At the exhibition: Henry Moore

A missing nose.
A sad nose.
A questioning nose.

These observations about noses are from the notes i made at the Tate Britain’s Henry Moore exhibition. It wasn’t all just noses – sad, missing or otherwise – though. In fact, one of the reasons why i put off writing up my notes for so long* is that they go on for pages and pages. Everything was interesting, everything was noteworthy – especially in the first couple of rooms, because you could see Moore’s style evolving in front of your eyes. Frantically, i wrote and wrote, trying to preserve the images in my mind, but of course most soon faded. Already i have forgotten the three sculptures with remarkable noses. Some i do recall however:

The first non-stone sculpture I’ve seen here: carved from walnut. Golden-red-brown. Geometric. Large holes through the wood. It’s maddening that we’re not allowed to touch.

That first walnut wood sculpture, coming after two rooms of stone, was an amazing experience. As for the last sentence, i’ve written before about my frustration at this. Henry Moore so obviously made his sculptures to be touched. You can tell as much from the use of texture:

From the front these statues are both smooth, but from the behind one is rough. It has waves carved into it.

Front and behind – that’s the other thing i love about sculpture: its three dimensionality. As you move around the spaces rearrange themselves, expressions seem to change, meanings seem to alter:

This one seen first from behind looks squat and menacing. She appears to be clenching her left fist. Seen from the front the effect is completely different. She is gazing out in curious concern at us, right hand absent-mindedly placed in her belly.

Halfway through the rooms i came across my favourite sculpture, the Mother and Child which the Tate Britain owns:

Green Hornton stone. 1938. Recumbent Figure. The space below the breasts is part of the beauty. And the blind eyes. It’s beautiful from all angles and different from all angles. That’s what’s so wonderful. And the scale is perfect. And still feels almost as though it could be a natural formation. The curves seem the rock’s own curves.

A bit gushing but that’s awe for you! I’ve seen that sculpture more times than i can remember and yet each time i encounter it the impact has the force of a first encounter. In the next room i really did have a first encounter; i had never seen the drawings Moore did as an official war artist in WWII.

These war drawings are spooky, haunting things. The building in the process of collapse. The figures huddled in a shelter (uncoloured in they remind me of Egyptian mummies). The dark indistinct figures in groups on a street.
And these. Apart from the figures in the foreground the rest are like pale-outlined ghosts.
And now these sleepers – terrifying! Like wraiths. Especially the ones who have no faces. The white lines they are made from are like bandages.

In the final rooms Moore’s style became more monumental and industrial:

Atom Piece. It’s terrifying. Like a vision of another world. A world with no home for us. That great smooth domed ‘head’. What kind of ‘mind’ would inhabit it? Close up the surface of the back reminds me of leather.

Yet, paradoxically, it also drew closer to nature:

Upright internal/external form. Plaster. 1852-3. Like the inside of a dead tree. Hopeless. Moving.

And then in the final room a truly poignant sight: a room full of huge Elmwood sculptures:

Ghosts of a British landscape before Dutch Elm Disease. They’re huge and seem less dense than the sculptures made from stone.

By this point i was flagging, however, and the museum was becoming far too busy for my comfort so my notes contain no details about the individual pieces. I do not do crowds.

Was the exhibition worth a visit? I hope my notes make it clear that indeed it was! As for my notes themselves, were they worth the ordeal involved in taking them – i had a stiff back and aching fingers by the end of the three hours. Well, yes they were. They may not be enough to call to mind each specific sculpture that i wrote about, but they certainly bring back the intensity of the morning. A wonderful experience.

* I went on Saturday 6 March.

I want the dog

I want the dog to come back
running
across the wet grass –
wet tongue hanging from
her happy mouth,
her tail wagging and snagged with
brambles.

I want her to bark.
I want her to have dirty paws
and one ear
folded back on itself.

But most of all
I want her to smell
of dog
and feel like
a dog;
and not just to look like
a dog
sitting in a field in a photograph.

Salisbury and Stonehenge: touch and see

I spent the weekend visiting Salisbury with a friend. The trip wasn’t supposed to be quite so Salisbury-centric, but the weather and the tail end of a cold put paid to our original plans to go walking each day; and in the end all we managed was a five mile excursion round the barrows near Stonehenge.

Stonehenge i’ll come back to: i’d like to start at the beginning with Salisbury Cathedral. I have never thought of myself as the kind of person who enjoys visiting churches – or great buildings of any kind. Architecture is something i prefer to enjoy without analysis and formal gardens generally leave me cold. If i’m honest it was mainly the thought that the Cathedral would be drier – and maybe a bit warmer – than the streets and the hope that it’d have a bookshop that made me suggest to D that we visit it.

On arrival though it was love at first sight. Truly. It was a response that startled me and began even before we entered inside. The Cathedral has… an atmosphere… an ambience… that special something you can’t put into words without gushing or sounding like a ‘psychic’. Was it the proportions? The impression of simplicity? The setting? I don’t know but it had me hooked.

Inside my mood faltered momentarily in the face of a coachload of rude French tourists but was soon restored by the beautiful stained glass windows: blue and red; the light coming through the dark grilles; and the old wooden carvings. I lit three candles to departed loved ones in a side chapel – how rarely i have the chance to do this these days; i watched the workings of the mediaeval clock and i felt strangely touched by the sight of the crumbling 13th and 14th Century tombs. These were the kind decorated with a figure of a knight, apparently asleep. Some of them had been severely damaged: one was missing his nose, another his sword. We wondered if this had occurred during the Dissolution or if it had been inflicted by puritans during the Civil War.

What i loved more than anything was that you could touch as well as look. The lack of (refusal to grant) this is what frustrates me about art museums. What is the point of sculpture you can’t touch? I remember going to the Tate Britain just because they had a sculpture by Henry Moore which i was crazy about. I was frustrated beyond words by the fact that, though i could walk round it and look at it from nearly every possible angle, i could never run my hands over the statue’s stone curves.

What a contrast with Salisbury Cathedral. There was a sculpture on display called the Thornflower*, the work of an artist called Charlotte Mayer. Viewed, this wasn’t anything particularly special to tell the truth, but touched it was a miracle: the abrasion of the thorns contrasting the smoothness of the leaves. Pain and Suffering, pleasure and comfort, beneath your fingers. Even D, who’s a much more practical type of person than me, was affected by it and we both agreed it was the standout experience of the visit.

On to Stonehenge, which we visited on the Saturday morning – the only time it stopped raining all weekend for more than a few minutes or so! With Stonehenge you’re back to an art museum type of experience – albeit in the open air. You can walk around the Stones, following a path that’s been laid out; but you can’t approach them and definitely can’t touch them. I can understand this: the henge is 5,000 years old and even the most recently arrived stones are 3,000 years old. Nobody’s going to build another one. Yet out of reach Stonehenge feels like an image of itself rather than the thing itself. Awestruck and disappointed all at the same time i took photo after photo, trying to make contact with it via the camera; then i went inside and bought books, postcards, even a fridge magnet. Still, i came away feeling that i hadn’t quite been there.

*”A bronze and steel sculpture which grew out of the artist’s reflections on the death of her grandmother in Treblinka and ‘man’s inhumanity to man at other times’” according to an article in Inspire magazine.

My perfect museum: ‘A living house’

This morning on the way to work i found myself thinking about museums: why they are always unsatisfactory and what they ought to be like. In my notebook i wrote: “A living house: 1940s”. What did i mean by that?

***

You begin out on the street looking at the house from the front. What you see as you look through the windows is a modern-day home in the midst of every day life. It’s film footage: the windows are screens, though this isn’t apparent. Likewise, the faint sounds you hear from within are recordings.

You meet your guide – incapable of speech it seems – who ushers you into an adjacent house. Here the windows are blacked out, front and back, and the building is soundproofed. Looking around, you see you are in a waiting room: nondescript and devoid of anything but chairs (along the walls); and a great clock, which ticks, yet whose hands do not move. A bare bulb flickers uncertainly. The guide motions you to be seated and disappears through a door which locks behind them. There are no other doors. You wait.

Your guide returns. Now he or she is dressed in the fashions of the forties. You are led through a door that had been concealed from you: down into the cellar and along a tunnel. When you emerge at the other end you are at the bottom of the garden – a long garden with high walls – of the house through whose front windows you had earlier gazed. Washing is on the line. Voices can be heard indoors.

You enter through the back door, straight into the kitchen. This is no longer a modern house; the furnishings, all the contents, belong to the 1940s – or earlier still of course. What do you see? Maybe a table with butter and other ingredients laid upon it – as though someone had stepped out partway through baking a pie. Or perhaps the table is set for tea. You must smell it too: reality always has an odour. You must also touch it. There can be no ropes draped around the scene, sealing you off from it. Go on… pick up the fork, taste the butter if you want and place your hand against the side of the kettle – you may be startled to find it’s still warm. All the rooms are like this; each contains a tableau suggesting life in motion, arrested only upon your entry. Whichever room you are in you hear sounds from one or more of the others: a wireless; the voices of people discussing the war; laughter; rows. But as you turn the handle of the door, that room falls silent.

In the front room you go over to the window and when you look out you see the road – the very one in which you’d stood earlier, gazing across at this room; but this time you see it as it looked then. It’s quiet and still, there is no-one around. When you look from the upstairs windows the scene is still that of the past, but now there are people going about their business. The guide – how long have they been there? – is standing behind you, watching you watching. You’re led across the landing into the back bedroom. Through the window you see a woman come out to remove the washing.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of air raid sirens… BANG!!! The house is felt to shudder slightly. The lights go out. The guide produces a candle, lights it, and leads you out of the room and down the stairs. More explosions can be heard, thankfully this time at a distance. On the ground floor you smell burning and, glancing through the downstairs windows as you leave, you can see the house across the road has been hit. Sometimes you may hear the sound of a woman crying.

The guide leads you back down the garden path. The washing is gone from the line.

Back into the tunnel you go and into the waiting room. The bulb has failed. Ushering you through the darkness the guide points urgently at the door. You emerge and find yourself back on the road, which is just as you left it. As you pass the house the people inside are watching TV.

***

Ideally, there would be multiple scenarios, for different parts of the day – and perhaps for different days of the week: so there wouldn’t always be a bombing for example. One thing i wouldn’t have is live actors. Seen close up modern day people never convince as citizens of the past: too big, too brash, too obvious that they know how the story will turn out.

In any case, the key is the house.