Anthony Barnett: The Sculptures of "the Greatest Englishman"

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[Anthony Barnett is the founder of and the editor of its UK section, Our Kingdom.]

After 1945, for a long post-war generation through to the 80s, the sculptor, Henry Moore, who was born 1898 and died in 1986, was Britain’s most famous artist. Massive versions of his works were acquired around the world so that you could say that ‘the sun never set on Henry Moores’. He was referred to as “The Greatest Living Englishman”. His sponsor, the influential art patron and TV presenter Kenneth Clark, even suggested that so exemplary was his character that were we to send a member of the human species to another planet to show them what we could do at our best, it would have to be Henry.

The son of a miner, he became immensely wealthy, and because he refused to move, paid tax at well over the top 90 percent rate and reflected that he was probably the highest earning tax-payer in the country. He created, and his legacy has funded, a foundation that went on to play an important role in the support of British sculpture.

In this country Moore pioneered the monetarisation of aesthetic success and also opened up British art. There is now a flourishing range of contemporary sculptors from this country - Henry Moore was their pioneer.

But he had a greater significance.

His defiantly unfashionable early works rejected official Victorian-realism and heroic, monumental narrative. He participated in a modernism that claimed to tap into the universal. Its emancipating humanism sought to escape from mere art of one’s time.

His reclining figure with a hole was to become a much mocked stereotype for ‘modern art’ and the ‘what does it all mean?’ response, encouraged by a public school mentality threatened by any metaphors or intelligence that might escape their control....

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