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.
Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History
Artist's statement at www.antonygormley.com