It was labelled “a monstrosity” and a work of art so bad that it deserved to be interred, not displayed. But many more recognised it as a work of genius, Henry Moore considered it one of his finest, and later this year it is expected to break auction records as the most expensive sculpture made by a British artist.
Moore’s bronze of a reclining semi-abstract figure stopped people in their tracks when it was first exhibited as a centrepiece of the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was startling and unsettling. Many adored it. Some hated it. A good number were amused by it.
When it was then offered on long-term loan to the city of Leeds, it caused an almighty row and, in 1953, it was vandalised with blue paint.
Moore singled it out as one of his most important sculptures and the first “in which I succeeded in making form and space sculpturally inseparable”.
Sotheby’s has announced that an edition of Reclining Figure: Festival will be sold at its flagship November modern art sale in New York.
It has an estimate of $30m-$40m (£27.2m-£36.2m), the highest ever placed on a work by Moore or any work by a British sculptor. The current auction record is held by another edition of Reclining Figure, which sold for £24.7m in 2016 when the estimate was £15m-£20m.
Moore, by then one the world’s most celebrated sculptors, was commissioned by the Arts Council to make a piece for the Festival of Britain in London.
The work was seen by some as a thrilling representation of British defiance and resilience following the second world war. Others were shocked by it, suggesting Moore was occupied by images of the horrors at Nazi concentration camps or the aftermath of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.
There were also less lofty reactions, perhaps summed up by a Fougasse cartoon of Moore’s sculpture for Punch in 1951, which was captioned: “That reminds me, dear – did you remember the sandwiches?”
Some people passionately hated it. A storm kicked off after Leeds city council agreed to accept the work by Moore – the Castleford-born son of a miner who studied at Leeds School of Art – on long-term loan.
One Yorkshire Post letter writer asked: “Must Leeds always be the dumping ground for every freak that can be performed by painters and sculptors?”
Another, writing from the Old Vicarage in Wetherby, said the sculpture appeared to represent “a human form in an advanced stage of decomposition which has been disembowelled, partially decapitated and had both feet severed … I read that the Leeds Art Gallery subcommittee have accepted it. I trust they will have it decently interred.”
Those views were echoed by the modernism-hating painter Sir Alfred Munnings, a former president of the Royal Academy, who called it a “monstrosity”.
Moore declined to get involved in the row. “For the artist himself to enter into these controversies is, I think, wrong,” he said. “These things sort themselves out in the long run. If I entered into the controversies, I should never get any work done.”
Reclining Figure was removed from display in 1956 and lent to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in 1961, entering its collection in 1969. It remains there, happily, today.
The original plaster sculpture of Reclining Figure is in the Tate collection and other casts are in museum collections including the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris.
Sotheby’s is selling the only one of an edition of seven that was kept by the Moore family, one that travelled the world when it was lent to a major British Council exhibition in the 1950s. It was sold privately in the 1970s and its sale on 14 November will be the first time this cast has appeared at auction.
Moore recognised that the work would be a milestone in his career and worked with BBC film-maker John Read to document the process.
Oliver Barker, the chair of Sotheby’s Europe, said the work was in the top rank of 20th-century sculptures. “It is a very innovative work which was completely in tune with the mood of postwar London,” he said.
He accepted the work was not liked by everyone, but said: “All great art often divides crowds. If you think about Guernica, it was very contentious when it first came out. All great art provokes. Since then it has just become more and more celebrated.
“There is something very radical about this sculpture. Often with a sculpture there is a weak moment, you look at it from a particular angle and it doesn’t quite work. But with this, there is no weak moment. It is universally fantastic.”