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Henry Moore and Nuclear Energy

This #BritishScienceWeek we are looking at one of Moore's sculptures in the light of the nuclear age.

In August 1945 the first atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to devastating effect. Images of the billowing mushroom cloud were soon known the world over. For many, the optimistic attitude toward atomic science which had characterised the years before World War Two was now replaced by fear. During the late 1940s and 50s anxieties grew as the US, Soviet Union, and Britain conducted further nuclear testing, and the Cold War escalated. 

Henry Moore joined with others in the public eye to openly take a stance against harnessing the power of nuclear science for warfare. Scientists, writers, actors, academics, musicians, religious leaders and others united to advocate for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

In 1950 British troops were sent into Korea. In December that year Henry Moore along with Benjamin Britten, E.M. Forster, Augustus John and others, signed a letter to the Times  in response to the Korean war stating that ‘in no circumstances should our country associate itself with the use of atomic weapons against people who have not used them against us’. 1950 is also the year in which Moore created Helmet Head No. 1 and Helmet Head No.2. These works employ the forms of military prototypes but suggest such helmets may not effectively protect the human psyche, indeed they could trap it.

When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched in 1958, Moore was among its founder members. He had already sponsored its predecessor the National Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests (NCANWT). He also supported disarmament groups local to his home in Perry Green such as the Hertford Group of Nuclear Disarmament, which he donated to in 1959.

Such was Moore’s involvement in the CND that the critic John Berger proposed that his Falling Warrior, 1956-57 (LH 405) be used as their emblem, and a CND sponsored exhibition be held of the sculpture and its preparatory maquettes and working models. The exhibition was never held nor the emblem adopted, however, CND imagery would prove important to Moore.

In 1963, Moore was approached by the University of Chicago to create a monument commemorating the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, achieved there in 1942 by Enrico Fermi. Moore was well aware of the moral and political implications of such a memorial but accepted the commission. He designed Atom Piece, which was later enlarged to 4.3 meters tall, renamed Nuclear Energy, and installed at the University in 1967, exactly twenty-five years after Fermi’s experiment (LH 526).

The form of Nuclear Energy bears a strong resemblance to the Helmet Heads, indeed Moore cited them as his inspiration. It also inescapably references the devastating mushroom clouds of nuclear bombs. In the same year as the Chicago commission, the combination of skull and explosion had been employed to great effect by F.H K. Henrion in his poster for the CND. In a letter to William McNeill of the University of Chicago in 1965 Moore says:

“the upper part is connected with the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion, but also has the shape and eye sockets of a skull”.

As a celebration of scientific discovery Moore’s work deliberately evokes a sense of the skull not just as death’s head but also as the container of powerful and positive ideas. The domed cranium emerges from a seemingly rocky base of sturdy pillars.

An emphasis on scientific achievement rather than atomic warfare was important to the Chicago commissioning committee. The original title given to the work by Moore, Atom Piece, risked mis-interpretation. McNeill stated after the unveiling:

“I know that Henry Moore called it Atom Piece but the local name deliberately chosen – is Nuclear Energy. Atom piece and atom peace seemed too close to be comfortable. I hope you will at least use the local name in addition to or substitute for the name Moore used.”

Moore translated the themes of protection and containment, which he had explored in his Helmet Heads, into a work which exemplifies the power of intellectual ideas – which have the potential for both beauty and destruction.

Moore’s Helmet Heads and his Maquette for Atom Piece are currently featured in the exhibition Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads at the Wallace Collection, London, until 23 June 2019.