How Henry Moore Portrayed Nuclear Energy Through Sculpture
Jun 21, 2019
As you stroll along South Ellis Avenue on the bucolic campus of the University of Chicago, you come upon an unusual abstract form protruding from a cement plaza next to The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. Titled “Nuclear Energy” the form is a sculpture by Henry Moore, one of the most influential abstract artists of the 20th Century. Rounded and smooth on top, pierced by holes throughout the center, and supported by a series of rough-hewn columns below, the form might, on a good day, remind you of a jelly fish. Or, if you are of a darker mindset, you might perceive it as Moore intended—as an abstract representation of an atomic mushroom cloud. The sculpture commemorates a mixed blessing for humanity: the first controlled, self sustaining nuclear reaction. Precious few students, faculty members and residents of neighboring Hyde Park have any idea that the most important moment of the atomic age occurred below their very feet, in an underground racquet court beneath a no longer extant football field on this spot. University officials unveiled “Nuclear Energy” at exactly 3:36 p.m. on 2 December 1967, precisely 25 years to the minute after a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working for the Manhattan Project, achieved the ominous landmark. Though the football field and its secret squash court laboratory were long ago demolished, this symbolic bronze memorial marks their former home as hallowed ground.
Hopes and Fears
The story of how a British sculptor came to design an abstract monument to nuclear power in Chicago begins with a much different type of energy: wood. When University of Chicago officials first decided to memorialize this historic achievement that had taken place on their campus, they acquired funding from the Benjamin F. Ferguson Monuments Fund. Ferguson was an industrialist who made his money annihilating the old growth cyprus forests of South Carolina. A Chicago native, he used his fortune in part to fund public sculptures throughout the city. He was no pacifist, nor especially were the University officials. They decided to commission an abstract monument, which would detract attention away from nuclear war, and perhaps even seem hopeful. They must have contacted Moore because of his reputation as an abstractionist, without realizing that he was in fact staunchly anti-nuclear war, as evidenced by his association with groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the National Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests, and the Hertford Group of Nuclear Disarmament.
Moore nonetheless accepted the commission, intent on creating something that would speak to both sides of the atomic power issue. He chose a form that grew out of his long research into armaments—specifically, war helmets. Moore was injured in a gas attack during combat while fighting for Britain in World War I. For decades afterwards, he repeatedly visited a museum of armor in London called the Wallace Collection. An exhibition currently on view there notes that Moore cited the helmets in the museum as inspiration for sculptures such as “The Helmet” (1939), “Helmet Head No. 1” and “Helmet Head No. 2” (1950). Moore was fascinated by the notion of something strong acting as a protective shell for something fragile. He adapted the helmet form for the Chicago sculpture, saying of it, “The upper part is connected with the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion, but also has the shape and eye sockets of a skull. One might think of the lower part of it being a protective form and constructed for human beings and the top being more like the idea of the destructive side of the atom. So between the two it might express to people in a symbolic way the whole event.”
Henry Moore - Helmet Head No.2, 1950. Bronze. Height 34 cm. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
An Unsettling Peace
The original title Moore gave the sculpture was not “Nuclear Energy.” He named it “Atom Piece.” At the ceremony to unveil the sculpture, William McNeill, a professor of history at the University, announced its official renaming, stating, “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.” This sleight against Moore may not have been alarming to many people in the United States, but imagine how it sounded to British audiences; or worse, to the only beings who have ever actually experienced the horrific destructive power of nuclear weapons. In fact, a working model for this sculpture is part of the permanent collection the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan. The model is about the size of a human head. It bears the name “Atom Piece.” Though minuscule in scale compared to the full size monument, there can be little doubt what the form evokes to viewers in that locale—it is undeniably a symbol of war.
Perhaps it would be interesting if the two works swapped locations. Maybe the University of Chicago could put to better use the human head-sized version to exploit the humanistic aspects of nuclear energy. The people of Hiroshima could then enjoy the full size sculpture, since they appreciate the full range of symbolism Moore intended for the piece. Then again, the culture at the University of Chicago has, perhaps, changed somewhat since the days when it seemed so necessary to rename an artwork strictly for public relations purposes. Some evidence to that effect was presented in 2017, on the 50th anniversary of the installation of the sculpture, when the University invited Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects to install a temporary companion sculpture alongside “Nuclear Energy.” Made of 75 thick, black rubber cords, the installation was “based on computational modeling of unstable processes.” The intervention referenced not only the unstable process of nuclear reactions, but also the unstable processes of war, and maybe official censorship. That was a good start. However, as the 80th anniversary of “Nuclear Energy” approaches in 2022, it might be time to make a real statement, and restore the dignity of this sculpture by officially renaming it as Moore intended.
Featured image: Henry Moore - The Helmet, 1939–40. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio