Henry Moore's ancient Mayan tribute

On the artist's birthday, we look at why Moore rejected ancient Greek art in favour of Pre-Columbian influences
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Recumbent Figure (1938) by Henry Moore, from 30,000 Years of Art
Recumbent Figure (1938) by Henry Moore, from 30,000 Years of Art

Modernism wasn’t only about looking forward it was also, in some way, about looking back. Consider Britain’s most influential sculptor of the 20th century, Henry More, who was born on this day, 30 July, in 1898.

“Moore found inspiration in the artistic traditions of African, Cycladic and Pre-Columbian cultures,” explains our book, 30,000 Years of Art. “With his exploration of the human form, Moore sought to link his sculpture with the art of the past, while simultaneously eradicating ‘the Greek spectacles from the eyes of the modern sculptor’.”

Of course, we can see echoes of Moore’s slightly older contemporaries, such as Constantin Brancusi, yet the real influence for the masterpiece above, Recumbent Figure, is, in fact, far older.

 

A Maywan chac-mool on display at the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology. Photograph by Ziko van Dijk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A Maywan chac-mool on display at the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology. Photograph by Ziko van Dijk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Moore claimed that his greatest source of inspiration was the Mayan reclining sculpture type called chac-mool, whose recumbent pose and aura of immense size are recalled here."

Yet it is only one influence, in the work of an artist who drew from the very stone he carved, as well as from his English countryside surroundings.

“His biomorphic forms evoke both female figures and metaphorical landscapes: the sharp, raised knees and globular breasts of Recumbent Figure suggest mountains and hills, and the niches or hollows imply cliffs, caves, valleys and undulating slopes. Moore said of this favoured pose, ‘the reclining figure gives the most freedom, compositionally and spatially. It is free and stable at the same time.’”

 

30,000 Years of Art

For more on how Henry Moore's 20th century innovations fit into the wider sweep of art history, buy a copy of 30,000 Years of Art here.


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