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Indepth Arts News:

"Ronald Moody 1900 – 1984: A Reputation Restored"
2003-03-24 until 2003-05-30
Tate Britain
London, , UK United Kingdom

Self-taught wood-carver Ronald Moody, a former dentist born in Jamaica, is revealed as one of Britain’s most remarkable Modernist sculptors in a new display at Tate Britain, writes Guy Brett. His hands rest lightly on the massive shoulders of his sculpture Johanaan. The great head, carved from elm, stares forward as if into remote space. In a striking photograph of 1963, Val Wilmer pictured the sculptor Ronald Moody in his studio in Fulham with this work which he had made almost thirty years earlier. It is now forty years since Wilmer's picture was taken, and Johanaan is finally on show as the centre piece of a display of Moody's wood-carvings at Tate Britain.

The sculpture's dignified calm and air of permanence is perhaps deceptive. This is the first time that Ronald Moody's work has been officially recognised as part of the mainstream of British art, although Moody, who was born in Jamaica, spent most of his working life in Britain, up to his death in 1984. Behind the Tate's exhibition, and its acquisition of Johanaan for the collection, lie the efforts of a number of people, notably Cynthia Moody, the artist's niece and trustee of his estate, to re-establish the sculptor's reputation, and, more broadly than this, to pressurise our national art institutions into recognising that the London art scene has long been a much richer and more diverse phenomenon than they have been prepared to acknowledge.

When work by a neglected artist like Moody is put on show we assume it appeared from nowhere, or from total obscurity. But as always there is a history. Moody's work was in fact recognised and in demand in at least four 'moments' in the art of the 20th century. His life story is woven with a cultural currents that are themselves being brought more and more to light.

Moody with Johanaan, 1936,
in Fleming Close Studio, Fulham, 1963.
Photograph © Valerie Wilmer.
Moody was born in 1900 in Kingston into a well-off professional family, and he lived there until he was 23. Bowing to his family's conventional outlook, Moody opted to study dentistry in London and by the mid-30s he was successfully established with a practice near Oxford Circus. However, he had one of those road-to-Demascus revelations, brought about by the experience of seeing the room of ancient Egyptian art in the British Museum and knew he wanted to be a sculptor. He immediately bought some plasticine and began to mould imaginary faces. Continuing with his dentistry for a while, he taught himself to carve. Thus, without any training or academic background, but with a powerful desire to find his own voice, he produced his first carved head in 1935, in oak, which he called Wohin (Whither), from the title of a Schubert song.

This marked his first episode of success. One of the first to notice him was Marie Seton, the writer and biographer of Sergei Eisenstein and Satyajit Ray. She was so impressed by Wohin, "this enormous, mysterious head", that she bought it and became close friends with the artist. Wohin was also seen by Alberto Cavalcanti, the Brazilian documentary film maker, then working in London, who arranged for Moody to have an exhibition in Paris. The success of his work on the continent encouraged Ronald to move to Paris in the late Thirties, and his life might have turned out very differently if the outbreak of the war in 1939 had not changed everything. After escaping from Paris he made an arduous journey through occupied France and across the Pyrenees into Spain. He caught pleurisy on the way, and when he eventually reached England in October 1941, his health was permanently effected.

A number of Moody's carvings were included in the 1939 exhibition Contemporary Negro Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the USA, a large survey show organised by the Harmon Foundation. Among them was his great female head, Midonz (1937). This marked his second scene of recognition. The show was a late expression of the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of black literature, art, music and performance in New York in the 1920s.

Meanwhile, Moody's Paris success followed him to London and from 1950 until the early 60s regular London exhibitions brought him a growing presence on the British art scene, a third moment in which his work was recognised. At the same time he was connected to another history. In 1931 Ronald's brother Harold Moody, who was a doctor, had founded the League of Coloured Peoples in London to combat the racial prejudice and discrimination he had encountered in Britain. Ronald was not interested in political activism but in the mid-1960s he did join the nascent Caribbean Artists Movement, whose important part in British intellectual life has been meticulously re-told in a recent book by Anne Walmsley (The Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972), New Beacon Books, 1992). CAM was mainly a writers' movement, but there were also at this time a number of independent galleries such as Signals and the New Vision Centre which pursued a policy of artistic internationalism in the face of Britain's fixation on the United States.

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