Moody, Ronald 1900–1984
Ronald Moody 1900–1984
The Jamaican sculptor Ronald Moody created a distinctive, monumental style of wood sculpture that had many ramifications and reverberations in the art world for much of the 20th century. He lived in England for much of his long life, influenced several generations of younger artists of Caribbean origin there, and also was well known in African-American art circles. Moody’s imposing and deeply spiritual sculptures, arising out of long studies of ancient Egyptian art, seemed premonitions of the linkages between African sensibilities and the art of the ancient world that many observers would discover later in the century.
Ronald Clive Moody was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on August 12, 1900. Growing up in a financially comfortable middle-class family, he studied at Jamaica’s Calabar College and was then expected, like other Jamaicans of his background, to go to England for further professional study. Settling on a career in dentistry, he enrolled at Kings College of London University in 1923. Already, though, Moody’s interests were leading him in a more creative direction.
Fascinated by metaphysical questions of good and evil, he began to read the classics of Indian and Chinese philosophy—studies which would have an impact on his art later on. Then Moody began to spend much of his spare time at the British Museum, an enormous collection of antiquities and cultural items from all over the world. Encountering the museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian sculptures he was overwhelmed by their “tremendous inner force [and] irresistible movement in stillness,” as he was quoted as saying in the Grove Dictionary of Art. Soon after that visit, Moody began making sculptures himself.
Graduating with his dentistry degree in 1930, Moody had already become a competent artist (he was entirely self-taught) and had decided to take his life in a new direction. His breakthrough to recognition in the British art world came when he began to make sculptures out of wood; through much of his career, the exploration of new materials would stimulate Moody’s creative thinking. In his wood sculptures critics have noted the unique effects produced by his sensitivity to the grain and inner markings of the piece of wood he was using.
When Moody began to fuse his new mastery of wood with his creative thinking about the ancient art he had encountered, he produced the first in a series of masterworks that would last a long lifetime. His first major work, Wohin (the title, taken from that of a song by classical composer Franz Schubert, is German, and means “where to?”), was produced in 1934. That piece and other Moody sculptures of the 1930s were large heads that reflected his studies of Egyptian and Buddhist art. They seemed silent, calm, and yet deeply powerful and inspiring in a religious way. Little interested in the nationalist themes of other Caribbean artists of the day, Moody stood somewhat apart from his Jamaican compatriots and even from his brother Harold, a political activist.
At a Glance…
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on August 12, 1900; died in London, England, February 6, 1984; married Helene, 1938. Education: Attended Calabar College, Jamaica; Kings College, London University, London, England, degree in dentistry, 1930.
Career: Sculptor. Moved to England to study dentistry, 1923; became a self-taught artist and also studied Eastern philosophy on his own, 1920s; created first major sculpture, Wohin, 1934; works exhibited in major English galleries, 1934 37; first exhibition in Paris, 1937; exhibitions in group shows of contemporary black art in U.S., late 1930s; moved to Paris, 1938; fled Paris ahead of German occupation, 1940; returned via Spain to England, 1941; art influenced by wartime experiences, 1940s and 1950s; created Carib-inspired Savacou for University of West Indies, 1964; numerous essays on art, 1950s-1980s.
Awards: Musgrave Gold Medal (Jamaican arts award), 1977; Centenary Medal, Jamaica Institute, 1980.
Moody’s work began to be exhibited, not only in major British galleries, but also in the notoriously competitive French art world. Newly married to his wife Helene, he moved to Paris in 1938. His work also attracted notice in the United States among gallery owners and collectors who specialized in the work of black artists, and his sculptures were included in major group shows organized at the Baltimore Museum in 1939 and at the American Negro Exposition the following year.
The German capture of Paris early in World War II found Moody in that city; he was forced to abandon a large number of sculptures as he fled to the Mediterranean seaport of Marseilles, then over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, and finally back to England in October of 1941 nearly a year later. The sculptures were later recovered. This journey and the difficult conditions of life in wartime London took their toll on Moody’s health; he suffered from tuberculosis after the war. He continued to create sculptures, however, at one point forging a work from parts of a junked railroad car.
During his long recovery from tuberculosis Moody began to write about art, an activity that would continue for much of the rest of his life. A major influence on his works of the postwar period was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; to the philosophical quality of his earlier art was added a fundamental pessimism about the violence of which humans were capable. Once again, Moody turned to new materials to express his ideas. In the 1950s he began to work in concrete and in synthetic materials, often incorporating abstract elements and dramatic contrasts in texture and shape. He also became known for his sculptural portraits of living individuals; many of these used the unusual material of copper resin (or another metal resin). In 1968 Moody produced a well-known portrait of the pioneer African-American actor Paul Robeson.
Well into his 60s by that time, at an age when most artists have settled into a tried-and-true style and a comfortable teaching career, Moody had already embarked on yet another new stylistic phase of his career. He had begun to draw inspiration from his homeland of Jamaica, and in 1964 created Savacou, a large outdoor parrot figure inspired by Carib Indian beliefs. The sculpture was intended for the campus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, and when Moody went there to attend the unveiling of the work, he set foot on Jamaican soil for the first time in 41 years.
The year 1967 saw the founding of the Caribbean Artists Movement, a London-based cultural renaissance that encompassed literature, criticism, music, and general intellectual and political debate in addition to visual art. Moody served as both elder statesman to the movement and as an active participant in it; he still declined to adopt the political tone of many of the movement’s activities, but it had become clear to one and all how much he had done to promote a distinctive black aesthetic among Caribbean-born residents of Great Britain.
In the last decade of his life, Moody was widely honored; he received the Musgrave Gold Medal, Jamaica’s leading arts award, in 1977. His reputation was eclipsed somewhat in the mainstream art world of the 1970s, obsessed as that world was with experimental modernism. But after Moody’s death in London on February 6, 1984, his works were favored with a resurgence of interest. The Tate Gallery, one of Britain’s most important museums, acquired his sculpture Johanaan in 1992, and his works also reside in other prominent museum collections.
Johanaan (Peace), 1936.
Midonz (Goddess of Transmutation), 1937.
Sleeper Mask, 1943.
Harold Moody, 1946.
Time Hiroshima, 1967’.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, ed., Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary, Boston Public Library, 1973.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997. (Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale Group, 2001.)
Walmsley, Anne, “The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966 1972: A Space and a Voice for Visual Practice,” in Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966 1996, Caribbean Cultural Center, 1997.
The New Grove Dictionary of Art Online, Grove’s Dictionaries, 2000, http://www.groveart.com
—James M. Manheim
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