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1948 - 1971: A Symbol of Post-War Optimism

In 1948 Henry Moore travelled to Italy for his one-man show in the British Pavillion at the 24th Venice Biennale, the first since the war. Moore's work was felt to reflect the spirit of the event and he was awarded the International Sculpture Prize.  His sculpture came to represent the optimistic, humanist values embodied in modernism and opposed to Fascism. 

For the 1948 Venice Biennale – the first one after the war – the British Council decided to have just my sculpture and Turner paintings which was a very sensible thing. But I doubt that one would have won the Biennale sculpture prize that year without the real groundwork and the real impetus that The Museum of Modern Art retrospective provided. Really the foundation where the international side of one’s career is concerned – that international thing happened through The Museum of Modern Art exhibition.

Henry Moore in Henry J. Seldis, Henry Moore in America, Phaidon, London; Praeger

New York 1973, p.67


Back at home, in 1951 the Festival of Britain was organised by the Labour government to promote the arts, science and industry and to further encourage optimism after the war. Many contemporary artists were commissioned to make work and Moore was given a prominent position at the centre of the festival on the South Bank of the Thames. Moore had been asked for a family group but instead provided Reclining Figure: Festival, saying “I think this is the first sculpture in which I succeeded in making form and space sculpturally inseparable.” To coincide with the festival, John Read produced a documentary titled Henry Moore for the BBC, making Moore the first ever living artist to be the subject of a film. In the same year Moore had his first retrospective at Tate in London.

In 1952 Moore was once again represented at the Venice Biennale. On this occasion the British Council presented a new group of emerging sculptors, but installed a work by Moore at the entrance to the pavilion and in doing so positioned him as the forefather of the younger artists. The group became known as the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists after Herbert Read’s description in the catalogue essay. Their style was defined by welded spiky forms, which were vastly opposed to Moore’s characteristic rounded forms. The Venice display highlighted a desire amongst the younger generation of artists to escape the shadow of Moore and develop a completely new aesthetic. 

Moore’s numerous commissions in the 1950s meant that his work became an icon for post-war Britain. His Harlow Family Group, 1954-55 and Family Group, 1948-9 were commissioned for the New Towns of Harlow and Stevenage respectively after the Labour Government’s 1946 New Town’s Act. Notable international commissions include the marble Reclining Figure, 1957-8 for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and Nuclear Energy, 1964-6 for the University of Chicago.