Henry Moore O.M., C.H. (British, 1898-1986) Mask 19.2 cm. (7 1/2 in.) high (Carved in 1929)

Henry Moore almost cracked after being surrounded by Renaissance statues in Italy. It was only when he discovered Mayan art, says Claire Wrathall, that the sculptor found his true material

Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. When in 1931 the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg became the first institution to acquire work by Henry Moore (1898-1986), buying Head (c.1931), the British press were savage. The Evening News wrote of the "vulgar and repulsive distortion" in his work. Another paper headlined its story: "The All-Ugly Show of Sculpture". Understandably, Moore was crushed, resigning from his job at the RCA. To our eyes, such judgments are unfathomable. One of Moore's Masks, the only one carved from white alabaster, will be offered at Bonhams sale of Modern British and Irish Art in November, the first to come up at auction in more than two decades.

By most standards, this calm and mysterious face, neither obviously masculine nor feminine, speaks of beauty. Its eyes are closed, resembling those on a death mask; its demeanor is one of repose, serenity and refinement. It is more obviously symmetrical than Moore's other masks – though, if you look closely, the eye on the right is fractionally higher than other, and the planes of the face are subtly unbalanced. The white alabaster Mask was exhibited in the April of that year at London's Leicester Galleries, which represented Moore till the 1950s.

This was the first (of eight) one-man shows the gallery staged of his work. Jacob Epstein, who had bought work by Moore at his very first solo exhibition at the Warren Gallery in 1928 (as had Augustus John), wrote the preface to the catalog. "New shapes, growths of our subconsciousness, fill the atmosphere... This sculpture is filled with the spirit of research and experiment," he wrote, praising Moore's "vision", which he found "rich in sculptural invention", thus "avoid[ing] the banalities of abstraction". Moore's talent had been evident even as an art student. Having graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1924, he was immediately hired to stay on as a tutor. He also won a scholarship to spend on travel to Italy to see the great Renaissance masterpieces. It was not a success.

"For six months after my return", he recalled of that time, "I was never more miserable in my life". Yet he was no stranger to suffering. Moore – the son of a Yorkshire miner, the seventh of eight children – was, at 19, gassed during the Battle of Cambrai, causing him to spend two months in a military hospital. Nonetheless, "six months' exposure to the master works of European art which I saw on my trip had stirred up a violent conflict with my previous ideals," he said. "I found myself helpless and unable to work." In time, "I began to find my way out of my quandary in the direction of my earlier interests," he told The Sunday Times in 1961. "I came back to ancient Mexican art at the British Museum. I came across an illustration of the chacmool discovered at Chichén Itzá in a German publication – and its curious reclining posture attracted me – not lying on its side, but on its back with its head twisted around."

Moore was already familiar with the 10th-century Maya limestone sculpture, which had been excavated on the Yucatán peninsula in southern Mexico about half a century earlier. A recumbent male figure, head turned, knees raised, it was believed to represent either a dying god or, more likely, a messenger to the gods cast as a sacrificial altar. Indeed, Moore had seen a plaster model of this chacmool at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris on his first visit to France in 1922, in the company of his close friends, the painter Raymond Coxon and Barbara Hepworth. One need look no further than the Reclining Figure he made in 1929, now in Leeds Art Gallery, to see how the chacmool came to influence his distinctive supine forms.

Scrutinise the chacmool's highly stylised face, and the other pre-Columbian works Moore would have seen in the British Museum's ethnographical galleries, however, and it is clear where he drew inspiration for most of the dozen sculptures he called Masks, made during the second half of the 1920s. "Nine-tenths" of his knowledge of sculpture, he said, he had acquired at the museum: "One room after another... took my enthusiasm", but "after the first excitement, it was the art of ancient Mexico that spoke to me most."

Arguably the best known of the series is the one in the Tate collection (it originally belonged to Coxon). Made from gneiss, a green metamorphic stone with dense veining, its eyes and mouth are hollow, its nostrils formed with two not quite parallel lines, as though at right angles to the gouged eyebrows. It is a captivating face, and – for something so stylised – extraordinarily expressive. In contrast, a slightly larger Mask that is also at Leeds Art Gallery (to which the alabaster Mask was, until recently, on loan) is made from cast concrete. It too has hollow eyes, but this time the nose is shown in profile.

If much of Moore's work from this period reveals the influence of what he called "the new friendship between art and anthropology", the long narrow nose here calls to mind a Cycladic head (Moore would have been familiar with the British Museum's antiquities too) or one by Brancusi, whose work Moore may have encountered in Paris. He would also almost certainly have been familiar with the much larger-than-life-size limestone Head (c.1911-12) by Modigliani, whom Brancusi had encouraged to turn his hand to sculpture. It was presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum the year after Moore enrolled at the Royal College of Art, which at the time shared a site with the museum. (Modigliani's Head is now in Tate Modern.)

The unusual contour of the alabaster Mask's sloping brow and the highly stylised protuberances above thedrilled 'ear' on its left (the spectator's right) temple, however, allude to Maya carvings – as did Moore's method of direct carving, which involved cutting straight into the stone or wood without first either making a maquette or modeling what he envisaged in clay.

Through his commitment to direct carving, Moore obliged himself to make a virtue of any imperfections or flaws he encountered: hence the area of caramel colored veining on the left jaw and chin, which subtly unbalances the otherwise perceived symmetry of the features and suggests capillaries under the skin, so enhancing the humanity of the sculpture.

Though his 1931 exhibition featured a small Seated Figure also carved from white alabaster (now in the Art Gallery of Ontario), it was a stone he rarely used. (Darker Cumberland alabaster, from which he carved at least eight works and to which he was introduced by Barbara Hepworth's first husband, the sculptor John Skeaping, was another matter.) Just as Moore and his contemporaries rejected white marble for its neoclassical associations, so he favored more rugged materials than alabaster, working in more than 40 types of stone over the course of his career. In his youth, Moore had been a regular visitor to London's Geological Museum (now part of the Natural History Museum). But in those days his choice of materials for sculpture was often determined by what he could find and, more pertinently, afford rather than his innate fascination for different types of rock.

As Sebastiano Barassi, Head of Collections and Exhibitions at the Henry Moore Foundation, and his colleague James Copper, a conservator there, point out in their 2015 essay Henry Moore and Stone: Methods and Materials, Moore often "had to settle for whatever was available, occasionally using marble and alabaster blocks, which he acquired from stonemasons and salvage yards in the form of offcuts, old church statuary or discarded architectural features." But he didn't always "find the... forms suitable" to the stone at his disposal. In a letter to his friend, the sculptor Jocelyn Horner in 1923, he refers to two alabaster torsos he made that he is thought to have destroyed, a fate that befell at least 10 of the 215 stone carvings in his catalog raisonné. This makes the alabaster Mask all the rarer and perhaps explains why – in his oft-spoken-of commitment to be "true" to his materials – he imposed on it a lovelier and more delicate aesthetic.

Claire Wrathall writes on culture for The Telegraph and the Financial Times.

Sale: Modern British and Irish Art
Wednesday 14 November at 3pm
Enquiries: Matthew Bradbury +44 (0) 20 7468 8295

  1. Matthew Bradbury
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