The Return of Leeds’ Most Famous Reclining Lady
This week, a familiar figure returned to her accustomed place of prominence outside Leeds Art Gallery. For the last few months, her spot has been occupied by an impressive, forward striding sculpture that marked the city hosting the start of the Tour de France.
But however I much liked the usurper -and I hope it finds a permanent home somewhere in Leeds – it was a real pleasure to see Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure back where she belongs.
I love Henry Moore’s work. It’s fleshy, fluid, tactile, even a bit sexy. His most abstract of pieces have a remarkable, living quality that makes it easy to believe that you might catch them moving out of the corner of your eye. Moore transformed the human form into something far stranger and yet far more organic than conventional figurative representation could have. Carved from stone but still with all the vulnerability of the body.
The Reclining Figure shows off his work at its best. The face is unreadable, self-contained but the body glories in its own volume. This art that is not afraid to have curves. The form is inviting us to look at it without giving away any of its own power. Inside the Gallery there are several more Henry Moore pieces, including both sculpture and painting. Most impressive of all is the stunning Two Standing Figures on the second floor. This is one of my favourite pieces of art of all time. The first time that I saw it, the painting reached out and grabbed my eyes and just wouldn’t let go. I found myself standing and looking it for at least ten minutes, just taking it all in. It was probably longer actually as I walked away and then came back to it a few times. The other visitors must have thought I’d gone mad but I didn’t care. When you love a piece of art, that’s all that matters.
Like his contemporary and friend Barbara Hepworth, Moore has come to be seen as very much an art establishment figure and subsequently open to accusations of worthiness or idealism. But also like Hepworth, just because you can buy a postcard of his work doesn’t change the fact that it’s wonderful. Sometimes you need the optimistic ideals of a Moore or a Hepworth just as much as you need the exhilarating cynicism of a Francis Bacon painting.
As one of Leeds most famous and influential artists – just as significant in his day as one of the city’s other most successful sons, Damien Hirst – it’s entirely appropriate that Henry Moore’s beautiful sculpture is back in pride of place, in front of the Gallery and close to the Institute that bears his name. With the Town Hall and Central Library nearby, she really is sitting at the heart of the city.