Gormley and Moore

So Edinburgh is to have a sculptural work by Anthony Gormley. Well, it’s a keeping- up-with-the-Jones thing much less destructive than the bringing of the trams to the city. And more popular too: the general public are very relaxed about having our green and pleasant land covered with casts of this sculptor’s body. He certainly is a very effective entrepreneur, and one with clout. On his way to Edinburgh Gormley noticed that some trees were partially obscuring a view of his Angel of the North – known locally as the Gateshead Flasher – and he has had an assurance that they will be cut down.

I do wonder if Gormley ever thinks of what happened to Henry Moore. Moore became too successful for his own good. He snapped up commissions at home and abroad and younger sculptors felt blocked out. After his death his popularity waned. Some of his works were even removed from their public sites. Critics suggested that his disciple, Barbara Hepworth, was the better sculptor.

Moore did become a bit too ubiquitous. And perhaps there were just too many variations on his reclining-figure theme. But I, for one, never doubted his genius. When I visited the Picasso/Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern several years ago, there was a sculpture by Moore of a woman sitting on some steps exhibited in the central hall. I knew it previously from a maquette in Aberdeen Art Gallery. Seeing this larger version, I found it more impressive than the neo- classical works by Picasso in the main show. Although there was a nod to the Parthenon sculptures in the treatment of the drapery, it did not invite the prefix ‘neo’, often suggesting superficiality in art jargon. The sculpture by Moore that is at once a reclining figure and a landscape with cliffs and stacks, which for years has been stuck out at the back of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art like rubbish awaiting collection, is a wonderful work. The Falling Warrior is another great piece and I was recently taken by a more abstract work, in the grounds of the museums in Munich. Currently, there is a Moore revival.

Sooner or later, I predict the public and the art world will become bored with Gormley’s works dotted around town and country, here and overseas. Moore has come back now. Is there enough substance in the Gormley oeuvre to trigger a similar re-assessment when the time comes?

The World in a Hundred Objects and Appreciating Art

As I often listen to Radio 4 when working, I have heard a good part of Neil MacGregor’s series The World in a Hundred Objects. He brings a great deal of background knowledge to the artefacts he discusses and I have found it fascinating. I will certainly seek out reproductions of some of these pieces and have been asking myself how the information I have gained from the talks will affect my enjoyment of them. While I agree with Dr Johnson when he said ‘There is no item of information, however insignificant, which I would not rather know than not know’, I have come to the conclusion that the intentions of the creator of an object have very little relevance when we give to it the status of a work of art. The knowledge conveyed by Dr MacGregor gives a satisfaction of a different sort.

This area of aesthetics was discussed by Edgar Wind in his Reith Lectures, Art and Anarchy in the early sixties. In one of the lectures, entitled The Fear of Knowledge, he arrived at a theory of vision which he opposed to Clive Bell’s view that ‘the representational elemental in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant.’ Because I have more interest in representational art than abstract art, I am not in agreement with Bell, but that does not lead me to believe with Wind that the intellectual ideas that may have been involved in the conception of a work of art are central to its appreciation. Experience has taught me differently. I am not religious but most paintings of the Virgin and Child can be appreciated merely as mother-with-baby images, even if some of them have rather ridiculous saucer shapes around the figures’ heads. On the other hand, if there is too much divinely ‘sent’ heaven gazing in a work on a religious theme, it will not work for me, although I know what that is all about. I tend to be familiar with the stories behind the forty-odd panels Duccio painted for his Maesta, but my interest is in the inventive compositions that the narratives inspired. They do not aid me in worship. My point is that works of art survive if we find in them some relevance to our contemporary concerns, which may be about deep human feeling or merely decorative delight.

A bit of personal history demonstrates to me how little iconographic detail impacts on the appeal of works of art. When, as a schoolboy, I first saw reproductions of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, which I immediately liked, I used to wonder why there was a decapitated head of a donkey in the foreground. Years later I came across the explanation. Today, I have completely forgotten what it was. But it makes no difference to my love of the painting.