Executed in 1940 and 1941, Moore’s series of Shelter Drawings rank among the most poignant works created in Britain during World War II. The siege-like nature of the war, and the German bombing raids in particular, meant that the effects of the war were acutely felt by the general populace, away from battlefields. Much of the most successful art produced during this period dealt with the effect of the conflict on ordinary Britons; the present Shelter Drawing is not only a moving example of such art but also a powerful document of this turbulent era.
Unlike his friends Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who had moved from London to St Ives shortly after the outbreak of the war, Moore had kept his studio in Hampstead and like most Londoners tried to retain the semblance of as normal a life as possible. However, during the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe air attacks across the country, but especially London, became increasingly intense. While there was official provision made for shelters, many Londoners preferred the impromptu shelter offered by the deeper stations of the underground network. On September 11, 1940, Moore and his wife Irina were returning from supper with friends in the center of town, traveling on an underground train. The sirens sounded during their journey and when they got to their station, Moore was fascinated by the large numbers of people sheltering on the platforms. The artist made his first drawing of the subject the following day and would return many times to study the people gathered there. Initially this was a very private exercise for Moore, and for the next few months he observed his subject anonymously.
As the artist later recalled: "Instead of drawing, I would wander casually past a group of people half a dozen times or so, pretending to be unaware of them. Sometimes I climbed a staircase so that I could write down a note on the back of an envelope without being seen. A note like 'two people sleeping under one blanket' would be enough of a reminder to enable me to make a sketch next day" (quoted in Henry Moore. Shelter-Sketch-Book (exhibition catalogue), Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1967, n.p.). Moore showed some of the sketchbooks to Kenneth Clark in December 1940. "Lord Clark described the notebooks in which Moore did drawings of people sheltering in London’s Underground system: 'the two notebooks that are, to my mind, among the most precious works of art of the present century. In these shelter drawings,' Clark continued, '(Moore) showed not only insight and compassion but marvellous graphic skill. Since circumstances kept him from his sculpture, he became, in effect, a painter. His watercolour sketches of the darkened caves render space and atmosphere like a picture by Goya, but, as was to be expected, his renderings of the human body are given weight and substance and related to each other like great sculpture'" (A. Garrould, Henry Moore Drawings, London, 1988, pp. 18 & 20).
Clark's immediate excitement resulted in Moore making enlarged versions of some of the drawings which would then be acquired by the War Artists' Advisory Committee, and this marked the point at which the drawings began to be exhibited publicly. While Moore was already well known and highly regarded within the art circles, the public exposure of the Shelter Drawings secured his popular appeal. Although after 1941 Moore quickly moved to other subjects, the Shelter Drawings hold a crucially important position in his oeuvre (see fig. 1). In artistic terms, the echoes of the draped figures would resonate through many of his great sculptures of the following decade. It was while working on his Shelter Drawings that Moore became increasingly absorbed in the manner in which drapery could denote sculptural volume. The three-dimensional effect achieved by the folds in the figures’ garments is in part inspired by the sculpture and reliefs from ancient Egypt and the Classical antiquity, particularly some of the Parthenon figures which Moore had admired during his frequent visits to the British Museum. Furthermore, their superb ability to express a very real sense of human existence in adversity gave them extraordinary public appeal, and thus when Moore's first New York exhibition at Curt Valentin's gallery took place in 1943, the combination of their subject and the context of the progression of the war ensured that they were among the first pieces of Moore's work to enter several important American collections.
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