Three reclining figures stand out among Henry Moore’s late sculptures: the present Reclining Figure, 1982, Reclining Woman: Elbow, 1981 (Lund Humphries, no. 810), and Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, 1983 (no. 822). Together they represent the sculptor’s culminating achievement in his signature theme, the reclining female figure, in which one may trace a process of development from his earliest works of the 1920s. Moore’s title for the present woman in repose is intentionally generic; this sculpture most clearly and comprehensively asserts the consummate, essential qualities of this subject such as the artist chose to represent it at the final stage in this distinguished lineage.
Reclining Figure of 1982 is also the definitive sculpture in a series Moore devoted to this particular variant of the recumbent pose, which he commenced in 1975 (Lund Humphries, nos. 673-677). Alerted to some occurrence nearby, a woman has lifted her head and upper body to gaze to one side, supporting herself on one elbow, as she brings the other arm across her body as if in a greeting or to grasp something. These reclining women bear the subtitles “Angles” (facing left, focusing on the upright upper body and elbow), and “Prop” (facing right, with a stanchion-like device that supports her raised arm, not present in the final version). While the upper body of each woman appears unclothed, a skirt-like curtain of fabric is stretched between her legs, above the ankles and beyond her spread knees.
“The human figure is the basis of all my sculpture,” Moore stated, “and that for me means the female nude.” In the great majority of the sculptor’s works the female figure is seen sitting or reclining, a preference that initially stemmed from his desire to work in stone, for the practical concern that a carved standing figure is structurally weak at the ankles. “But with either a seated or reclining figure one doesn’t have this worry,” Moore explained. “And between them are enough variations to occupy any sculptor for a lifetime... Of the three poses the reclining figure gives the most freedom, compositionally and spatially. The seated figure must have something to sit on. You can’t free it from its pedestal. A reclining figure can recline on any surface. It is free and stable at the same time. It fits in with my belief that sculpture should be permanent, should last for an eternity" (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture, with Comments by the Artist, London, 1981, p. 86).
David Sylvester observed that most of Moore’s reclining women are nudes, “but, though they lie with knees apart or thighs apart, their overall pose doesn’t betoken the availability commonly implied in reclining female nudes" (Henry Moore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1968, p. 5). Since the time of Ingres, Delacroix, and Renoir, the tradition of the recumbent female figure in European art has been related to the Orientalist fantasy of the odalisque, the nude or partly clad but always desirable harem girl, playing her part in a show of veiled or blatant eroticism. Moore's conception of the reclining woman, even when unclothed, runs counter to this tradition. "I am not conscious of erotic elements in [my work], and I have never set out to create an erotic work of art,” Moore stated. “I have no objection to people interpreting my forms and sculptures erotically...but I do not have any desire to rationalize the eroticism in my work, to think out consciously what Freudian or Jungian symbols may lie behind what I create" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 115).
This disavowal of erotic intent is a rare admission from a leading modern artist. Moore was averse to reducing human sexuality—especially the more sensitive conventions concerning the female presence in art—to prurient, fetishistic content, which would debase his intentions for this theme. Albert Elsen noted that Moore “always honors and never humiliates his feminine subjects. They are sensual but not flagrantly or even coyly erotic” (Modern European Sculpture 1918-1945, New York, 1978, p. 50). No other great artist of the 20th century was as sympathetic as Moore to the complex and multi-dimensional lives of women and respectful of their supremely important roles in human society. Surely none other so consistently and monumentally expressed his awe and veneration of their miraculous life-giving and nurturing powers.
“These reclining women are not the reclining women of a Maillol or a Matisse,” Will Grohmann wrote. “They are women in repose but also something more profound...the woman as the concept of fruitfulness, the Mother Earth. Moore, who once pointed to the maternal element in the ‘Reclining Figures’, may well see in them an element of eternity, the ‘Great Female’, who is both birth-giving nature and the wellspring of the unconscious... To Henry Moore, the ‘Reclining Figures’ are no mere external objects, he identifies himself with them, as well as the earth and the whole realm of motherhood” (The Art of Henry Moore, London, 1960, p. 43).
Moore’s treatment of the horizontal configuration, even when the reclining subject is in state of serene repose, suggests that plastic energy is being transmitted from one end to the other along the length of the form. In giving innovative shape to this internal impetus, Moore transformed the figure and suggested its relationship with the natural environment. For Moore, woman is landscape, landscape is woman; his reclining figures evoke the rolling hills, fields, and vales of the sculptor's native Hertfordshire. “One of Moore’s greatest contributions to the language of twentieth century sculpture,” Alan Wilkinson has stated, “has been the use of the human figure as metaphor for landscape” (“Henry Moore’s Reclining Women,” National Gallery of Canada Annual Bulletin, vol. 1, 1977-1978).
Moore’s use of drapery in the lower half of Reclining Figure alludes to the importance he had given this element in earlier reclining women, stemming from his study of the Elgin marbles and other Greek sculptures in the British Museum, and his journey to Greece in 1951. “Drapery can emphasize the tension in a figure, for where form pushes outwards, such as on the shoulders, the thighs, the breasts, etc., it can be pulled tight across the form (almost like a bandage), and by contrast with the crumpled slackness of the drapery which lies between the salient points, the pressure from inside is intensified. Also in my mind was to connect the contrast of folds, here small, fine, and delicate, in other places big and heavy, with the form of mountains, which are the crinkled skin of the earth” (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., op. cit., 1981, pp. 121 and 144).
Sylvester believed that an archaic and deeply-embedded vein of mythical inspiration is manifest in Moore's reclining figures. “Personifications such as river-gods of nature’s flowing energy are traditional pretexts for sculptures of reclining figures,” he wrote. “Moore’s figures, of course, represent nothing but themselves, but are made to look as if they themselves had been shaped by nature’s energy. They seem to be weathered, eroded, tunneled-into by the action of wind and water...Moore’s reclining figures are not supine; they prop themselves up, are potentially active. Hence the affinity with river-gods: the idea is not simply that of a body subjected to the flow of nature’s forces, but of one in which those forces are harnessed” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1968, p. 5).
The most direct sources for Moore’s vision of the female figure were the sculptures of ancient and primitive cultures, from the Paleolithic period, Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, archaic Greece and Italy, as well as tribal art. Moore was also drawn to the stone carvings of the Toltec, Mayan, and Aztec societies of Pre-Columbian Central America. He especially admired Mexican carving for its “vigorous simplicity, power, almost fierceness...Mexican stone sculptures have largeness of scale & a grim, sublime austerity, a real stoniness. They were true sculptures in sympathy with their material & their sculpture has some of the character of mountains, of boulders, rocks and sea worn pebbles” (unpublished notes, 1925-1926, in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., 2002, p. 97).
The key work of Mexican sculpture for Moore was the reclining Chacmool, the Toltec-Mayan Rain Spirit discovered in Chichén-Nitzá. While visiting the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (today the Musée de l'Homme) in Paris during 1922, he studied a plaster cast of the original stone carving; he later again came across the work illustrated in a German book on Mexican art. "It was the pose that struck me—this idea of a figure being on its back and turned upwards to the sky instead of lying on its side...its stillness and alertness, a sense of readiness—and the whole presence of it, and the legs coming down like columns" (ibid., p. 98).
Moore’s appreciation of the Chacmool had the effect of liberating him from any sense of obligation to depicting the figure in a realistic or conventional manner. The Chacmool's strange conjunction of head, torso, and limbs inspired the sculptor to create seemingly unlimited and expressively pointed variations on the body in a recumbent pose. The influence of the Chacmool resonates, in various ways, in almost every reclining woman that Moore created thereafter, indeed most clearly in the present Reclining Figure more than a half-century later.
“I want to be quite free of having to find a ‘reason’ for doing the Reclining Figures,” Moore declared, “and freer still of having to find a ‘meaning’ for them. The vital thing for an artist is to have a subject that allows him to try out all kinds of formal ideas—things that he doesn’t yet know about for certain but wants to experiment with, as Cézanne did in his ‘Bather’ series. In my case the reclining figure provides chances of that sort. The subject matter is given. It’s settled for you, and you know it and like it, so that within the subject that you’ve done a dozen times before, you are completely free to invent a completely new form-idea” (quoted in J. Russell, Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 48).
Of all Moore's subjects, only the Reclining Woman could bear the weight of these many inferences, and sustain the profound and far-reaching metaphor by which our bodies, as the sculptor tells us, become the world. While other themes came, went, and returned in Moore's work, John Russell rightly asserted that “the obsession with the Reclining Figure has stayed with Moore for ever” (ibid., p. 48).