashionable ideologies. There authors are concerned not with Moore's art but with their own problems which they project onto Moore, because he is a landmark of 20th century sculpture.
AN ECOLOGICAL AESTHETIC
But this is true also of his defenders. Fuller speaks of an "ecological aesthetic" which sounds good. However is there any such thing as "ecological aesthetics" ? And what is the meaning of ecology at all ? It is neither protection of nature, a love of or vision of nature, nor the desire to be part of nature. All these are human attitudes taken from the standpoint of looking at nature. Inevitably, however, they are positions outside nature no matter how much one might long to be part of nature again. Fuller's remarks, "We all are born of women, and we are all part of nature" (though referring to Moore's universal theme of mother and child) reflects such wishful thinking. Man is and remains outside "paradise" - in spite of all undeniable links which connect him with nature - because he has eaten from "the Apple of Knowledge", i.e. he is conscious of himself. This fundamental difference in nature between man and all other living creatures who do not act knowingly and consciously can never be eliminated. What the founder of the science "ecology", Max von Uxkull, dealt with are the interactions of organisms with fauna and flora and their relations to their environment within nature. Researches of modern human ecology which deals with the interdependency of man and his environment show how and in which way human interference in nature can be destructive. The latter is well known in a popularised form through the activities of the Ecological Movement with its political ends which developed an ideology of its own.
[picture by Bernd Rosenheim. Aphrodite. Wood & Bronze.][picture by and Jacqueline Stanley. Gaucin. Pastel on paper. 26 x 32inches. From Andalucian Archive at the Hallward Gallery from 2 June.]
But what is an "ecological aesthetic" after all ? Moore's love of nature, his attachment to his landscape, that he "...always enjoyed landscape and responded to a natural, outdoor environment...", is not true for hundreds of artists, sculptors and painters for whom nature was the greatest teacher, the one and only master, the source of spiritual and artistic life from the past until our times ? You would have to call most European art since the Greeks and the greatest part of Chinese painting "ecological".
Moore's deeply personal and unique approach to nature, the organic abstract forms and human figures which correspond so well with the landscape-structures of his homeland show a deep understanding of nature. Yet his sculptures do not reveal ideas or illustrate them - much less ideologies - but are primarily creations in the most elementary sense of the word. When Moore shows the relationship of split-up sculpture-pieces which form a human body as an entity, he does this not in analogy to an ecological process - as a farfetched interpretation could argue. It is nothing but his personal way of creation, it is the way a sculptor's mind works: in terms of form.
One could say an artist works unconsciously or does not know the signification beyond his oeuvre. The widespread view that the artist does not know what he is doing certainly gives rise to all kinds of arbitrary explanations. This widespread prejudice shows an incredible arrogance which you meet within so many intellectuals. It has a long tradition: it reaches further back than the times of the ancient Greeks, when the artist, especially the sculptor, was considered a "banausikos", an illiterate artisan. If he dared to reflect upon his work he might have been blamed for "hubris". Even Goethe said: "B!Ide, Kiinstter, rode nicht !" ("Artist shape, don't speak !")
As Fuller puts it in another context: "The sculptor liked to think of himself more and more as a man of mind, not as a lowly manual labourer." The understanding of the artist as primarily a man of skills is not necessarily meant in a derogatory sense, nevertheless it mirrors a deeply rooted prejudice. In fact every artist of rank is a "man of mind" whether he considers himself a humble craftsman or not. He might not be able to express himself in words - and, of course, expresses himself best in the language of his media - but he still is and always was - a man of thought. And needless to say so was Moore.
His vision of life and nature is the basis of his work and certainly of his aesthetics. To connect him and his work with ecology - even if he might have had sympathy for the ecological movement is mere ideology.
Moore's monumental sculptures harmonize with their surroundings in nature, but not less so with a man made neighbourhood. This was demonstrated overwhelmingly in 1972 during his exhibition at the Forte di Belvedere over Florence. on the other hand: almost every monumental sculpture installed in an open landscape will gain from its environs. However, Moore's sculptures have a further reaching dimension than just harmonizing with nature of architecture.
Referring to his romantic sources Fuller comes closer to Moore's motivations. Longing for unity with nature is a deeply romantic feeling and it is a romantic conception of life. In its deepest expression it shows yearning for the universal, for eternity and finally for death. But - in spite of Moore's love of nature - can one call his approach to nature "romantic" in its true sense ?
Though Moore was influenced by romantic thinking and his sculptures often suggest landscape-associations, he surely did not transform Ruskin's visions of landscape into sculptural terms. He took nature directly as his model and master. Moore's way of proceeding corresponds to the manner in which nature shapes its forms: how erosion of water and wind grinds the stone, smoothes down the jagged rock; how the winding curves of a gnarled tree shows its growth and its fate in heat and storm, in drought, rain and ice; or how the dense coat of his beloved sheep form a softly rounded shape. Thus following the ways of nature he does not show an external image of his motifs, but makes plain their organic growth. What his works reveal are no sentimental feelings, no yearnings for something unreachable. What they reverberate is the creative process of nature itself. To achieve this Moore had to use an abstract language expressing the essentials. In doing so he fulfilled precisely a definition of one of the fathers of modern art, of Cezanne, to whom art was a process not in imitation of, but "parallel A la nature".
In spite of Moore's links to a romantic tradition, this does not strike the core of Moore's relation to nature. His spiritual position is a modern one, notwithstanding his rejection of certain developments in contemporary cultural life.
Putting Moore almost exclusively in the context of the English Gothic and Romantic traditions, Fuller is not only "nationalising" Moore, but even "provincialising" him. Moore's sources are not purely English as Fuller himself admits, but among others they also reach back to far-oft world-cultures. And Moore's rank is not to be measured only by the British art of this century, but by international standards in spite of certain undeniable weaknesses in his oeuvre.
[picture by Feargal Fitzpatrick. Mental Note - Language. 257 x 412 cm. Mixed Media. From an exhibition at the Belltable during July and then touring.]
Mother and Child
Besides some mannerisms of his later years there are quite a number of sculptures of the mother-and-child theme
which belong to Moore's weakest productions. With regard to this I may mention the highly praised "Northampton Madonna". Here Moore's striving -for monumental simplicity together with such compromising naturalistic details, as for example hands and faces, have a disappointing result. Though far from Moore's Intentions, this mother-and-child group shows affinities with the "monumentality" of totalitarian works. Being familiar with this type of work one cannot but be reminded - among other examples - of Blood and Earth cult productions. One reason for such similarities might be the fact that the sculptors looked back in their conservative attitude to "heroic" epochs, as Moore did in this case, apparently taking Romaneque statues as models. Moore's "Madonna" certainly shows humanity (which is usually absent in her "totalitarian" counterparts) whereas the childs face demonstrates an unbearable sweetness. In spite of its undeniable sculptural qualities this sculpture failed to be an artwork of outstanding importance. And this is not the case because of its conservative concept, but because it lacks the transformation into an adequate form which such a pretentious theme demands; a transformation which his "underground" drawings show in such a high degree and to which the "Madonna" is stylistically related. No rhetorical sophistication can discuss away the weakness of this particular sculpture.
When Fuller emphasizes that there are meanings and values in Moore's oeuvre which "go beyond the formal" or which "do not function primarily through metaphors of form" he himself again opens the way for all kinds of interpretations. What an artist wants to say he expresses in the vocabulary of his personal form. And it is nothing but this vocabulary which should guide an interpreter, any other utterence of the artist remains secondary. In art there is no such thing as "meaning beyond the form". The meaning is in the form of the artwork.
Fuller's procedure is the other way round. He has an idea or rather an "idee fixe" for which he uses Moore's work as an illustration. Fuller refers to some nebulous of the psychoanalyst
Winnicott and strains to find evidence for his idea in those works occupied with the mother-and-child theme. It is the "preverbal, unverbalized, and unverbalizable except perhaps in poetry" which Winnicott is trying to describe, "the infant's experience of a 'subjective object"'. Since the analyst is not capable of verbalizing the "unverbalizable", an artist - poet, painter, or sculptor should do the job for him: "If only there was another, more visual, way of expressing these sentiments and ideas !" Fuller exclaims. I wonder what kind of science is this which is not able to prove or even formulate convincingly its own thesis and needs the artist's help. Abstract terms like "transitional objects" (belonging to an "intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived") tentative as they are, represent nothing but the definitions of a supposed reality. They might or might not contain some truth - to impose them upon Moore's treatment of the theme is even more hazardous than these speculations themselves. Fuller certainly is unable to prove the "infant's experience of a 'subjective object'" in Moore's sculptural language. He simply states, referring to a particular motherand-child sculpture of 1939: "Looking at sculpture in the light of Winnicott's ideas, it is hardly necessary to offer any further commentary on it."
In his attempt to analogize Moore's art with Winnicott's speculations Fuller tries to underpin by denying that they are "applications of psychoanalytic ideas to art", apparently knowing well the weakness of this method. Nevertheless this is exactly what he is doing. Fuller rightly observes that the penetration through the block in Moore's sculptures represents "a dissolution of the distinction of interior and exterior". Naturally he does not understand it in terms of space, but psychologically. And the stringed fingers remind him of a Winnicott essay on string: "string as a way of expression the denial of separation from the mother" (a Winnicott case). And Fuller adds: "The union between the forms in the stringed sculptures has just such a sterile and obsessive feel". And referring to other sculptures: "Those works ....involve neither the denial of separation nor yet the frozen assertion of it ....they present us with formal equivalents for a space which exists, yet cannot exist: a potential space." This is nothing but playing with words: space in sculpture exists or it does not.
Speaking of the wrappings in Moore's "Shelter Drawings" Fuller remarks: "There is no need to labour the parallel here between Moore's cloths and blankets and Winnicott's transitional objects." Or about the "split reclining figures": "... the infant's emotional experience tends to split the mother in two." One is the "Object mother" and the other the sustaining "environment mother". And finally: the "great rocks drifting apart" convey according to Fuller "the infant-mother relationship".
One cannot emphasize enough that a sculptor is concerned with plastic forms and it is the language of these forms which has meaning and expression in its own right. As much as the mother-and-child motif for Moore contained two basic human experiences: "... to be a child and to be a parent", as much as he saw this theme as a problem of form: "the relationship of a large form to a small form and the dependency of the small form on the larger". One of the most impressive solutions of this sculptural problem is his Upright InternalExternal Form of 1981. it contains both: you can see in it the mother-and-child relationship as well as the pure aesthetic language of Moore. You can not see a psychological theory unless you force it upon this visual reality.
I refrain from going deeper into Fuller's fruitless attempts to suggest parallels between Moore's work and some psychological presumptions. Analogies of such a kind, pseudo-scientific as they are, do not contribute to understanding. They are arbitrary, because you could apply any other theory, they are subjective and misleading. At best they are a literary concept.
THIS ARTICLE WILL BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT ISSUE
Bernd G. Rosenheim
Henry Moore, An Interpretation. Peter Fuller, Methuen, 1994.