The Independent reports that a new publication of sculpture history titled Shaping the World came out of conversations between its authors, sculptor Antony Gormley and art historian Martin Gayford. The way these authors see three-dimensional art when artists turn lumps of clay into stories, they are making sense of a world in which they live, and that this, in turn, makes sculpture what Gormley calls “physical thinking.”

Building worlds

The Book review by Copyrightbook notes that besides giving an order to the world, Shaping the World makes the point that sculpture is a way to satisfy their urge to build things.

But no matter the urge, materials, techniques, or themes such as space and light, all sculpture comes down to “physical thinking.”

On the beach

But while this book takes you around the world to art made before there was a written language through many cultures all the way to 2020, what held my attention was the physical thinking of Gormley himself – namely his sculpture titled Another Place - 100 cast iron nude figures facing the sea for two miles on Crosby Beach in Merseyside, England. Gormley’s figures are modeled after his own form and, even though the nudity proved controversial at first, the community of Crosby Beach deserves credit for supporting the installation.

Climate change

Permanently installed 20 years ago, Gormley’s sculpture has become a tourist attraction.

This, even though the age of the iron men is showing, clearly affected by the changing tides – at times completely submerging by the sea and coated with barnacles. To my eyes experiencing Another Place is a little like walking into Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Monk by the Sea, except instead of one man, you get an army.

The effect is the same, however: humankind facing the vastness of the sea is not in charge here.

Lasting legacy

If sculpture is the stuff of physical thinking, then painting must be that of visual thinking. But in a sense, the thinking is the same. This has me thinking why Leonardo da Vinci was so adamant in his dislike of sculpture.

In his notebook, he wrote, “Painting is the more beautiful and the more imaginative and the more copious, while sculpture is the more durable, but it has nothing else.”

Capturing life

From such bias, you’d never guess that Leonardo was once an apprentice to sculptor Andrea Verrocchio, famed for contributing a technique in sculpture used to this day that came out of his liking to make plaster casts of body parts for his personal study. Likely Gormley used Verrocchio’s method to capture his lifelike figures.

Ladies of the night

Many sculptors borrowed styles from time past. The introspective head-down gesture in Maillol’s “Night” resembles Michelangelo’s figure of the night in his sculpture of “Night and Day,” executed 475 years earlier.

The fact that both artists interpret night as a woman also is notable.

Foreign influence

In contrast, Epstein’s vision of “Day and Night” is a sign of his time. Made some 400 years after Michelangelo’s “Day and Night,” Epstein’s did what a lot of modernists did: he dipped back to other cultures – in his case, to Assyrian art with a little bit of the Sphinx from the Old Nile thrown in.

Same as always

Clearly, visual art is a silent witness to changing times. But given the near-century difference in age between Friedrich and Gormley, Another Place demonstrates that our view of ourselves doesn’t change.