Reclining Woman: Elbow
Article by: Liam A. Livesley - First Published: 14.01.2013
On the balustrade at the front of Leeds Art Gallery sits (or rather lounges) one of the last few reclining figures by Henry Moore, it being produced in 1981.
Appearing (some sixty-odd years after Moore's training at Leeds College of Art) in 1982 for the royal opening of the gallery's sculpture section, she has been watching the comings and goings of The Headrow ever since.
Cast from bronze, like many of Moore's other pieces - "Helmet Head" and "Reclining Figure: Festival", for example - the patinated (and in places scratched and even graffitied) form of "Reclining Woman: Elbow" keeps watch over the front steps of the gallery. The location is indeed a fitting one since the gallery itself contains several Moore pieces, the Henry Moore Foundation's Institute is located a mere few steps further down the road and the College of Art is about 15 minutes' walk away across the city centre.
Owing to Moore's choice of ancient material, bronze, and provocative form, with bare breasts and wide hips, legs apart, the figure echoes of the fertility idols of early civilization, yet she is located opposite a road teaming with motor vehicles. The form is curvaceous and flowing, yet this contrasts with the geometric, almost industrial shapes of her face. This juxtaposition is perhaps indicative of a relationship in Moore's wider work; old materials and techniques, like the casting here or stone carving in 1929's "Reclining Figure", combine with and clash against his own brand of semi-abstract modernism. The distorted, sometimes headache-inducing forms that arise from this could stand for the turmoil of the battle between technology and tradition, between culture and circuitry, that is still taking place across the globe.
To me, this isn't the only contradiction in the piece; it's full of them. The alluring, almost seductive pose of the figure, combined with the fully visible breasts and buttocks, smack of raw sexuality - one could almost imagine the balustrade to be her bed and the viewer to be her lover being invited in. Yet the face carries no emotion; just a sharp angle and two blank, staring circles for eyes. The choice of material, too, is relevant here; whilst bronze may seem natural, it is in fact an alloy resulting from the man-made union of copper and tin, with the form being made by pouring this into a mould. This calls to mind uncomfortable questions about the role and image of women and sexuality; does the work symbolise the idea that sex is now so mass-produced and over-industrialised that it has been severed from feelings, represented in the blank face and factory construction, or from its organic, animalistic origins, seen in the choice of material? Furthermore, there is nothing more to this woman than her anatomy; no clothes, no expression, not even hair. There is no room for personality or intellect. This is quite literally the objectification of a female figure.
The dark, rounded form seems at odds, too, with the building behind it. The ramrod-straight lines of gallery's pale honey-coloured limestone serve to make the sculpture seem more curvaceous, more dark and more sultry. When compared with the pale marble forms of Michelangelo's Medici tomb or that Greek classic, the Venus de Milo, where the emphasis appears to be on dainty, even simpering, beauty, Moore's "...Woman..." seems the very embodiment (no pun intended) of raw, untempered passion and lust looking down at us, inviting us in. But, eventually, we walk on, into the gallery or down The Headrow, to other things; her presence, however seductive, cannot hold us forever.
The photos to the left were taken on a winter's day in mid-January, when the sculpture felt cold, even freezing, to the touch and the surface struggled to reflect what little light had made it through the dense cloud cover. I'll be interested as to how differently I feel about the piece when I revisit on a scorching August day when she is bathed in light and heat. Will she seem less empty, less poignant, then?
The Henry Moore Foundation, "Henry Moore Works in Public - Reclining Woman 1981", http://www.henry-moore.org/works-in-public/world/uk/leeds/leeds-art-gallery/reclining-woman-elbow-1981-lh-810, accessed January 2013.
Try these links to search the following topics:
Please note: All fields are required