Shaping the Word: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now

It is the comprehensive yet unconventional way in which Gayford and Gormley shine new light on objects from prehistory to the early 21st century that make this volume so truly spectacular.

The sculptor Antony Gormley and the art historian and critic Martin Gayford have been talking about sculpture with each other for 20 years. Now those two decades of friendship have resulted in a fascinating new book, Shaping the World: sculpture from prehistory to now, in which their conversations are reproduced for others to enjoy.

The book’s subtitle suggests that this is an exhaustive and all-encompassing history of the artform. But that is not entirely the case. Though a staggering amount of ground is covered in the volume’s 400 or so handsomely illustrated pages, it is arranged neither chronologically nor geographically, there is no grand debate about art historical styles or subjects, and the term ‘sculpture’ is used in its broadest sense.

It is the book’s main title, Shaping the World, that gives a better clue to its contents – with loose, thematic chapter headings (such as ‘Bodies in Space’, ‘Voids’, ‘Time & Mortality’, and ‘Actions & Events’) providing starting points for free-form conversations that fizz with knowledge and eloquence.

Time and again, unexpected comparisons and connections are made, as the discussion jumps from the Standing Stones of Stenness (c.3000 BC) to a 2015 work by Richard Serra, or from a giant southern Indian statue that is covered in milk during an annual festival to the experience of watching a Holy Week procession in Spain, where 14th- and 15th-century sculptures are carried through the streets and thus ‘reanimated’. A real excitement is generated as Gormley and Gayford bounce entertainingly from one idea to the next, and from one country, or continent, or century, to another.

As a maker himself, Gormley has an intimate knowledge of the methods and materials used since sculpture’s earliest beginnings, which adds new understanding to one’s appreciation of the forms discussed. An object such as the c.500,000-year-old hand axe found at Happisburgh in Norfolk is on one level simply a practical multi-purpose tool – used for cutting, scraping, tearing – but in its symmetry and in the forms of its crafting it is also beautiful.

Relatively soon, we see humans using sculpture as a way to understand their place in the world, or even to imagine beings that do not truly exist, such as the shape-shifting Lion Man (c.40,000BC), found in a German cave in 1939. Leaping through time and space, the forms in the Grotte di Niaux in France are viewed in relation to the extraordinary clay and wax figures produced by the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928).

At one point, Gayford – an expert on Michelangelo – recalls how the artist would spend months at quarries carefully choosing the blocks of marble he would use and ‘capturing’ forms in a sketchbook as the material came out of the earth. It is a fascinating vignette that leads to an equally enlightening discussion about how Michelangelo managed to create not just a beautiful representation of human form, helped by his study of ancient works such as the Belvedere Torso, but also access deep feelings and complex human emotion.

With so much in it, it is hard to do the book justice – and, with wonderful large illustrations of all the works discussed, it is, of course, a visual treat. But it is the comprehensive yet unconventional way in which Gayford and Gormley shine new light on objects from prehistory to the early 21st century that make this volume so truly spectacular.

More than anything, Shaping the World is a guide to looking. The works under discussion are interpreted, sometimes set in context (and with substantial expertise and erudition), but what is unique is the way objects – some familiar, some less well known – are examined visually and intellectually. The great critic John Berger wrote that ‘the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled’, and that, perhaps, is what Gormley and Gayford are really talking about. It is a wonderful conversation – one that I am sure will spark a hundred others in the readers of this book.

Review by Maria Earle.
Shaping the Word: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, £40, Hardback, ISBN 978-0500022672.