Published in August 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
What are the roots of 20th century art and how should artists relate to the past? Can our response to art transcend our own culture? Antony Gormley, Britain’s foremost sculptor and a recent winner of the Turner prize, discusses the purpose of art and much else, with Ernst Gombrich, the great art historian
Antony Gormley: You ought to know that it was reading your book The Story of Art at school that inspired my interest in art.
Ernst Gombrich: Really!
AG: It made the whole possibility not only of studying art but also of becoming an artist a reality.
EG: That’s very flattering and very surprising.
AG: I thought we might talk about the relationship of contemporary art to art history generally: what is necessary to retain and what we can discard.
EG: I would like to start with Field (see right). I’m interested in the psychology of perception; if a face emerges from a shape you are bound to see an expression. The Swiss inventor of the comic strip, Rodolphe T?er, says that one can acquire the fundamentals of practical physiognomy without ever actually having studied the face, head or human contours, but just through scribbling eyes, ears, and nose. Even a recluse, if he’s observant and persevering, could soon acquire all he needs to know about physiognomy to produce expressive faces. I have called this T?er’s law: the discovery that expressiveness does not depend on observation or skill but on self-observation.
AG: For me the extraordinary thing about the genesis of form of the individual figures in Field is that it isn’t about visual appearances at all. What I’ve encouraged people to do is to treat the clay almost as an extension of their own bodies. It’s about taking a ball of clay and using the space between the hands as a kind of mould out of which the form arises.
EG: Anyone who has ever played with clay has experienced this elemental form. It has played a crucial role in 20th century art. Picasso did it from morning to night, didn’t he? He just toyed with what would come out when he created these shapes. When we loosen the constraints of academic tradition we not only create an expressive physiognomy but an expressive shape, a more independent usage; that’s what we admire in children’s drawings. The basis of our whole relationship to the world, as babies or as toddlers, is that we make no distinction between animate and inanimate things: they all speak to us, they all have a kind of character or voice. If you think back to your childhood, not only toys but most things which you encounter have this very strong character or physiognomy as “beings” of some sort. I’m sure that this is one of the roots of 20th century art, to try to recapture this. It was too exciting to discover how creative and expressive the images made by children, the insane and the untutored were. It’s no wonder that artists longed to become like little children, to throw away the ballast of tradition that cramped their spontaneity and thus thwarted their creativity. But it’s no wonder also that new questions arose about the nature of art which were not so easily answered. Deprived of the armature of tradition and skill, art was in danger of collapsing into shapelessness. There were some who welcomed this collapse-the Dadaists and other varieties of anti-artists. But anti-artists only functioned as long as there was an art to rebel against, and this happy situation could hardly last. Whatever art may be, it cannot pursue a line of resistance. If the pursuit of creativity as such proves easy to the point of triviality then there is the need for new difficulties, new restraints. I believe that it would be possible to write the history of 20th century art not in terms of revolutions and the overthrow of rules and traditions but rather as the continuity of a quest, a quest for problems worthy of the artist’s nature. Whether we think of Picasso’s restless search for creative novelty, or of Mondrian’s impulse to paint, all the modernists may be described as knights errant in search of a challenge. Would you accept this?