Arts feature

Antony Gormley on why sculpture is far superior to painting

In an extract from their book, Antony Gormley tells Martin Gayford that the 3-D will always trump the 2-D

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Antony Gormley: In the beginning was the thing! The reason I chose sculpture as a vocation was to escape words, to communicate in a physical way. It was a means of confronting the way things were, of getting to know them in material terms.

The origins of making physical objects go back to before the advent of Homo sapiens, earlier even than the appearance of our Neanderthal cousins. Sculpture emerges from material culture. At the beginning there was an urge to make objects and you could argue that making them was the catalyst for the emergence of the modern mind.

Martin Gayford: The earliest sculpture so far discovered is often held to be a little figure that is an amalgam of an animal and a man’s body: two easily recognisable items stuck together; you might say this is a three-dimensional collage. It’s called the ‘Löwenmensch’ or ‘Lion Man’ (though some have wondered if it’s actually a cave bear, or female, a lioness-woman). Homo erectus made beautiful axes and many early hominoids collected stones with shapes that reminded them of animals or faces. But as far as we know only Homo sapiensmade images of things that don’t exist: a person with the head of a lion or a bull with wings.

AG: At Blombos Cave in South Africa in 2008 archaeologists found pieces of ochre, an iron-rich mineral, which had been deliberately incised with lines. They were in a layer dated to around 75,000 BCE. There were abalone seashells used as palettes, and also many types of ochre pigment, bits of ochre that have been rubbed. The site has been described as a pigment-processing workshop.

This yellow colour was evidently very important to the people who used this place. Blombos Cave is like a spaceship from tens of thousands of years ago. It’s clear that there was active art going on then, perhaps involving drawing and painting directly onthe body. This was the first canvas: the body as a place of transformation where — through dance — the work of art, sculpture, was performed.

Human beings have found it necessary to remake the body for themselves in order to understand it — both as an object and as a place among other places. In the earliest signs of artistic activity, the question of authorship and whose body was represented by whom was collapsed by drawing on and from the body directly, both in ritualised body painting and the hand stencil. It is here that you first find the intuition that bodies can be inhabited empathically. In other words, the painted, decorated or costumed body is transformed and can take on the character of another life form, or even a mountain. This bodily transformation allows the mind of the viewer to dwell in that of another.

MG: The hand stencils made in many caves by prehistoric people look like freeze-frames from a dance: a crowd of remote ancestors waving to us across a gulf of time. Analysis of the hand silhouettes found in many prehistoric sites throughout the world — in South America and Indonesia as well as Europe — has revealed that a large majority of them are silhouettes of female hands. Did they belong to the artists themselves? For many centuries — indeed until modern times — there are very few records of women sculptors. So it’s worth holding on to the idea that quite possibly the earliest artists were women; and perhaps that continued to be the case for tens of thousands of years.

AG: When you visit the caves where prehistoric people made art, it’s difficult not to think that the first marks made there were the direct transference of the body to the wall — either as silhouettes or direct handprints. Pliny’s tale of the Corinthian maid tracing the silhouette of her boyfriend’s shadow on the wall, and thus initiating figurative art, not only contains a very fundamental idea about the dawn of drawing but also about the dawn of three-dimensional form. She first drew the outline and her father then used that as the basis for a portrait relief in clay.

MG: The first artists may have been female, as we’ve just seen, but many of the subjects definitely were. At numerous sites in Europe and as far as the Indus Valley, small figures have been found representing women with bodies as weightily substantial as one of Lucian Freud’s models, the benefits supervisor. Whoever made them had looked hard at a real woman’s body.


AG: Why is it the prehistoric figures somewhat erroneously known as Venuses still have such potency? These are tiny objects and seem to be connected with childbirth and reproduction. I’m really interested in the degree to which the fertility figure is often made out of the earth itself. The Venus of Lespugue is mammoth ivory and so is the Hohle Fels Venus, but the Venus of Dolni Vestonice is mud.

Counter to the ‘formalistic’ fascination of Lespugue, the Venus of Hohle Fels doesn’t have that kind of elegance as it is gnarly and cut through with many striations. The Venus of Lespugue, for me and for many sculptors, is the great example (see p35). It is extraordinary to reflect that at a time when maybe as few as 100,000 Homo sapienslived in Europe, somebody made this remarkable piece. I think it was probably carved by a woman looking down at her own body, feeling it from within.

The idea of the potential of life to replace itself was implicitly understood by our ancient ancestors; they saw it in the bilateral symmetry of the body that replicated the two sides of a bivalve shell, the double sides of a walnut, the split in a plum or in a single grain of wheat. What we now know as mytosis or cell division seems inherent in the expanding ovoid forms of the Venus of Lespugue, balanced and bulging like some fruit. It encompasses a profound abstract thought: saying that within the fruit-like forms of the female body a deeper understanding of life’s continuity exists.

AG: The fundamental difference between sculpture and painting is that a sculpture changes the world instantly by bringing something into it that wasn’t there before. It’s that capacity to change, rather than reproduce, which arguably makes sculpture into the pre-eminent art. Sculpture asks the world to stand aside and give it a place, whereas painting depends on the wall. For much of its history, painting has been a window on to another world and thus dependent on a model. Objectively it’s weak; it needs a stretcher, a wall, a building — it needs shelter.

A painted surface has to have a support. Sculpture doesn’t. It can just be out there in the elements. Their effect on it, if it’s a good sculpture, will only improve it.

MG: I’m amazed — and amused — to discover the ancient dispute between sculpture and painting is still alive in the 21st century! During the Renaissance, comparing the different arts like this — painting versus sculpture, music versus poetry — was a popular intellectual parlour game. In Italian it is called the paragone— the comparison. It’s good to hear it’s still carrying on. I suspect this conversation may turn into the paragone, revisited.

AG: Yes, in one way or another the question of sculpture vs painting has been discussed for a very long time. There was a very early controversy about the parietal art — images on walls — as against moveable, three-dimensional objects. Which came first? In fact, it seems that in Palaeolithic times they emerged together. You can see that in the caves. Sculpture, like painting, comes out of the urge to form.

MG: It’s true there are paintings made by prehistoric people, and also drawings cut into rock walls. Carved and modelled animals sometimes bulge out of the floor or walls as if they were escaping from the pictures. That interplay between 2-D and 3-D art has carried on, more or less from that time to this…

A picture, like the ones on these pages, can represent a sculpture. And conversely, a sculpture — no matter how ‘abstract’ — can evoke or suggest a painting.

AG: Or make you feel as if you are ina painting! For me, visiting ‘Lightning Field’ in New Mexico in 1979 was like that — and was a life-changing experience. It is a work by Walter De Maria; the artist Vicken Parsons and I went there soon after it was commissioned, before we got married.

The ‘Lightning Field’ consists of 400 rods, two inches in diameter and sharply pointed at the upper end, situated in an area one mile long by one kilometre wide. They are 220ft apart, and the ground is hard and rough with saxifrage and tumbleweed growing in sparse clumps. It was difficult at first to distinguish between the heat haze and these stainless-steel poles that reflected so perfectly the blue of the sky. The plateau is ringed by blue mountains that seemed very far away.

We found ourselves in a forest of vertical poles, widely spaced, that became a materialisation of the air. The work is on a raised plateau 7,200ft above sea level. The sharpened ends describe a perfect horizontal plane that floats between about 16 and 25 feet above the varying undulations of the topography of the ground. The metal was smooth to touch, slightly warm and the avenues that went in all directions diagonally and at 90º led you into the distance.

As the evening wore on, these sky-reflecting rods changed colour; as the sky darkened, they became more golden, reflecting the light of the sun as it set. From being almost invisible with the sun high in the sky, ‘Lightning Field’ became a dance of complementary opposites; a dialogue of golden needles against the blue of infinite space. It is as if this place was a filter in which all your bodily perceptions were heightened. I was aware of breathing, of the heart beating, of the sun and the shadow side of my body.

MG: As with many monumental works —the prehistoric alignments at Carnac in Brittany are another example — photographs are of only limited help. One photo is never sufficient! To understand ‘Lightning Field’, you really have to experience it, to stand in the middle of it, in changing light. The very remoteness is part of the experience, so is the fact you have to make an appointment, are met and driven into this wilderness and have to stay overnight in a cabin.

AG: It is tempting to see something like this as a kind of scientific experiment or technological replay of a megalithic monument like Carnac or Stonehenge. After all, ‘Lightning Field’ was originally intended to attract and become an attractive matrix for displays of forked lightning from electrical storms that are frequent in that area of New Mexico. In fact, it is closer to J.M.W. Turner and the idea of immersing human perception in a field of changing light. However, it is no longer about looking at a picture, but of being in the picture.

MG: There is an element of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better about the relationship between these two modes of visual art, 2-D and 3-D, stretching back into the past. Jan van Eyck seems to be playing just that game in his ‘Annunciation Diptych’. In this, he painted wonderfully naturalistic pictures of sculpted figures…

One Renaissance artist who left a record of his views in the painting vs sculpture debate was Leonardo da Vinci. Going against the Florentine tradition, which stressed the importance of understanding forms and volumes, especially those of the human body, he argued that painting was the supreme art, able to depict the entire cosmos and everything in it. Predictably, Michelangelo disagreed.

AG: And not surprisingly, I agree with Michelangelo. Painting is always going to be secondary. Sculpture’s a kind of displacement of space that invites a reappraisal of everything — including, if it’s really working well, your own inhabitation of your own body. Therefore, the potential of sculpture as an agent of transformation — if that’s what we think art can be — is so much greater than that of painting.

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Shaping the World: Sculpture from Pre-History to Now, by Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford, is published by Thames & Hudson.

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