The exhibition of one of the greatest icons of modern sculpture—Henry Moore—took place in June 1966 at the National Gallery in Prague. It travelled to Prague from Bratislava where it was installed at the same prestigious venue, the Slovak National Gallery. These two events are only two segments of the travelling chain of exhibitions that were taken on tour in several countries, organised by the British Council. The catalogue published after the exhibition visited Prague proves the ambition behind the project. The Czech public had the opportunity to get to know not only small sculptures—including models of sculptures that were meant to be placed in public spaces—but also a number of sculptures representing Moore’s famous voluminous sculpture formats. Among them we find the highly appreciated sculptural groups named Two Seated Figures (1952–1953), King and Queen, Warrior with Shield (1953–1954), Reclining Figure (1951)—originally intended for the Festival of Britain—, the half-sized bronze cast of the later version of the Reclining Figure for the courtyard of the UNESCO (1957) headquarters, or the more recent Large Torso (Arch) made in 1962, as well as several other sculptures. Two textile panels dating from 1949, which presented Moore’s drawings printed on canvas in London, in the Czech emigrant’s Zika Ascher’s[1] workshop, and forty-one other drawings completed the famous artist’s profile.

This has therefore been an event of outstanding importance, and the first truly large monographic exhibition of a highly respected artist living abroad who belonged to the Western cultural context that took place in Czechoslovakia after the communist coup (1948). Nevertheless, the echoes the exhibition in the specialised press indicate that its perception had some controversial aspects, reflected in the average quality of one part of the Czech (Czechoslovak) sculptural production. The Umění [Art] magazine published since 1953 by a top institution—The History of Arts Institute of the Czechoslovak Science Academy—completely ignored the exhibition. This is not surprising taking into consideration the academic profile of the magazine and the institute, focused mainly on older art history. In the climate of the gradual political and cultural relaxation, the second art magazine—Výtvarné umění [Fine Arts]—did not grant Moore’s exhibition any attention either as it preferred to focus on contemporary art. Back then, Moore’s modernism was not part of the contemporary art. The magazine avoided expressing its opinion on the exhibition and, instead, it published a review of the third volume of the artist’s monograph[2] that had been published recently.

However, the exhibition in 1966 was featured in the fortnightly journal Výtvarná práce [Art Work] which, owing to its short periodicity, systematically commented upon present-day events on the art scene. In the 1960s, the author of the review, Ludmila Vachtová (1933–2020), a distinct personality gifted with a sharp, critical view of artistic issues, contributed several times as a curator to the new format of sculpture exhibitions in the public space, the first time being in 1963. She appreciated Moore’s exhibition, yet clearly expressed her opinion by saying that it comes to us too late. “If the introduction to the catalogue speaks of a debt to getting acquainted with modern sculpture, the term is rather incomplete. Repaying a debt has a deadline. For Moore, in Czechoslovakia, the deadline was 1959. This was the year his monograph was published. It preferred a certain—and in my opinion, not entirely up-to-date back then—part of his work. That was the most suitable time for this exhibition, which, in the meantime, has been travelling across Poland.”[3]

Even with today’s time distance, Vachtová’s idea is still valid. The generation of sculptors from the 1960s shaped their profile as students, shortly after the war. In the short time of the Third Republic, between the end of World War II and the communist putsch in February 1948, Prague hosted a large French sculpture exhibition, from Rodin to today (1947) and in April 1948 it hosted the retrospective of the most important Czech sculptor, Ota Gutfreund. Their influence on the work of young Czech sculptors is essential. Between 1946 and 1948, at the initiative of the British Council in Prague, three exhibitions of British modern art were organised, Henry Moore taking part in two of them. His war-time drawings of the London Underground were obviously contemporary,[4] however, in February 1946 some of his small sculptures arrived in Prague: six undated small bronze and terracotta figures, one of the first Reclining Figures (1936)[5] and the most important object, Bird Basket (1939)[6] from the series of organic experimental objects that combined wood and strings. “A couple of months after the end of World War II an exhibition of English fine art was taken on tour in Czechoslovakia. Among the exhibits was a not so big sculpture made of light wood, rounded like a fruit, hollow inside and elongated with several tight, parallel strings. The catalogue introduced it as The Nest. It was the first Henry Moore original artwork that we learned about.”[7] The Bird Basket caught everyone’s attention thanks to its “peaceful, fluid rounded shape that sharply opposed the perennial, even drastic expressive drawings on the covers.” First and foremost, the object brought forward the problem of opening the inner space of a sculpture, its core, an idea that later on asserted itself repeatedly in Czech sculpture.

One of the authors of the texts in the catalogue of the first British exhibition was the young art historian Jiří Kotalík. Until 1948 he worked together with Jindřich Chalupecký as a theoretician of the Group 42 [Skupina 42]. Chalupecký’s wife, poetess Jiřina Hauková, who signs the translation of T.S. Eliot’s poem in the catalogue, was also part of the group. Along with her husband, she translated Eliot’s legendary Waste Land.[8] In other words, the members of the Group 42 were well aware of British culture, which was unusual in the Czech milieu with its close relations with French culture. Poet Jiří Kolář, a significant member of the group, even visited London in 1948 with the delegation of the Czech Writers’ Syndicate. Furthermore, Ladislav Zívr (1909–1980) was among the sculptors in the group. Since he was in his youth, his inspiration from nature was an important source of formal morphology and his imagination was similar in type to Moore’s creative disposition, but these two features cannot be perceived as superficial and eclectic. His connection to a “strong geological aspect” started to manifest itself more clearly later on, in the 1960s, firstly in the two large sandstone sculptures that Zívr carved at the sculpture symposium in Hořice in 1966 (Srostlice and Pahýl). Generally speaking, he saw this influence (given the fact that freedom of creation was limited in the totalitarian state) as a natural part of evolution existing from the very beginning of civilisation.[9] While the inspiration from nature led Henry Moore from the figure to the search for a figurative morphology that would be even more abstract, fragmented and monumental, in the late 1950s, Zívr had a different conception. He admired “the pure beauty, unencumbered by the anecdotal ballast outside of art.”[10] He found it in the works of Hans Arp as well as Henry Moore, but an entry from his diary dating from December 1962 proves that he had already become aware of the danger that the repeated declaration of “monumental peace and reconciliation” poses to art. His restless, though not always convincing, organic sculptures endeavoured to unite nature and the primordial surrealist impulse. Once again, he was looking for “unexplored territory where overheated soil explodes preparing to engulf the artist…”[11]

Ladislav Zívr, Srostlice, 1966, sandstone from Hořice, Gallery of Sculpture in Hořice. Photograph by Ondřej Polák

Zívr can also be linked to several other artists whose artistic programme connected organic morphology to a thrilling dynamic inner movement and archetypal themes that were outside the dominant artistic discourse of the mid-1960s. It is only now, fifty years later that we can truly appreciate the works of this group of “organic hermits” who, without being primarily linked to Moore’s work, started from a similar understanding of nature and its transformation into a language of artistic expression that was rather timeless than contemporary.[12]

The second significant Czech sculptor who admits to being influenced by Henry Moore was Vladimír Janoušek (1922–1986). This is visible in his figurative sculptures from the first political and cultural relaxation after the deconstruction of Stalin’s cult of personality: Intimacy (1956–1957), similar to Moore’s Family Groups, Black Sacrifice (1958), a reference to the famous Falling Warrior or Figure with Crystal (1958–1959) made in the foyer of the multimedia Laterna Magica Theatre in Prague. Between 1956 and 1958, Moore appeared several times in the Výtvarné umění magazine where he was regarded as an important pacifist as well as a most imposing artistic personality and one of the first representatives of contemporary world sculpture. Next to the photography of the King and Queen in the landscape (VU 1965) were repeatedly reproduced shots of his architectural work (Time-Life, Facade of the Construction Centre in Rotterdam, VU 1957 and 1958), Falling Warrior, Warrior with Shield and Glenkiln Cross, VU 1958). His sculpture for UNESCO was also well known and the 1958 issue of the magazine dedicated an unusually large space to an interview with the artist.[13] Artists and everyone who was interested in contemporary art would go to the library of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague to leaf through the Italian magazine Domus, which, in 1955, when the museum started buying it, published a substantial material on Moore.[14] At the Bruxelles Expo 58, the Czech artists could not have missed Moore’s sculpture placed in front of the British Pavilion, which although it gave rise to controversies among the young British avant-gardists, appeared to the Czech sculptors as a concept of monumentality, a completely different experience, of an inspirational kind. Furthermore, at the 50 Years of Modern Art exhibition, organised as part of the Expo 58, they were also able to see the Glenkiln Cross and the extraordinarily impressive subtle skeletal Reclining Figure[15] from the early fifties. Vladimír Janoušek was not the only one who admired the British Sculptor, as Ludmila Vachtová mentions, “many of our sculptors began following [him] with excitement.”[16] However, in 1966, Janoušek formally transformed his conception of the figure and—four months before the opening of the Moore exhibition at the National Gallery—he published his artistic credo in Výtvarné umění magazine: “…If I talk about a shapeless matter I use certain metaphors. I think about the volume appointed by the proportions, about the weight and the inner tension, about the matter with a degree of autonomous life. This term is essential. If I have to illustrate what I have in mind, the best way to do it is by pronouncing Henry Moore’s name. My former dependence on him grew bigger due to a certain congruity of the work process. I realised this later on, when I saw Moore’s first sketches of his large well-known sculptures and when I found out how thoroughly he respected them in the final work piece. These first statues are moulded as if all intellectual elements have been excluded from the working process and as if the hands only listened to one sense, the sense of touch. Matters flow into one another giving the impression of having grown blindly. In these shapes, one can feel the moulding hand identifying itself with the entire experience of the senses, so that one may use the positivistic paraphrase “es denkt,” “es modeliert.” These positions touch upon something close to us. I see them on the same level I see the baroque tradition through which we read Moore. So this is why I write about Moore, to write about myself…”[17]

For Zívr and Janoušek, Henry Moore was, therefore, the impulse to raise new questions about form, spontaneity and the sensuality of creation and most of all about the humanistic qualities of work. These values did not lose meaning in the Czech circumstances, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s, and not only in Britain, that they stopped being enough to express the complicated present—this is well illustrated by the famous Barthes’s critique[18] of the overly general human ethos of the travelling exhibition of photography, The Family of Man,[19] which, when it came to Paris in 1957, was not reflecting the world’s current controversies and conflicts. In a similar way, it would be possible to argue against the monumentalising pathos of Moore’s public sculptures. After the war, his figuration built harmonising themes in contradiction to the general crisis of humanity, but during the 1950s, however, it reached a sort of static, official position, stereotypical in terms of content, of monumental propagation of some values that were no longer relevant by the end of this decade. Although his sculptural, sovereign works are admirable, in the mid-1960s they were no longer able to inspire the new generation of artists that longed to be up-to-date. Being up-to-date at that time did not mean Moore anymore, but Yves Klein or Marcel Duchamp.

This is why one can hardly look for a readable reflection on the exhibition organised in 1966 at the National Gallery among the important Czech sculptors. Partly because one cannot say that Moore’s imprint in Czechoslovakia disappeared in the late 1960s. The fall of the renewal process after August 1968 lead to a new cultural isolation and to a radical change of the ideological criteria used to evaluate contemporary art; the main figures of the current discourse lost their positions and had to escape to a new inner exile, as they did during Stalin’s dogmatism. In this situation, sculptors naturally lost the possibility to create for the public space. They were soon replaced by mediocre authors who, in the best of cases, represented a petrified modernism. In innumerable variations, many dismantled Moore’s work, which they regarded as a pillar for the non-conflictual version of the fundamental motives of family happiness, figures of resting women or amorphous organic forms designed as picturesque, material decoration of the public space.[20] Even in this situation, it may be said that this dusky reflection of Moore’s personality preserved, in a time of deep cultural (and social) decline, at least a certain acceptability of this sort of manufacture meant to embellish and humanise public space.

A fundamental progress in the reception of this great sculptor in Czechoslovakia was the monograph published in 1985. The introductory study was written by Petr Wittlich, an essential and highly respected personality in Czech art history and theory. His deep theoretical insight into Moore’s personality, creation and context, with a distance from the contemporary discourse of the 1960s, brought a fundamental turn in the evaluation of Moore’s work and convincingly proved its timeless qualities.

Marie Klimešová is art historian, researcher, curator and professor of art history in Prague.