Saturday, 19 July 2008

Angel of the North – Angel of the New?

Thinking a lot about my previous post about Arthur Ransome (To the Summit of Kanchenjunga – see below) and the ways his experiences and his feelings about them might have informed his fiction reminded me of The Angel of the North.

I regularly find myself making trips to the Newcastle and Gateshead area for one reason or another: one of my daughters, the Baltic art gallery and the Sage concert hall are all based there. I invariably pass the Angel of the North on my way and it's difficult not to be impressed by its imposing presence, brooding as it does over the A1 on its hilltop on the edge of Gateshead.

At first I always used to stop to admire it. I think it's an awesome work of art and one of the few in the whole world that merits its own ice-cream van. These days, I must admit, my homage is usually reduced to a passing, if thoughtful glance.

I have always been impressed by the uselessness of its wings. The wings are set on their side, taking the full force of the wind. They're fixed where the Angel's arms ought to be. The Angel is helpless: it has neither arms nor hands and it could never fly. It couldn't even walk through a doorway. It is an imposing monument to our impotence: we are incapable of making an angel.

Having enjoyed a few ice creams at the foot of the Angel, I was intrigued to discover Walter Benjamin's comments on another Angel, Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, the “Angel of the New”. I quote it in full, because it's interesting:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”(1)

Klee's and Gormley's angels are very different in many ways, but there are resonances. Klee's is supernatural, and its wings are pinned back by "a storm...from Paradise". Gormley's is man-made and its wings simply won't work. What they share, if what is said here is valid, is powerlessness. Given the events of the 2oth century it is hardly surprising that artists should portray angels in this way. Interestingly, though, what Antony Gormley says about his Angel could not be more different:

Is it possible to make a work with purpose in a time that demands doubt? I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.”(2)

The general discussion that is going on behind all this is a commonplace one. All I'm saying is that a good work of art is almost as diverse and interesting as the human mind itself. Both ways of seeing the Angel are valid: one would expect it to have a dark side and a hopeful side. This doesn't mean, as people often say, that a work of art can mean “whatever you want it to”. It just means that the highest forms of human expression are, by their nature, complex.

Are creative artists in a position to say what their works are about? Up to a point perhaps. Perhaps not at all. Like our facial expressions, things we create can betray feelings we were unaware of expressing. We leave things lying about in them that we are unaware of. The same goes for the viewer, the reader or the listener: they too bring their own mental baggage with them.

  1. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

  2. Artist's statement at


The Weaver of Grass said...

Would you agree that the majority of people who view things like The Angel of the North do so without ever thinking what the artist intended? You can enjoy its majesty and its stunning location without puzzling about what it means can't you? Have you seen the temporary bamboo bridge they have nuilt over the Tyne this weekend? The man in the street has been very complementary about it - I don't think that was true of the angel at first, was it? But then - what the majority like/want is not necessarily the criteria by which we should judge things, is it?

Dominic Rivron said...

I would neither agree nor disagree. I don't know. I do know that a lot of people think modern art is a load of rubbish and that a lot of modern artists are simply playing games with the public. One reason they do so is because they often have no idea what artists are trying to do.
I think it is in our interests to make the most of art. That means making it, making it available, enjoying it and, yes, discussing it, because discussion is one way we can enrich our experience of it.
(I haven't seen the bamboo bridge, but it sounds interesting).

Anonymous said...

More Antony Gormley examples on:

The Solitary Walker said...

Thoughtfully expressed, Dominic. The great thing about the sculpture is that it seems simple, and is monumental, and is deservedly popular (how nice to have a big piece of sculpture loved by us all and not derided)- yet at the same time it contains all those resonances and ambiguities, some of which you touch on. And of course there are many other resonances - industrial man alone in the landscape, Adam, the fact it's made from weathered steel, the resemblance of the wings to aircraft wings etc. etc.

Rachel Fox said...

The Angel of the North is a great piece of art. Generally speaking I avoid a lot of the angel stuff that is doing the rounds these days (some people have gone quite angel crazy - we all have our own personal angel and all that...) but I absolutely love TAOTN. I love those funny, huge, aeroplane wings and the colour of it and the position. I love the way it reminds me of those huge Christs they have on hills in Latin America and elsewhere (but it isn't a Christ - big plus for me!). I love the way it has become a positive landmark in an area that is often described in negative terms. We used to go up to Newcastle when I was a kid (from Teesside) and the first sign of the city was the Gateshead tower blocks (we didn't have tall buildings like those in Teesside). Now the first sign is that huge bit of hope on a hill. Quite something.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this. Newcastle's a great place these days. I hear what you say about angels and agree - and when artists get to grips with the idea of an angel, the outcomes are often more interesting.