Literally embodying the genius strain of DNA that runs through the phenomenal Angel of the North, which was established by survey this year as being the most recognisable landmark in Britain, this majestic Angel by Antony Gormley represents a true icon of our time. Immensely important as the definitive 1:10 scale prototype for the world-renowned monument in Gateshead in North England, at the time the largest public sculpture in the UK, it belongs to the climax of Gormley's illustrious career to date and is by far his most important work yet to come to auction. Gormley's output, which has been celebrated in retrospective exhibitions from the Tate in Liverpool to the Malmö Konsthall in Sweden to the Irish Museum of Modern Art and also earned him the 1994 Turner Prize, has "revitalised the human image in sculpture through a radical investigation of the body as a place of memory and transformation" (Exhibition Catalogue, London, Hayward Gallery, Antony Gormley: Blind Light, 2007, jacket). Transformed from human to angelic figure, this body has a majestically still expression that entombs the story of its creation and creates an inspirational monument to memory.
Anticipating the celebrated Gateshead masterpiece, this Angel adapts a religious icon to confront contemporary perspectives on the themes of identity and existence. John Hutchinson has stated that "Antony Gormley's sculptural project reveals an obsession with grand, emotive issues, such as birth, death, and man alone with his fate" (John Hutchinson, E. H. Gombrich, Lela B. Njatin, W. J. T. Mitchell, Antony Gormley, London and New York 1995, p. 51). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of this sublime and fundamentally epic sculpture, where Gormley has forged a marriage between earthly corporeality and immortality made manifest.
Standing at almost two metres, this angel functions on the human scale and engages with the spectator in an immediate and personally direct way. This is quite different from the overwhelming omnipresence of the twenty metre-high Gateshead Angel which is visible for miles around. Cast from the artist's body, the present angel engages our earthly realm of experience as a fellow being: its legs, torso and head having proportions and occupying a space we implicitly relate to. However, the extraordinary wings, spanning well over five metres, transform its identity to something literally extraordinary. The combination of the two forms creates a resonating dynamism: as we are entranced by the human values of the figure's mesmerising bodily expression, we are simultaneously awe-struck by its miraculous wingspan.
The angelic statue was for centuries the focus of carved dexterity and sculpted virtuosity that sought to suggest the unearthly, deific touch of God via the manipulation of form and the flow of light. The form of Gormley's angel is braced together by an architectural matrix of girder-like ribs that recall the wooden struts and canvas structure of an early biplane. According to the artist, the airplane is a tool that represents the restlessness of the human spirit and, as an icon of our age, provides humankind with a perspective on earth that was formerly attributed to God. Human and aeronautic anatomy are here combined to encapsulate a perfect relationship between body and tools that characterises our era: "the use of its wings is appropriate for a work that attempts to bear witness to our time" (the artist in: Antony Gormley et al., Making an Angel, London 1998, p. 15).
The tensions between earthly and supernatural and by extension, between the temporary and the eternal have been expertly struck by the artist and are accentuated by his use of material and form. An angel, traditionally depicted in virgin marble or celestial polished bronze, has here been wrought in cast iron, the glowing ore borne of the earth's crust and weathered to a rusted patina. Referring to the Gateshead Angel, Gormley has gone even further: "it comes out of the closed body of the earth. It is made of iron, a concentrated earth material that carries the colour of blood. It is a carrier of the new nature: a body extended by technology, yet actually and metaphorically rooted in the earth and the compressed geology of shale and carbon that lies there" (the artist in: Antony Gormley et al., Op. Cit., p. 15). The figure's surfaces are stunning: light is absorbed by powdery rust to emanate a beautiful range of fully saturated ochre hues, while highlights of polished metal shine and glint through with silvery incandescence.
Thus this angel consists of both material and form that sooner evoke industrial plant or some aeronautical apparatus than the idealised musculature of a heroic saint or the chaste flesh of an innocent cherub. Furthermore, the determinedly cruciform silhouette inevitably invites comparison with Christ on the cross, adding another heavy layer of connotation to this already loaded metaphor. Gormley inverts the viewer's expectation about what an angel should be and creates a winged presence that is relevant to the evolving perspectives of a new millennium.
He has said that "The body is a language before language. When made still in sculpture it can be a witness to life and it can talk about this time now" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Kolnischer, Kunstverein, Total Strangers, 1999, p. 22). For Gormley therefore, the body works as medium, rather than an end in itself. As opposed to the tradition of capturing movement and relating narrative which has occupied figurative sculpture since the Renaissance, Gormley's body sculptures, typified by this iconic angel, possess a striking stillness, emphasising the role he sees for them as shells and containers of space. Defining the space that resides within it as much as interrupting the space outside it, this angel is a vehicle for the transformation of interpretation, rather than a fixed point of final focus.
Throughout his mature oeuvre, Antony Gormley has enlisted the topography of the human body to examine questions of existence that are informed by his profound understanding of Eastern and Western spiritualities. He has declared "I want to confront existence...I turn to the body in an attempt to find a language that will transcend the limitations of race, creed and language, but which will still be about the rootedness of identity" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Liverpool, Tate, Antony Gormley, 1993, p. 49). He has often referred to his belief that the physical body is inseparable from the realm of consciousness, and has contrasted the polar ideas of the body as temple, as celebration of existence, and also as prison or as tomb of the soul. Immortal and intangible, an angel is implicitly linked to the realm of consciousness, while this specific form is physical manifestation of each of the artist's definitions of a physical body; simultaneously a celebratory temple and imprisoning tomb.
Stephanie Brown has described the Angel as "a clear exposition of Gormley's central idea of a continuum between the body and spirit or consciousness" (Stephanie Brown in Antony Gormley et al., Op. Cit., London 1998, p. 89). This angelic form started as a cast of the artist's body, and John Hutchinson has described how "There is a shamanic aspect to the ritual of self-entombment that is the first step in the making of Gormley's body cases" (John Hutchinson, E. H. Gombrich, Lela B. Njatin, W. J. T. Mitchell, Op. Cit., p. 61). As a medium between the natural and supernatural worlds, this Angel is the archetypal shaman that connects continually transforming areas of psychological and spiritual experience.
The maquette for one of the greatest sculptural and engineering triumphs of the world, standing alongside the Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, this Angel of the North is integral to a colossal collaboration that eventually involved more than 150 people over seven years and climaxed with the erection of the Gateshead statue. As director of the project Mike White has described, the angel has become "a defining image – not a logo, but a real-world icon" (Mike White in: Antony Gormley et al., Op. Cit., p. 21). Ultimately this icon is too universally powerful to be reduced to any singular or two-dimensional interpretation. Understanding of the work and the themes it carries, both in its cast iron struts and the way it shapes space inside and around it, is intensely personal to each viewer that beholds it. However, a fittingly conclusive note is provided by the artist: "Perhaps more than any other work that I have been involved with, the Angel exhibits sculpture's ability to endure. The work will stand through rain and shine, night and day, in storms and calm. With the ability to endure comes the possibility that it should stand for our own need to endure vicissitudes. Then there are sculpture's other constant duties which the Angel has and will shoulder: witnessing and marking in time and space, taking now into then, being a focus for life and its dreams. Our dreams." (the artist in: Antony Gormley et al., Op. Cit., London 1998, p. 14).
199.4 by 533.5 by 33.6cm. 78½ by 210 by 13¼in.
White Cube, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner