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On Moore's Standing Figures

Henry Moore (English 1898-1986), Double Standing Figure, 1950, Bronze, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., 1955.9

Today’s post comes from Polly Ellman, Arlington Highschool ’18 and Art Center Student Docent.

A main focus of the modern and contemporary galleries at the Loeb is the tension between abstract and representational or figurative artwork. Few works embody this tension more effectively than English artist Henry Moore’s 1950 bronze sculpture, Double Standing Figure. This seven-foot tall sculpture consists of two identical casts of a single figure, with one figure rotated ninety degrees from the other. The figures are instantly recognizable as humanoid, if not completely human, as their structure echoes human anatomy. “Legs” rise up from a solid block and meet in a knee-like structure, splitting and connecting to form a solid mass in the pelvic region, then once again splitting to create a large negative space that terminates in a head of sorts- made of two triangular plates and two antennae-like structures. Despite being distinctly human, Double Standing Figure is clearly abstracted, if not completely abstract. Each figure could be interpreted as more alien than human, more totemic than biomorphic. This sculpture occupies a space in the gallery that adds to its complexity. It stands amongst the Surrealists (and is often interpreted as a Surrealist work itself) and across from works by the Abstract Expressionists, but surrounded by works that are representational of the human form, even unambiguous portraits. Double Standing Figure is quite literally caught halfway between abstraction and representation.

Henry Moore (English 1898-1986), Three Standing Figures, 1947, Sandstone, Battersea Park, London, Contemporary Art Society and London City Council. Photo from the Henry Moore Foundation.

An interesting comparison can be drawn between Double Standing Figure and Moore’s 1947 sculpture Three Standing Figures, which currently resides at Battersea Park in London. Three Standing Figures is a seven-foot tall stone statue of three women draped in flowing garments, each with her head turned to the sky. Two of the figures stand close together while the leftmost figure stands apart. The bodies of these figures are rounded, whole, and unbroken by negative space. The vaguely contrapposto poses and flowing drapery are reminiscent of classical statues, making this triple sculpture stand in stark contrast to Double Standing Figure, a work full of geometric forms and empty space. Additionally, the two bodies in Double Standing Figure are identical, bound together by their form, while each of the three figures in Moore’s 1947 sculpture is distinctive, with its own unique pose and shape. Three Standing Figures speaks to Moore’s fascination with the psychological interaction of groups, which he developed while working as a war artist during World War II. Moore drew people in underground bomb shelters and focused on the human experience of fear. Three Standing Figures is reminiscent of this experience, as each of the figures looks to the sky as if watching for planes and hunches over just slightly, trying to crouch closer to the ground. Each figure here looks at the sky not through eyes, but through one single hole in a face otherwise devoid of features. The two monumental forms in Double Standing Figure also have these single eye-holes, as if they too are searching the sky.

Moore with Double Standing Figure in the garden at Hoglands, c.1950. Photo from the Henry Moore Foundation.

Moore’s enthrallment with groups is clear. Although he sculpted reclining figures throughout his career, in the period during and after World War II Moore began to explore the nature of the family unit, the relationship between mother and child, and other group interactions, and his lone figures came accompanied by other works depicting multiple forms. In fact, Double Standing Figure was originally intended to consist of four figures, but after making the decision to stop with only two casts completed, Moore stated, “One never finds the time to carry out all one’s plans.” The presence of two casts in this sculpture is key, and turns the focus of the work from the form of the figure itself to the interaction between the two. Each cast seems to present its own unique view, and the two turn in towards one another as if in conversation. This discourse between the figures adds to an understanding of them as human, allowing this sculpture to push and pull at the boundary between abstraction and representation.

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