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Chac mool figure by Phillip Mursell

Henry Moore’s reclining figures

The stealing in December 2005 from the grounds of the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire of one of Moore’s most important works, a 2-tonne 11-foot solid bronze Reclining Figure (1969), reminds us, poignantly, of the key role that Mesoamerican ‘chac mool’ reclining figures played in inspiring Henry Moore, one of the world’s most famous artists. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Henry Moore (1898-1986) Reclining Figure, 1929, Hornton stone, Leeds Museums & Galleries (City Art Gallery)
Henry Moore (1898-1986) Reclining Figure, 1929, Hornton stone, Leeds Museums & Galleries (City Art Gallery) (Click on image to enlarge)

“The Reclining Figure emerged as Henry Moore’s ‘signature theme’ not quite from the very beginning but a little later, after his student years, from 1925. The key influence in this development may have been a visit to Paris in that year, where at the Trocadero Museum Moore saw a plaster cast of the Toltec-Mayan sculpture from Chichen Itzá known as ‘Chacmool’...”

Courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation Archive
Courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation Archive (Click on image to enlarge)

“... The Chacmool became probably the most influential single sculpture in Henry Moore’s life; he hugely admired its mixture of solidity and vivacity, its relationship to the earth and its column-like legs...” (from ‘Henry Moore at Dulwich Picture Gallery’, 2004)

Chac mool figure, Templo Mayor, Mexico City
Chac mool figure, Templo Mayor, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In 1947 Moore commented: ‘it was the art of ancient Mexico that spoke to me most . . . I admit clearly and frankly that early Mexican art formed my views of carving as much as anything I could do.’ In general Moore was struck by what he called the ‘intense vitality’ of ‘primitive’ art.
(Illustration, top, by Phillip Mursell, 2006).

Chac mool figure, Chichen Itzá, Yucatán
Chac mool figure, Chichen Itzá, Yucatán (Click on image to enlarge)

Since 2008 we have worked every year at The Henry Moore Primary School, near Harlow in Essex, the only school (that we know of) in the country named after the great sculptor. The studio where he spent most of his working life is at Perry Green which is close to the school - indeed some of the KS2 classes go and visit the studio every year. In the photo is Mark Jones (teacher) and some of the friendly Year 5 children who kindly helped us carry out our equipment and materials from the hall. The school - founded in 2001 - has a number of large framed prints on its walls of Henry Moore at work. Many thanks, Mark and all at the school for inviting us!

At the entrance to The Henry Moore Primary School, Essex
At the entrance to The Henry Moore Primary School, Essex (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the 28 of Henry Moore’s large-scale sculptures on display in early 2008 at Kew Gardens, London, were examples (like the one pictured here, produced by the sculptor at the tender age of 84!) that still show traces of his early Mexican influences in the head and solid weight of the legs.

Reclining figure, 1982
Reclining figure, 1982 (Click on image to enlarge)

That influence can’t be over-stated: Moore himself wrote -
Mexican sculpture seems to me to be true and right. Its ‘stoniness’, by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of seriousness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture. (From The Aztec World by Elizabeth Hill Boone, Smithsonian Books, Washington, 1994, p.132.)

Photography in Mexico by Ian Mursell and Sean Sprague, at Kew Gardens by Maria Mursell

The Henry Moore Foundation

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