Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North and its landscape setting

The Angel of Death and the Angel of the North

The Angel of Death and the Angel of the North

Gormley is one of my favorite sculptors. I often wish he had taken a course in landscape design but, more often, I wish landscape architects had taken courses in sculpture. The Angel was finished 16 years ago today and the BBC has just played an ‘on this day’ clip of a speech he made at its opening. Gormley explained: ‘I want to convey what it is to be alive at the end of the twentieth century – its immense potential and immense danger’. For me, this encapsulates one of the big things artists should be doing: using images to ‘say’ something about the nature of life.
The above images are from Wikipedia. It has many images which show the sculpture looking good (eg right above) and very few showing it as most people see it from the road (eg left above). From the road is how I normally see it and my usual thought is ‘he should have made it higher’. But with the explanation I heard today I am not so sure. Were it higher, the sculpture would say more about ‘opportunities’ and less about ‘dangers’. Ambiguity is its own message – between the spirituality of an angel and the tragedy of a plane crash or a dying steel industry in the north of England.

10 thoughts on “Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North and its landscape setting

  1. Christine

    It is common of post-modern artists to leave the semantics to the viewer and allow the richness of possible interpretations to surface. This is not to say that the artist themselves did not intend the work to have a particular meaning or even to be highly ambiguous. However, some works acquire meanings unintended by their authors due to the zeitgeist. So the sculpture could potentially acquire any, all or none of the meanings you mentioned.

    An interesting example of this is Blue Poles (No 11, 1952). [,_1952_(painting) ]

    “The purchase elicited a great deal of public discussion; according to art historian Patrick McCaughey, “never had such a picture moved and disturbed the Australian public”.[3] The debate centred around the painting’s record selling price, at the time a world record for a contemporary American painting, as well as the perceived financial ineptitude of Whitlam’s Labor Party government and debate over the relative value of abstract art.[4][5] In the conservative climate of the time, the purchase created a political and media scandal.[6]”

    Looking at the decision to purchase Blue Poles now:

    “The purchase of Blue Poles is still frequently cited by the Labor Party faithful as proof of the wisdom of Gough Whitlam.[citation needed] Estimates of the painting’s present value vary widely, from $20 million to $100 million,[3] but its increased value has at least shown it to have been a worthwhile purchase from a financial point of view.[4][5]”

    The painting within the work of Pollack:

    “In 1998, Blue Poles left Australia for the first time since its purchase for inclusion in a Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York which ran from November 1, 1998 to February 2, 1999.[7] The painting was the signature work of the exhibition,[4] and as described in a review, it “dominated” the last gallery of the show, ending it “not with a whimper, but a bang”.[7]

    The painting within art history:

    Some say it is the most important work within the American Abstract Expressionism movement. Pollock used ‘action painting’ to fight against ‘authority’. (The established art world). It is said that Pollock’s “radical reformation of the art world fundamentally changed the parameters of the art world.”

    The painting within contemporary culture:

    It has inspired a vineyard![ ] And is also supposed to be influential in fractual expressionism – a trend which is still working its way through design and art cycles today. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I admire Jackson Pollock and have even tried to paint as he does. Also, I think it is fair enough for an artist to say ‘that’s it – work it out yourself’. But I have visited the Saatchi Gallery twice in the past few months. On the first visit only a few works attracted my attention and admiration. On the second visit I had a guide who had written a catalogue for the exhibition. He was much more skilled than the artists in making work interesting and attractive. So, if artists want their work to be appreciated, I think they need to explain it themselves or get someone to do it for them. I do not know if this has always been necessary or it is a post-Impressionism trend. A related point is that ‘the art of today’ (trying to avoid ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’) is as much in need of ‘framing’ (often without conventional ‘frames’) as the work of past centuries. The owners of the Blue Poles might ‘frame’ their vineyard as a work of art, had they a mind to do so.

  2. Christine

    It is an interesting question where the boundaries of things lie. I am sure that it is OK to paint like Jackson Pollack as long as you don’t pretend to be Jackson Pollock, or to pass off your work as his.

    The question about the reception of artwork is also very interesting. Should a work attract attention and admiration in and off itself – or should the theory of the artist and other external factors be essential for art appreciation?

    The first expectation says something about the nature of ‘visual’ arts. While the second expectation says something about an educated audience.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      My very modest efforts could never be mistaken for Jackson Pollack. They were done by dripping paint but I used only one colour and the paint came from a washing-up liquid bottle. Also, I added something else: the ‘paintings’ were done in a windy place.
      I am not an art historian but I think it has very often been important to understand works of art. I can’t say that it has always been necessary, because we can often appreciate things without understanding them, but if one thinks about the following examples then an intention to explain/communicate was important to the creator: Egyptian Art, Greek Art, Roman Art, Medieval Art, Renaissance Art, Impressionist Art, Modern Art, Postmodern Art – to name a few.

  3. Christine

    Hmmm. Yes, the question of art appreciation to some extent might be found within the institutional context of art – with the curator, the critic, the historian and others involved in the non-production roles.

    The question of appropriating and recasting or reframing art is an interesting too – and to some extent goes to the question of art appreciation.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    ‘Institutional context’ is a very good phrase and obviously includes the financial circumstances (traditionally a client) which make production of a work possible. Authors take an interest but it is not something I have read about in exhibition catalogues or reviews.
    Eg: Noah Horrowitz Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market ‘Art today is defined by its relationship to money as never before. Prices of living artists’ works have been driven to unprecedented heights, conventional boundaries within the art world have collapsed, and artists now think ever more strategically about how to advance their careers. Artists no longer simply make art, but package, sell, and brand it. Noah Horowitz exposes the inner workings of the contemporary art market, explaining how this unique economy came to be, how it works, and where it’s headed. He takes a unique look at the globalization of the art world and the changing face of the business, offering the clearest analysis yet of how investors speculate in the market and how emerging art forms such as video and installation have been drawn into the commercial sphere. By carefully examining these developments against the backdrop of the deflation of the contemporary art bubble in 2008, Art of the Deal is a must-read book that demystifies collecting and investing in today’s art market.’

  5. Christine

    Yes. But the day to day operations of the art market are not always accurate reflections of the art that emerges in an art history context. Think about the many contemporaries of the Impressionists whose work was being exhibited at the time, commanded high prices and yet today have no place in art history.

    It would be interesting to do a separate analysis of the art market over time. But this idea is pretty much a secondary concern. I am sure the art market remains stable enough over the short term for the financial aspects of collecting and investing to still essentially function.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      ‘History’ has an advantage over us because it knows what came after us. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be of little interest to us but for what followed. Maybe there is nothing new in influence of money on artists but I watched a highly skilled painter painting murals in Ladakh and two things struck me: he was completely within the tradition and it seemed a humble job like any other. I wonder if he was preparing pigments in traditional ways or whether he had tubes of acrylics: I should have looked.

  6. Christine

    Yes, there is a difference between sacred and secular art. This is particularly so in the Eastern church where the monks prayerfully and anonymously paint icons. Perhaps the buddhist monks of Ladakh are in this tradition of sacred art?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *