From Henry Moore to Giacometti, modern sculpture has seldom produced successful public monuments. Norbert Lynton is pessimistic about Antony Gormley, but not about David Nashby Norbert Lynton / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I too have been losing sleep over that empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. You will recall that Prue Leith, of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, invited suggestions for filling it. Baroness Thatcher? Another Nelson, i.e. Mandela? The Queen? The Beatles? A Damien Hirst? The corresponding plinth, in the northeast corner of the square, is occupied by Chantrey’s equestrian monument of George IV, intended for the top of Marble Arch, but here wholly disregarded. Rumour has it that Her Majesty and the prime minister favour a novel solution, post-modern perhaps: a different statue each year, some to come out of museum stores, Victorian and later, and new ones to be commissioned.
Chosen by whom? Commissioned by whom from whom and of whom? Look at the current collection: Bomber Harris on the Strand; that dour array in Parliament Square; little Charlie Chaplin, a photographic likeness in bronze, quite invisible amid the bustle of Leicester Square-obviously we lack the vision and the artists. Benjamin Britten has had a narrow escape in Aldeburgh. Successful monuments call for faith in the subject or occasion and faith in art. Would we have the generosity today to let another Lord Shaftesbury be commemorated by means of an Eros fountain in Piccadilly? Was he not a do-gooder? Prue Leith argues against live subjects: “You never know what they will do.”
Modern art has rarely aspired to monumentality. Henry Moore enjoyed making large sculptures and sending them around the globe, but they were never statues and rarely were they made to order. They can look good-like that one outside Parliament we know as a television backdrop for politicians-but their meaning is quite unspecific. Brancusi’s 100 metre-high Endless Column in Romania, a war memorial set up in the 1930s, is a unique triumph. Picasso’s famous Man with Sheep (1943), over life-size, went first into a chapel in Vallauris and then to the market place. Picasso regretted the move: out in the open it shrank and lost its aura. In both these cases, significantly, the modern sculpture echoes ancient religious images.
Giacometti was asked in 1959 to provide a sculpture for outside the new Chase Manhattan skyscraper in New York. He set to work eagerly, making his characteristic female and male figures taller than usual. Once they had been tiny. In the late 1940s they got bigger and in 1948 he had his first show of mature work (as against his early Surrealist pieces). Sartre wrote a long essay about it, enrolling those slender figures as emblems of existentialist angst, and that is how we have tended to see them ever since. Giacometti’s purpose was actually much more personal. Whether or not he had a model in front of him, he worked to recall poignant visual moments, such as seeing a particular woman across the street. That had to go into the sculpture: the sudden awareness, and intimacy, the attraction, the distance, the strangeness. His figures vary, some of them remote and stick-like, some unexpectedly seductive thanks to prominent breasts and pelvises, but always long and thin. We expect to read sculpture through haptic sensations, our ability to touch with the imagination, but Giacometti’s figures disallow it. His hands have been all over them for days and nights, weeks, months even. He worked like a blind man to make images only about seeing. “And I continue, knowing full well that the closer one gets to the thing, the further it moves away.”
Early mumps had left him infertile, and although he loved women he could not trust his virility with the women he loved. His sculptured women seem frail and transient until we notice their mountainous feet. It is the men that have to perform, pointing imperiously or hurrying by. For the Chase Manhattan group he made four women and two striding men, probably meaning to use only one of each, plus a large male head that would have provided a poetic, Surrealist dimension. When everything was ready he decided it would not do and dropped the commission. It is the same story as that behind the Rothko room at the Tate. Those paintings were done for an elegant restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, but then Rothko could not bear the thought of their serving as a background for socialising and self-indulgence. Giacometti’s only successful public sculpture was the plaster tree he made in 1961 for the otherwise bare stage of Waiting for Godot. Beckett and he worked at it all night. “It never seemed right to us. And each of us said to the other: maybe.”
Not all modern art stems from personal perplexities. Giacometti’s deepest attachments were to Cycladic and Egyptian sculpture, but also to C?zanne, whose chief lesson-as Picasso pointed out-was doubt, anxiety. Seeing the Giacomettis in Edinburgh after the big C?zanne show in London made that clearer than ever. Giacometti’s thin women can seem the opposite of C?zanne’s spread, flattish bodies, almost as broad as Giotto’s. In fact, they are sculptural equivalents. The painter’s brush takes virtual possession of each woman as it spreads its load; the sculptor’s hands work nervously up and down her spine. Giacometti’s paintings, especially of apples, pay direct homage to C?zanne.
Other modern artists insisted on another path, the path of irony and of doubt focused on art itself. Duchamp fathered that, and Pop art’s appropriation of commercial imagery helped us join in. Our modern heroes come from Hollywood and pop music, so perhaps it is only right that new statues should be impermanent.
Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures could be props for a Pop event. His 1970 show at the Tate was entirely under the sign of humour: greeted at the start by his enormous Hamburger, we grinned our way past soft typewriters and washbasins. He himself came over from New York, a smiling man who was fond of London and had already proposed public sculptures for it. A towering pair of girlish legs, from mid-calf to mini, for the banks of the Thames; vast ballcocks to address the river’s tides (long before the barrier); a drill-bit to take the place of Eros, screwing its way up and down; a gear-lever to replace Nelson’s column in celebration of the traffic.
Some of his projects for monuments have been realised since then, mostly in the US and in Germany. In the UK, Middlesbrough alone has taken the plunge, acquiring a pretty piece nine metres high called Bottles of Notes (1993). It is almost a message in a bottle, only the bottle consists of two layers of writing cut from steel, his hand and hers, and is the message. “Hers” refers to Oldenburg’s partner and collaborator of recent years, Coosje van Bruggen. Together they exhibit busily around the world. Yet the recent Oldenburg show at the Hayward Gallery seemed much less entertaining than that of 1970, even before one digests its fat catalogue with all its philosophical stiffening and art historical references. Individual pieces are quite brilliant but generally the fun, the verve, has gone.
We do not associate verve with monumentality but the Baroque did, as Bernini, Rubens and Tiepolo show. They made celebration itself heroic. I wish I could be more optimistic about Antony Gormley’s Angel, commissioned by Gateshead to stand by the A1, very big but not monumental. In photographs it looks ominous, a stiff figure with enormous horizontal wings. Gormley’s usual work is man-size figures, cast from himself in varying poses and positions and easily engaged with. This one will be no guardian angel, more likely a sci-fi fiend.
In Eastbourne, I watched an artist give the last touches to a public sculpture that looks certain to be a success. David Nash works with tree trunks without depleting the stock: they are never felled for him. The commission came from the Towner Art Gallery. The sculpture stands outside the gallery, in Manor Gardens. Nash chose a space that would give it prominence without impinging on play spaces. He selected ten oaks recently removed from the groynes that protect Eastbourne’s beach. He set them up in groups: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4, each distinct in character and form, and ringed them with a low wall made from other decommissioned oaks. After 25 years in the sea, they are considered useless because they are full of salt. The space between them is filled with shingle.
So Nash made his sculpture in, for and from Eastbourne. All he brought with him were his chainsaw, his rasps and his genius. Variously bleached and shaped, the tree trunks stand there now, at once new and ancient, strange and familiar. Passers-by look and smile; some look longer, perhaps sit on the low wall or step on to the pebbles to stand among the columns. In honour of their long service, Nash calls the sculpture 18,000 Tides. The single column has already been nicknamed Marilyn-you can see why-although perhaps she should be Daphne.
Two Nash exhibitions in Leeds focus on his drawings, done mainly with charcoal he makes out of twigs left over from carving a whole tree, and on his Romantic way with classical geometry-cubes, spheres and prisms in unseasoned wood that moves and cracks. He is quoted in the Leeds catalogue as saying: “There is nothing between me and what I am doing. There is no anxiety. There is no fear.” Robert Hopper’s essay there proposes a Francis Baconish reading of this man who dismembers “the corpse of a tree” with a chainsaw and exhibits “the body parts.” People like me have been admiring Nash’s benign ways without thinking of darker motives; I cling to the symbolic value of his refusal to kill trees. Come to think of it, Bacon’s paintings are fantasies, not facts, his nasty smears and his fine surfaces mere paint. Perhaps it is time to reassess his art in terms of friendship and love and see his use of triptychs and other devotional formulas as proof of a need to celebrate life. Giacometti exhibition
Royal Academy of Arts, London
9th October-1st January