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Moore than meets the eye

PUBLISHED: 10:01 21 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:25 01 July 2010

Ian Collins

Those who could never afford to hang a Picasso on the wall, could at least have Henry Moore curtains in the windows. IAN COLLINS hails the late great sculptor's textile designs about to go on show in Norwich.

Those who could never afford to hang a Picasso on the wall, could at least have Henry Moore curtains in the windows. IAN COLLINS hails the late great sculptor's textile designs about to go on show in Norwich.

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An expert on 20th century textiles once told me of her recurring nightmare picturing the selection - and rejection - process by the worthy women of Oxfam and other charity shops.

She reckoned that material treasures - of the sort she regularly found at Norfolk car-boot sales - were discarded because memories of earlier life, and of the decoration in parental homes, prompted the opposite of nostalgia.

And so relics that should have gone to museums went at best to recycling bins. The Henry Moore Textiles exhibition, which begins next week at the Sainsbury Centre, has the kind of wonderful things that expert had in mind.

At first glance it may seem odd that the most monumental force in 20th century British sculpture should have been interested in the fashioning of fabric, given that his stylish hallmark was the reclining female figure which many imagine to be naked.

In fact, as confirmed in the excellent Moore exhibition now at Tate Britain, he was almost as interested in drapery as anatomy - those Tube station sleepers are adrift in a sea of coats and blankets; bronze figures recline in ripples of comforting cloth.

What's most surprising is how, in the depths of the Blitz, Henry Moore - who had made his name before the war as the master of austere and monochrome abstraction - leapt on colour with a passion.

He loved women, of course. He stayed with his sister Mary in the early-1920s when she taught at Wighton village school near Wells, and was forever close to his mother. In Norfolk he collected female-shaped flints and dreamed of marrying one of the big-limbed and full-blooded local lasses who would throng through his art.

By early 1943 he knew the Czech textile manufacturer Zika Ascher and his wife Lida, who had escaped the Nazi invasion of their country by dint of being abroad on their honeymoon.

Settling in London, the exiles established a new textile manufacturing company - commissioning leading artists to create designs for scarves, to be produced in silk, rayon and parachute nylon.

Moore went beyond his brief with designs for dress and upholstery fabric. And by the late 1940s he was experimenting with limited-edition textile panels comprising single figure motifs which could be hung as works of art in themselves.

True to his socialist beliefs, the artist thought that modern art - and his art in particular - should be accessible to everyone and at the heart of every home. So in the Coronation year of 1953, Manchester's Daily Despatch trilled: “We can't all afford to hang a Picasso on the wall - but very soon we'll be having curtains at the windows!”

They certainly did at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, where Irina Moore ran up curtains and bedspreads from her husband's not-always-cosy designs.

Taking his inspiration from the world around him, he based his images on familiar flints and females but also on caterpillars, sea creatures and piano keys.

And, most bizarrely, he acknowledged the Cold War in a pattern of barbed wire, and pre-dated punk fashion by several decades in focusing on the safety pin.

The Barbed Wire fabric even appeared in the 1947 British film They Made Me a Fugitive. They Made Her a Fetching Dress.

But the drab colours of Utility Clothing in the 1940s and 1950s were blasted by Moore's use of vivid reds and purples, pinks and greens. And he jolted the subdued air of the time with dramatic swirls and dazzling zigzags.

The great thing about the Sainsbury Centre is the links to be drawn with the permanent collection - between art and craft and between place and period.

The treasure house on the UEA campus has a fabulous array of pots by Lucie Rie, who got out of Vienna on the eve of the war

and then made ends meet during the conflict by making ceramic buttons.

They should spur a future show in Norwich - for the great Japanese designer Issey Miyaki was inspired to build an entire fashion collection around a few war-time buttons.

t Henry Moore Textiles runs at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from June 22-August 29. Open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm. Combined summer admission with the show Unearthed £8 (£4 cons). Entry to the permanent collection remains free. 01603 593199, www.scva.ac.uk

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