In Florence, a new show dedicated to Henry Moore welcomes visitors back to museums after the latest pandemic pause at the Museo Novecento in Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Or should I saw, two shows: one, in collaboration with the Henry Moore Foundation, explores the artist as draughtsman, while another focuses on his relationship to Florence and Tuscany, which turns out to be quite strong.

Although I’m rather hesitant to leave the house, visiting a museum seemed like a good break from monotony and a gesture of support for the city’s struggling coffers. At the moment, museums in Italy are only open on weekdays and with limited numbers of visitors, so a lunchtime weekday visit didn’t prove particularly crowded. Moore was a good motivation for me, because I’ve always loved his sculpture due to an early exposure to his work in Toronto, where I grew up.

A masked visitor compares Henry Moore’s maquettes to his drawings in the exhibition at Museo Novecento, Florence

The personal connection: Henry Moore and Toronto

I have the fortune of having grown up in Toronto, where there’s a very good museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). And although it’s right downtown and we didn’t live at all nearby, somehow it seems that I was brought there very often as a young child, in the pre-school age as well as through elementary school, in every season. They had a program called “Hands-On” in a great big light-filled laboratory, or at least that’s how I remember it, that did just what it sounds like, a hands-on opportunity for kids to make art within and in relation to the museum space. A good number of my early childhood memories are related to this place. Some are from before I could possibly remember them myself and are part of family lore: me as a toddler asking the security guard “where is the Paul Klee exhibit” which had apparently closed since my previous visit; a maybe four-year-old me being quoted in the national press upon observing the newly unveiled Jackson Pollock painting in the museum’s entryway as “that’s not art, that’s just scribble.” And thus an art historian was born?

Henry Moore, Two Large forms, photo Lesley Peterson, Culture Tripper

The AGO has the one of the world’s largest collections of sculptures (and other supporting material) by Henry Moore, bequeathed to the city by the artist and opened in 1974, just two years before I was born. Moore’s eight-ton bronze Large Two Forms stands on a corner outside the museum and was a favourite playground for me and other city kids. In some parts it’s worn shiny by us climbing on it, although I’m not sure that was Moore’s intent for his artwork. I still distinctly remember the feeling of mitten on bronze, the slightly hollow sound it makes when patted or kicked, the shhhh-squeeeeak of skin and sneakers down its sinuous side during summers spent killing time on the corner of Dundas Street. I’m quite sure not a visit to the AGO went by without a climb on the sculpture and I’m surprised that we can’t find any photos of this ritual. I’ve just read that sadly, it was moved to a nearby park in 2017. Maybe that’s a better place for these natural forms but it was so accessible where it was before.

Being able to enjoy this important work of public art in the 1970s was a privilege heralded by a struggle already dealt with and won in the mid 60s in Toronto, though of course small-Alexandra had no idea at the time.

Henry Moore's The Archer soon after inauguration in Toronto, photo Toronto archives, source linked in text.
The Archer, photo Toronto Star archives

A very modernist City Hall was commissioned to Finnish architect Viljo Revell in 1958, who included public art in his design and specifically requested a work by Henry Moore, although it was not his place, nor his budget, to do so. In the mid 60s the new Nathan Phillips Square was almost complete and a newly elected mayor, Philip Givens, found himself in the midst of a debate whether or not to purchase a work by Moore to place in the square in front of the building. The city’s Alderman is actually quoted as saying “How much more art and culture can we stand? How much more can we have shoved down our throats?” The architect chose Moore’s The Archer for the space, but the public opposed the “frivolous expense” on the part of city administrators. The mayor thus opened a crowdfunding and raised $100,000 of the $120,000 asking price, and Moore agreed to a discount in order to let Toronto have the sculpture. This work of art represented a cultural clash though, between traditionalists and those who would herald modern art in the city. Unveiled in 1966 in front of City Hall, the sculpture would cost the mayor his job – he lost it six weeks later. [source and Toronto Star]

The drawings of Henry Moore

Although the AGO collection includes both sculptures and drawings, younger me never paid attention to the latter. The main exhibition now at the Museo Novecento is an exploration of the drawings of Henry Moore (Henry Moore. Il disegno dello scultore) curated by the museum’s director Sergio Risaliti and Sebastiano Barassi, Head of the Henry Moore Foundation’s Collections and Exhibitions. Drawing was central to Moore’s artistic output from the beginning, but it is almost always a means to an end, a kind of mental exercise necessary to become a great sculptor.

Drawing was central to Moore’s artistic output from the beginning, but it is almost always a means to an end.

He drew every day, producing some 7500 drawings in his lifetime, though as demand for his sculptures grew in the 1960s, he had less time to draw and used modelling in clay or gesso to “sketch” out his sculptural ideas quickly in three dimensions. At this point, drawing became a personal pastime, removed from practical needs and therefore more experimental – Sea and Sky, 1982, particularly caught my eye as a rare colourful watercolour from this phase.

Sea and Sky - 
1982 - 
HMF 82(389)
. Pastel wash, watercolour wash, chalk photo: Henry Moore Archive

The show explores the main themes in Moore’s visual research drawings and uses his own words to express why he studied them. Stones, trees, bones and hands seem to be the most frequent topics; nature offers all the forms he needs, while bones (and hands) come from his obsession with the structure of things.

A personal favourite and something of a surprise for me is a small section with drawings of sheep, as well as an album of animal drawings (open to a sketch of a zebra). Of the sheep, Moore said in 1981 “At first I saw them as rather shapeless balls of wool with a head and four legs. Then I began to realize that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way and that each sheep had its individual character.”

Six Sheep in a Field
, 1981- 
HMF 81(309)- 
charcoal, pencil, ballpoint pen. photo: Sarah Mercer

Henry Moore in Florence and Tuscany

In 1925, Henry Moore received a travel grant and spent time in Italy, visiting Genova, Pisa, Roma, Assisi, Padova, Ravenna and Venice and staying in Florence for three months. Here, the protorenaissance frescoes of Giotto and the pre-Renaissance paintings of Orgagna, Taddeo Gaddi and Masaccio are what most captured his interest. He said that “Giotto’s paintings are the most beautiful sculptures I have seen in Italy.” Towards the end of his stay he came to appreciate Michelangelo above all, and the High Renaissance genius remained an inspiration through his lifetime. His Warrior with Shield (1953-4) resides in the cloister of Santa Croce, near the paintings that so inspired him as a young artist.

In the late 1950s, Moore and his family discovered a love for Tuscany’s Versilia coast. Seeking material to complete a commission for a large marble figure for Paris’s UNESCO headquarters, Moore excavated at the same marble quarries as Michelangelo. In the 60s he purchased a summer home in Forte dei Marmi where the family could enjoy days on the beach and be near to the quarries for Moore’s work.

Reclining figure (maquette), with photos from Moore’s time in Versilia behind.

In 1967, Moore visited Florence and saw the still very clear signs of the Florence Flood of 1966 on the walls of San Niccolo’s area, where he was visiting with his friend and founder of Il Bisonte, a local printmaking studio (still in operation! see With Maria Luigia Guaita and other friends, the idea to hold a large exhibition of Moore’s work was born. In some ways this can be seen in relation to another large-scale project to reconsider and rebuild the artistic scene in Florence at the time, and although the exhibition doesn’t point this out explicitly. Just ten days after the Flood, art historian Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti put out a worldwide call to donate new artworks to the city to “substitute” those lost in the flood. This ultimately brought together 247 artists and their donations form the nucleus of the Museo Novecento itself. The book When the World Answered documents works by women artists donated during this call, some of which can be seen in the gallery next to the temporary exhibition.

Henry Moore, Square form with cut, Florence 1972.

In 1972, just two years before my childhood playground Two Large Forms reached Toronto, there was a retrospective exhibition of Moore’s sculptures in Florence at Forte Belvedere. Italy was still fresh out the events of ’68, symbol of cultural upheaval, and this modern artistic language must have felt very exciting. Curator Sergio Risaliti writes in his exhibition notes that “Moore convinced even the most orthodox Florentines that he was heir to Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Leonardo and Michelangelo,” while contemporary critics spoke of a new Humanism and compared Moore to Picasso and Giacometti.

When I mentioned going to “the new Moore show” this week to my mother in law and she said “Oh, we went to see a wonderful exhibit of his sculptures a few years ago!” with that special way of time compressing when one reaches a certain age. She had just arrived in Florence, a young university student, and still remembers seeing Moore with the backdrop of the Duomo.

Me posing with Henry Moore's sculpture in Prato (Fall 2019, Photo Marco Badiani)

One key sculpture from the 1972 show remained in Tuscany, but not in Florence. Square Form with Cut found its home in Prato [read about this sculpture and other public art in Prato here], which was already demonstrating its penchant for contemporary art in contrast with the stauncher Florence.

Here too, like in Toronto, the city “broke into factions”, some opposing the installation of the innovative and large sculpture that, with time, would become a symbol of the city. But here, it wasn’t a matter of expense: since the work was already in the area, the city was able to acquire it at cost, paying only for the marble (extracted from the nearby Apuan mountains). In the exhibition, a small model of the sculpture reveals the innovative structural base that holds up the massive weight, two huge supports that are dug deep into the ground. Moore, son of an Irish miner, explained his gift to the city: “I am a Pratese born in Yorkshire,” referring to the city’s working-class character.

Visitor information

Henry Moore: Il disegno dello scultore
Until July 18, 2021

And Henry Moore in Toscana
Until May 30, 2021

Museo Novecento
Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Florence

See website


Related reading

Interview with curator Sebastiano Barassi by Jane Farrell for The Florentine

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