Christopher Lloyd .
The Imperial War Museum in south London is an interesting phenomenon. Opened in 1920, it presents a difficult subject unflinchingly in an intelligent and sympathetic way that absorbs the attention of all age groups. It is a remarkably honest exercise that highlights heroism and bravery while not underestimating the horrors of war.
Few people realise, however, that the museum houses an important collection of paintings, drawings and prints, much of first-rate quality. The art exhibitions are also well worth seeing, but in my experience are poorly attended. There have, for example, been splendid shows devoted to John Piper and William Orpen which did not draw great crowds — at least on the days that I went. Now it is the rum of Henry Moore.
Visiting Henry Moore: War and Utility (until April 25) is a moving and memorable experience. The artist had been in the trenches during the First World War, but was over 40 when the Second World War started. On being appointed an official war artist, Moore's contribution was to record the effects of war as experienced at home in Britain. A remarkable sheet, Eighteen Ideas for War Drawings (1940), reveals how Moore explored the possibilities inherent in the subject, but what really fired his imagination was the sight of families camping out in the London Underground stations. He made rough sketches and notes at the scene, but later worked up the finished drawings from memory in his studio to create the two Shelter Sketchbooks. Larger versions of some of these drawings were also made for exhibition in the early 1940s at the National Gallery.
The Shelter Sketchbooks include some of the most poignant images ever made during wartime. The huddled figures families as well as complete strangers of all ages and backgrounds — are crowded together for warmth and comfort. Sleep offers temporary respite from the terrible reality of the streets above. The Underground offered partial protection and in such conditions people could give way to exhaustion. Here the god Morpheus presides over the innocents. Even so, the sleeping forms — open mouths and limp extended limbs — can be interpreted as a prefigurement of death. Moore himself likened the figures to a Greek chorus and others have made a comparison with Pompeii, but in terms of literature Dante or T S Eliot come to mind.
The purpose of the exhibition is to show how between 1938 and 1954 Moore developed from being a much respected artist in his own country into a sculptor with an international reputation. "The war brought out and encouraged the humanist side in one's work," he declared later.
While the kinship between the Shelter , Sketchbooks and the drawings of coal miners dating from 1942 is clear, Moore was at the same time prompted to rethink more basic issues to do with his art treatment of the human figure, variety of technique, choice of materials, and the role of the artist in society as Britain began to recover from the war. Moore's increasing sense of civic responsibility resulted in some sculpture being made specifically for open public spaces. In short. his work retreats from being determinedly abstract and becomes more figurative and naturalistic, with greater emphasis on the innate fluidity of draped and modelled forms as opposed to isolated shapes.
War transformed Moore's art into one of engagement. His materials, his themes, and the images he created combine durability and fragility, both literally and metaphorically. Moore's sculpture also marries the past and the present, for at its best — as in the Madonna and Child at Northampton (1943-4) and the Claydon Madonna and Child (1948-9) — his style is a perfect blend of modern and traditional elements.