During the 1920s Henry Moore made several small head and half-figure pieces combining the ‘primitive’ language with a Modernist style. In these formal explorations Moore was influenced by the Cubists’ re-assembly of the figure, which served as a critique of the reassuring unity of experience suggested by the academic realism and philosophical positivism. Like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, Moore turned to non-Western forms to break out of this discredited and exhausted tradition. He studied the ethnographic collections of the British Museum and the sculpture collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum, responding to the Italian ‘primitives’ as well as to Prehistoric, Cycladic, African and Mexican art.
For Moore small works had certain practical aspects which should not be overlooked. They allowed a step by step experimentation as well as an exploration of exotic stones such as alabaster or African green stone. Moreover, though Moore had the security of his teaching posts, it was probably significant that they were also easier to sell. In this, he may be seen to be contributing to the conjunction of avant-garde art with new interiors by which Modernism made an entry into the fashionable home.
Head is one of these small scale works, although there is some question over its exact date. Unlike most of the larger pieces no preparatory drawing is immediately identifiable. However, a number of drawings and sculptures made over five years show the long gestation of this type. The general angularity of the head and Moore’s reduction of basic features – especially the eye to a drill-hole – is common to other pieces, several of which were also positioned on a block. This isolation has its roots in the traditional display of classical fragments, but Moore’s abstraction of the features allows the base to lend weight and counterpoint to the whole.
The rough surface of the piece accords with the ‘pebble aesthetic’ of Jim Ede, who wrote about the sculpture: “A stone, however carved, is first and foremost a stone.” The presence of Head at Kettle’s Yard tallies with the domestic aesthetic of the inter-war years to which Ede contributed and of which the house became a summation. It dates from the first period of contact between Moore and Ede, within the artistic milieu in Hampstead, where they were near neighbours. Moore frequently visited the Edes, and although he explored contemporary abstract and Surrealist tendencies, his admiration for Gaudier-Brzeska was enlarged through this contact. This association may have been part of the attraction for Ede, when he was offered the sculpture in early 1957. It embodies the qualities of that period of art on the cusp between realism and abstraction which constitute the core of his collection. Its acquisition just months before work began on the fabric of Kettle’s Yard, allowed Ede to create a special place for it in his own bedroom, alongside works by Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis.
Provenance: gift of the artist to H.S. Ede, February 1957.
Sculpture [HM 1]
Stone carving on plaster base
173 x 75 x 105 mm
About the artist
Moore was born in Castleford, Yorkshire. In the early 1920s he was influenced by Gaudier-Brzeska and primitive art. During the following decade he was a member of the Seven & Five Society and Unit One, and helped found the British Surrealist movement in 1936. He was an official war artist during the Second World War. A sculptor of major international reputation, he gained many public commissions. His works, whether carved or modelled, show an intimate awareness of natural forms.