Carving convention: Henry Moore and Sarah Lucas
The first works by sculptors to be acquired by the Arts Council Collection in the 1940s were not monumental hunks of bronze or stone, but small drawings in pencil and charcoal.
This focus on internal thought processes as recorded by the artist’s hand – a cheaper and more conservative bet in the early days of the collection – demonstrates that sculptors are not restricted to expression solely in three dimensions, and celebrates their works on paper.
Henry Moore’s Shelter Drawing of 1942 evokes the shared experience of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz. Taking refuge in a repurposed tube station, these monolithic bodies, anonymous and androgynous, repose with all the stature of Moore’s iconic reclining figures of later years. Yet we know that they are fallible and human, protected only by their temporary shelter and the resilience of their spirit. These figures are transformed into sites of peaceful conflict between strength and vulnerability, suggesting that the human body is constantly balancing on a knife edge between life and death.
Moore was engaged as an official War Artist by Kenneth Clark, who had been impressed by his air-raid shelter sketches from memory. This memorialisation is what lends the shelter drawings a universality – in Moore’s remembered charcoal lines, vulnerable citizens are translated into stoic sculptural bodies. Drawn as three-dimensional sculptures arranged across a two-dimensional sheet, these bodies seem to emerge from the darkness of war to contemplate a brighter future. When exhibited by Clark at the National Gallery, Moore’s war drawings were quickly adopted by an eager public as symbols of stoic resilience.
Carefully arranged in an elongated composition, the draped figures recall the high-relief forms of the Parthenon frieze. They equally evoke the tight registers of the fourteenth-century ivory Passion Diptych (displayed in the same room of our exhibition), full of mortal and divine bodies. CORPUS: The Body Unbound brings Moore’s drawing from the Courtauld collection into conversation with contemporary sculpture loaned from the Arts Council Collection.
The classical allusions of Shelter Drawing, its androgyny, the weight of its figures and their vulnerability; all are reflected in Sarah Lucas’s NUD CYCLADIC 7 (2010). Although compiled from everyday materials – tights, fluff and wire set atop breeze blocks on an unpainted plinth – Lucas’s sculpture shares the stone-like tonalities and contortions of ancient Cycladic figurines.
Like Moore, she elevates the mundane into a vision of universal humanity. Similarly androgynous and quietly beautiful, Lucas’s works sits precariously upon its solid foundations. Its ordinary materials, like Moore’s ordinary bodies, appear inherently vulnerable in contrast to traditional sculptural techniques. Yet they hold their own, embodying an amorphous, universalising conception of the corpus.
Shelter Drawing captures the sculptor’s unique understanding of the human body in charcoal and watercolour; real bodies become flat lines which become three-dimensional objects, occupying tangible space within the drawing. Looking at Lucas’s twisted tights requires the process of finding bodies in form to be handed over to the viewer. This delicate yet visceral work invites constant interrogation; just how human is it?
Moore’s figures recline in their perpetual slumber, part-human and part-stone, indentured to paper. Forever underground, they seem to strive towards an unknown future whilst trapped in an unknowable past. Lucas’s sculpture, by contrast, could be considered a drawing set upon a plinth. Resembling ancient stone, its lowly materials shift as one circles them, like a pencil tracing bodily or facial features across a page. Whether the artist eschews or empowers such limbo between drawing and sculpture, past and present, is unclear. The ambiguous presence of her sculpture demands fresh liberation by each viewer to encounter it.
This post was originally written to accompany the exhibition CORPUS: The Body Unbound, on view at the Courtauld Gallery from 16 June 2017 to 16 July 2017.