Describing what you see: Sculpture, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure

Describing what you see: Sculpture, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, 1951, plaster and string, 105.4 x 227.3 x 89.2 cm (Tate Britain) © The Henry Moore Foundation.

This plaster was the result of a commission from the Arts Council of Great Britain for the Festival of Britain. A single bronze was cast from it.


Additional resources
This sculpture at Tate Britain


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] Describing something can seem very straightforward. But in fact, describing a work of art can take time and should take time, because the more you describe something, the more you understand what you see and the closer you’ll get to interpreting what you see. This is why describing is one of those first skills that art historians learn.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:32] And really, anybody who goes to the museum should have conversations about what they see and the associations that it brings to mind in addition to pure description.

Dr. Harris: [0:40] Here’s what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to talk about when the sculpture was made. We’re not going to talk about the historical context. We’re not going to talk about the artist’s biography. We’re only going to describe what we see.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] I see a human body, and it’s large. One that’s abstracted, that’s not a careful rendering of human anatomy.

Dr. Harris: [1:01] I see what look like arms and legs, and a reclining figure.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] There’s no question that we immediately recognize the legs, the knees, the torso, the elbows, the neck. But the more that we look at those individual parts of the body, the more that we see the choices that the artist has made, the more we recognize that this is not an actual elbow, that’s not really a neck, that’s not really a head, but we still see it that way.

Dr. Harris: [1:31] Most obviously, what makes this not really a body is the giant cavity, that giant open space where we expect to see a torso.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] Before we begin to describe the individual elements of the sculpture, I think it’s also important to make a few observations about the material and the surface. The sculpture is a dirty white, and it’s so smooth that it invites us to touch it, even though the museum would rather we didn’t.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] It does have these lovely curvilinear forms that feel like they would be very pleasurable to touch, but there’s also a way in which that dirty ivory color feels like bone, feels organic.

Dr. Zucker: [2:10] That’s complicated, because bones are on the inside, but what we’re seeing is the outside. Or is this a fossil? Has the flesh been removed? Except that the figure seems animated. It seems as if it’s still intact.

Dr. Harris: [2:21] As we look closer, we see forms that seem to be missing hands or at least fingers, feet. And parts of the body also seem to be duplicated. What read to me as breasts occur in two places in the sculpture. What read to me as hips occurs in two places in the sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] We can’t be too literal at any point. You said a moment ago that there are no fingers, but there’s a reference to fingers. That is, the fingers have been abstracted. If you look at the figure’s left hand, it seems to be a fist with its fingers curled in, described by an oval of string that’s embedded in the surface.

Dr. Harris: [3:01] Nevertheless, the artist has decided not to give us individual fingers. He’s decided not to give us an ankle and a foot with toes and an arch in it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] But that is still a foot. Because of the angle at which the leg ends, I get the sense of a heel, of toes. I get the sense of where the ankle would be. It’s as if the artist is inviting me to fill in what he’s left out.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] In a way, the negative space, the space between the forms, feels just as substantial as the forms themselves. That space where the torso should be, which is empty, the way that what reads as the spine or the upper back is uplifted as the form seems to support itself on its elbows, that lovely negative space that gives us a sense of lifting up of the upper body.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] Because of that lifting up, not only on the elbows and the forearms but also on these other indeterminate limbs, I get the sense that this is not only human. It’s a different kind of creature, almost an insect that could move forward on all fours or perhaps all sixes.

Dr. Harris: [4:10] There’s also a tension between the soft, organic, rounded forms and these straight lines that seem to draw our attention to a breast, an elbow, a shoulder.

Dr. Zucker: [4:22] A contour; this is drawing on form. Granted, when I look at this sculpture, I can’t help but think of the human body. But I also have a sense that I’m looking at a landscape, that the knees are distant mountains, that somehow this is a unity of human form and the Earth itself.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] It’s so funny that you say that. When I see this sculpture, I immediately imagine a figure on a beach. I didn’t just imagine a reclining figure, I imagined the natural location of this figure outside.

Dr. Zucker: [4:55] Sun-baked.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] In fact, lifting up to catch the rays of the sun.

Dr. Zucker: [5:00] The almost cushion-like form in the center of the sculpture that can be read simultaneously as a chest, as breasts, perhaps as a torso, as an indeterminate form, creates for me a feeling. It is the feeling that I have when I arch my back. When I look at this sculpture, I feel that pulling in my body.

[5:23] The artist has used the simplest of tools. He’s used form itself. He’s used the line that he’s constructed with string. He’s able to create in me an association and a physical memory.

Dr. Harris: [5:32] Some views of the sculpture feel very recumbent and languorous, where others have a sense of tension.

[5:40] If we look at what reads as the head, we see two circular forms with an indentation in the center that read as an eye. And that open mouth that seems to be yearning and even almost crying.

Dr. Zucker: [5:53] We’ve spent only a few minutes looking at this sculpture, but we’ve developed a whole set of associations.

[5:57] We’ve matched words with what we’re seeing. And those words have created the foundation for our own personal interpretation.

[6:07] I find that if I spend time describing, if I spend time looking closely, even a work of art that at first seemed difficult and confusing, that perhaps I didn’t like at first glance, this changes, and an appreciation for what the artist achieved begins to develop.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Describing what you see: Sculpture, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure," in Smarthistory, April 6, 2019, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/describing-moore/.