Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moore turds in the park

Consider the humble cheese grater, one of Henry Moore's favourite tools. He used it to scrape away at the surface of his sculptures, one of the largest exhibitions of which has just opened at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, West London.

 On a late summer's day it's an impossibly glorious arcadia in London's urban sprawl. Why hasn't anyone thought of putting Moore's work there before now? Well, Kew only relatively recently became an art destination, but in future looks set to become a key place for displays like this. The current exhibition — a superb selection of 28 large-scale bronzes — is the largest installation of Moore's work ever shown in the UK outside Perry Green, Hertfordshire, the late artist's home and location of the Henry Moore Foundation.

 The press view offered a rare opportunity to tour the work in the charismatic company of Henry Moore Foundation curator David Michinson. Not only is he arguably the most knowledgeable authority on Moore's work, he is still, after many years of keeping the Moore flame alive, brimming with infectious enthusiasm for the Moore legacy.

 The Kew project has been two and a half years in the planning and I think it's clear from the few pictures I've posted here that the works look marvellous in this environment — hardly surprising given the umbilical link between Moore's creative project and the English landscape. If there is any problem with the location, it is the constant presence of trees as a framing backdrop and the unavoidable 'picturesqueness' that results from placing his forms in the centre of long rides, within enclosed glades, atop grassy mounds, against the white-ribbed glasshouses, or beneath the spreading chestnut tree. "Wow!" "Nice!", "Lovely", "Oh, beautiful!", "Fantastic!". I mean what else can you say?

I confess I did have a private moment of fun as we approached Large Upright Internal/External Form. The rear view (right) brought to mind the old "turd in the piazza" jibe so often levelled at Moore's urban placings, William Chambers' distant pagoda lending it a fresh Orientalist spin. But once you move to the front where its complexity is revealed framed against the graceful arches of the plant houses, it takes your breath away. I guess I was longing for some rugged windswept moorland, a much longer vista with perhaps an anvil of grey cloud descending over a big family group, or two large interlocking forms. The mood did move momentarily into a minor key as we approached Two Piece Reclining Figure: Cut (1979-80), with a couple of roughly contemporaneous brutalist tower blocks on the horizon echoing its vertical thrust. It was a welcome counterpoint to the pervasive postcard views. Amazingly, this is the first time this group has been shown in the UK outside Perry Green and it was a joy to see it. It reminded me of Lynn Chadwick's broken reclining figures of the early 1970s.

Winter's skeletal trees may yet bring a note of melancholy to the Kew display. The show is scheduled to run until next March after which it will leave for the New York Botanical Gardens. And that's the great thing about the Foundation. It is continually shipping Moore's work around the globe. He is unarguably the most geographically widely distributed artist in history. With mammoth touring shows like this still continually trundling around the planet his reputation as the most internationally renowned sculpture since Michelangelo is unlikely to fade. What the Kew exhibition does offer, once you get up close, is a chance to see a wonderfully wide range of work and to meditate on Moore's technique and his approach to form.

A related display in the Nash Pavilion offers enlightening contextual background on the flints, shells, bones and other natural found objects that provided the inspiration for many of the pieces on view in the park. When I returned a few days later, the public were thronging round the works, clearly enjoying the novelty of seeing Moore's sculpture in one of London's most popular open-air environments.

David Michinson pointed out Moore's enthusiasm for modelling in polystyrene, which allowed him to work on a very large scale while obviating many of the transport problems associated with working in heavier materials. Many of the finished bronzes reveal evidence of how Moore then often coated the polystyrene in plaster to achieve a smooth texture. When they're at Perry Green, the sculptures share pasture space with Moore's beloved sheep. The sheep brush up against the bronzes as they graze around them and over time the lanolin in their wool wears away the patina. As a result one or two pieces have had to be re-patinated for display at Kew.

 What is rather less easy to put right is the damage done by graffiti and the scratches left by eager children who understandably feel the urge to climb all over them to explore their inviting surfaces. But we can excuse the toddlers if in the process they discover the thrilling physicality of sculpture.

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