Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Culture Show: Henry Moore, BBC2

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure (1951)
Henry Moore, Reclining Figure (1951)
(c) Andrew Dunn, 9 September 2004

What emerges from tonight’s Culture Show on Henry Moore, which examines how the sculptor exploited the media (and vice versa), is not the difference between the media of sculpture and television but the similarity.

Rather than a simple programme on Moore’s career – one fawning talking head after another – to coincide with the retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, Alan Yentob has instead chosen the meta-route, talking about TV talking about art. It is a topic which resonates today, where the one thing we love as much as looking at art is hearing people discuss art, and is well chosen.

Moore was cannier than one might assume for an early star of television (his first appearance was on the BBC in 1937): he does not give himself a televisual disembowelling, pouring his emotions out into the camera as one must today, Stoicism be damned, and he quite reasonably deflects probing questions about his motives. He says that if you talk about your reasons for working, they may disappear, a common belief among artists: the unexamined life may be a productive one.

The films about Moore by John Read – six over 40 years – were groundbreaking because they showed an artist’s creativity and process in action, but they do not take us much closer to what lies behind the work. In a later film, Moore recalls massaging his mother’s back when he was a young boy, and, thanks to Yentob not intruding with a statement of the obvious, we draw our own conclusions. But this is much later in his life, when memories cannot harm the artistic drive, or his own persona.

John Read hits on a vital point when making a defence of himself for (let’s say) creatively editing a key scene for one of his films. A plaster version of a sculpture has cracked, but as Read had not captured that moment, he cuts from the complete sculpture to the studio cat to the cracked sculpture. Yentob says he’d be fired for that today, but Read responds with: “To tell the truth you have to cheat sometimes.”

If anything is an artists’ mantra, it is this. Artists can summon all the resources of artifice to make something real, from Illusionist curtains over paintings to sculptures with hollow interiors. Perhaps Moore learned this from Read, for later we find him erecting sculptures made from polystyrene on his garden’s artificial mound, but it is anyway clear that this basic principle of television – make it look like truth (even if that truth is mental or emotional rather than physical) – has also been basic to art.

Moore also quite deliberately “manages his image”, as Yentob suggests: the omnipresence of his necktie, the relegation of any talk of the sexual or political aspects of his work. He was beatified in Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. Clarke was a true Mephistopheles, seducing Moore with his patronage and – in the opinion of some of the talking heads – turning his work into public-sculpture banality. Moore clearly did not respect Clarke just for his high standing on TV, but it couldn’t have hurt.

The talking head contribution from Sir Anthony Caro is moving: he talks about his experiences as one of Moore’s assistants and recalls how he signed a letter protesting against Moore’s demand that the Tate build a new wing for all the work he intended to donate to it. He seems genuinely regretful, speaking slowly and looking away: “You shouldn’t do that to another artist.”

Yentob carelessly or thoughtlessly falls victim to the clichés of today and sets up straw men: Moore is “a global superstar”, it is a “paradox” that his reputation can be low critically just as it is high popularly. Anyone watching the Culture Show on Henry Moore will not need such inflated language or cheap sophistic devices to get a better understanding of the artist: the programme itself does that.

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