Giacometti: Pure Presence @ National Portrait Gallery

Drawing together over 60 paintings, sculptures, atmospheric photos and a documentary film, this exhibition presents a comprehensive overview of the development of one of the 20th century’s most distinctive artists, giving you key insights into the evolution of his style and the thinking behind it.

Childhood and boyhood in Switzerland

Giacometti was born in 1901 in the picturesque village of Borgonovo in Switzerland. His father, Giovanni, was a well-known post-Impressionist painter and the boy was encouraged to draw, paint and even sculpt from an early age. In fact his first sculpture was done when he was just 14, a portrait head of his brother Diego, and portraits of the family were to play a key role in his career.

His father’s post-impressionism strongly influenced Giacometti’s own early paintings and the show’s first room displays a number of attractive and ‘traditional’ portraits made of pink and yellow blotches of colour, deployed very skilfully to depict his younger brother Diego, his father, and in a winning self portrait.

Small Self-portrait by Alberto Giacometti (1921) Kunsthaus Zurich, Legat Bruno Giacometti © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Small Self-portrait by Alberto Giacometti (1921) Kunsthaus Zurich, Legat Bruno Giacometti © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Paris 1922

He travelled to a Paris art academy where he studied from 1922 to 1927 and almost immediately encountered ‘problems’ depicting the reality of what lay before him, problems which lasted his entire life and underpin his achievement. For what he saw in front of him, what he perceived, was constantly changing, not just in the obvious way of light changing through the day, but his own hurrying perceptions crowding in and overwhelming what he was actually seeing, cluttering and confusing his perceptions. The exhibition contains numerous insightful quotes from the man himself on the subject:

Once I began to look at it and want to draw, paint or, rather, sculpt it, everything changes into a form that is taut and it always seems to me, intense in a highly contained way.’

In 1925 he abandoned the struggle to portray ‘the real’ and drifted into the camp of the Surrealists. Paris was home to these young iconoclasts and Giacommeti produced a range of work which can be described as Surrealist, none of which is on show here – though in the room of photographs there is a solarised portrait by Man Ray and Giacommeti features in a chessboard of portraits of the movement (which you can use to play ‘spot the surrealist’).

Instead, the exhibition describes how Giacometti’s practice became almost schizophrenic, experimental and avant-garde in Paris, but, when he returned to his Swiss home, continuing the series of more obviously figurative portraits of his family. The second room contains more attractive portraits, such as another Portrait of Diego (1925), and a series of realistic heads of his father, as well as a striking Head of Isabel (1936), channeling obvious Egyptian influence.

Head of Isabel by Alberto Giacometti (1936) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Head of Isabel by Alberto Giacometti (1936) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

But next to these are some strange experimental works. It is disconcerting to compare the realistic heads with this extreme head of his father, in which the human head has become a flat bronze plaque, with the features scrawled on.

The Artist’s Father (flat and engraved) by Alberto Giacometti (1927) Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

The Artist’s Father (flat and engraved) by Alberto Giacometti (1927) Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Half way between figurative and flat are omelette shaped busts of his mother. The works reveal a mind restlessly interrogating ‘what is seen, what is known, what is real.’

the room contains evidence of a sort of breakthrough in the later 1930s, when he finds himself depicting heads as he actually sees them ie small and far away, and this leads to a series of tiny metal heads on display here. He knows the ‘real’ head to be life-sized and three dimensional, yet in paintings they appear far away and flat. So should the heads he makes be big, small, flat, rounded, far away, right here? He is trying to portray heads as he sees them not as he knows them. In a way it’s surprising he wasn’t drawn more towards cubism with its attempt to see all sides at the same time – except that it was probably dead as a movement by the late 1920s.

Portrait of the artist’s mother

His father’s death in 1933 deeply affected Giacometti and the following year he broke with Surrealism and returned to making portraits from life, struggling with what he still called ‘the contained violence of depiction’.

A darkened room in the show – atmosphere of a shrine – is dedicated to four paintings of his mother, Annetta, who lived far beyond her husband, dying in 1964, only two years before the artist. The portraits are from 1937, 1947, 1950 and 1962 and show a sudden and decisive break with the earlier attempts, the arrival of a whole new style, and then the ongoing evolution of this new approach. By the time of the 1937 portrait he has arrived at a style which involves:

  • placing the subject face on to the artist
  • sitting
  • in the centre of a wide space
  • the focus of energy going on the face and the eyes
  • drab colours – grey, muddy browns and oranges
  • the lavish use of scratching, scraping, scarring lines, pencil or pen or stylus or brush strokes frenetically applied over the surface to indicate the studio space, objects in it, but also all over the subject’s body

The portraits of Annetta are:

  • 1937 The Artist’s Mother: an early version in which the figure is superscratched and the face is distorted and repellent
  • 1950: The Artist’s Mother: mature version, the room is scratched in in great detail and the busy manic lines almost make it seem like a horror movie with the furniture moved by poltergeists
The Artist’s Mother by Alberto Giacometti, 1950; The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015. Digital image The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

The Artist’s Mother by Alberto Giacometti, 1950; The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015. Digital image The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

  • 1947: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother: My favourite work in the show, a strange haunting image, the intense scratching and scouring of the earlier version have disappeared, subsumed in the muddy brown background while the eye is drawn to the almond shaped sliver of face, especially the haunted eyes, before taking in the grey curves and swirls merely hinting at the body and shape of the arms barely emerging. It is the record of a struggle, the struggle of perceiving and depicting.
  • 1962: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother: I can’t find this work online but it is typical of his later style in being more grey and more unfinished, with wet grey paint dripping down the bottom of the canvas, and the return of black, sketchy lines which, for me, are too dominant and pull your eye away from the human subject.

The exhibition tells the anecdote that, just before the war, he saw his friend and model, Isabel, from a distance in the Boulevard St Michel and had an epiphany. He became obsessed with the idea of a slender figure, seen from a distance, existing in a void. During the war, in exile in Geneva in a makeshift studio, he worked away at innumerable tiny heads and figures, a return to the miniatures presaged in the second room. They were so small that, after the Liberation of France, he was able to bring them back to Paris in matchboxes!

Breakthrough: the totems

It was immediately after the war that, returned to Paris, Giacometti began experimenting with the super-thin, elongated human figures cast in metal sculpture which were to make him internationally famous.

His aim was ‘to create an object capable of conveying a sensation as close as possible as one felt at the sight of the object’. In fact there is only ONE of these elongated sculptures in the whole exhibition which, in a way, makes it the more powerful.

Woman of Venice VIII by Alberto Giacometti (1956) Kunsthaus Zurich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Woman of Venice VIII by Alberto Giacometti (1956) Kunsthaus Zurich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

The next room contains documentary evidence of his career, a suite of 23 black-and-white photos of the artist in his studio, with friends and so on, and a BBC documentary filming him actually at work and commenting on his practice. In a revealing remark, he says that the inertness of traditional sculptural depiction of the human body is ‘at odds with the vitality he wished to convey’. The spindly elongations are the result of paring away of the ‘stuff’ of the body in search of the essence. It is as if he is digging down through the skin, fat and muscle to expose the twitching nervous system beneath.

In the documentary you see him at work and note the restlessness, the constant touching and adjustment of the clay, the fidgeting and fussing, the ceaseless quest to create the right object. You can see the thumb prints, the gougings and impress of his restless fingers. The finished, tall, spindly humanoids are terrifying. Totems of the 20th century. Nuclear war survivors, their eyes hollow and empty, occasionally with mouths open as if silently crying out. At the same time reminiscent, for me, of some of the artefacts in the British Museum’s brilliant Ice Age Art exhibition from 2013.

Giacometti’s achievement was to create something utterly modern which manages to link us back to the earliest recorded visions of our ancestors.

Annette

The next room is devoted to Annette, the vivacious 20-year-old he met in Geneva, brought back to Paris, married in 1949, and who became his model and assistant. There are lots of paintings and busts of her. Here, in the 1950s, we can see the very roughly done overpainting, the obsessively repeated scouring and underlining, the black or white or grey curves and loops which incise an image onto the still-raw canvas.

Just the muddy feel of it reminds me of Graham Sutherland, or Henry Moore’s paintings, or early Francis Bacon. It was an era of real austerity and post-war greys, of Camus huddling against the Paris fog in a turned-up raincoat smoking a Gaulois. But also the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation. Is any of that present in the gouged black eyes of this survivor of the European holocaust?

Bust of Annette by Alberto Giacometti (1954) Private Collection © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Bust of Annette by Alberto Giacometti (1954) Private Collection © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Many of these later paintings are notable for having three frames. An actual physical frame. A gap between frame and canvas. And then the painting itself often has a frame painted round the subject. Emphasising the pre-eminence of the artist’s view, non-naturalistic, captured and caught only provisionally. Try again. Reminding me of Samuel Beckett’s words: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

‘The artist of existentialism’

In 1948 Giacommetti had a one-man show in New York and Jean-Paul Sartre, the superstar French philosopher, wrote an essay on Giacometti for it – ‘The Quest For The Absolute’. In 1954 he was described in a magazine article as ‘the artist of existentialism’, and he doesn’t seem to have objected. For a later exhibition at the Galerie Maeght, Sartre wrote another essay, ‘The Paintings of Giacometti’ in which Sartre describes the painter as always trying ‘to give sensible expression to pure presence’.

You can see the point, see that his figures are always isolated, always solitary. And, if you want to see it this way, always trapped in a space which is also a void, a void – if you like – where the structures that support us have been brutally swept away (as Sartre’s human is trapped in existence but bereft of any guidance or guidelines, utterly, terrifyingly free to create its own value system).

At the height of his fame, he painted portraits and is photographed hobnobbing with the stars of existentialist Paris – Sartre, de Beauvoir, there’s a photo of Samuel Beckett in his studio – and pride of place in the room dedicated to this period is the portrait of fashionable taboo breaker Jean Genet, gay ex-convict turned poet and playwright.

Jean Genet by Alberto Giacometti, c1954-5; Tate London 2015 © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Jean Genet by Alberto Giacometti, c1954-5; Tate London 2015 © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Are Giacometti’s figures epitomes of this terrible freedom and the helplessness of the human subject? Are his clothed figures as helpless as Francis Bacon’s men-becoming-meat? The paradox – or disproof, maybe – is the impassiveness and the compulsive sameness of their pose, adopted in the 1930s and consistent until his death in 1966 – a solitary figure, sitting in a chair, facing the artist straight-on, with no discernible expression. Nobody smiles or laughs or even moves in a Giacometti painting. Certainly no screaming popes.

Last portraits

By the early 1960s he was famous and feted, awarded: in 1961 the Carnegie Sculpture Prize, 1962 the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, in 1964 the Guggenheim International Painting Award, in 1965 the French government awarded him the Grand Prize for Art.

But in 1963 he had had an operation for stomach cancer and in 1964 his mother died, badly affecting a man so close to his family and to her in particular.

There is a raw, unfinished quality to his last portraits, the works of the 1960s in which the struggle to depict the real continues to the end, but in a new way. They are all BIG pictures, and the palette has narrowed to grey with only occasional browns. He met ‘Caroline’, a denizen of the Paris underworld and was bewitched by her. Giacometti ended up painting over thirty portraits of her, of which six are gathered in this room.

Placed side by side like this, you can see the obsessiveness of the pursuit of the fleeting reality of a person, their appearance, their presence – and the haste with which the faces are frenetically gone over and over again in black and grey paint, the eyes emerging as owlish goggles, stricken in a frozen body, staring out from the unfinished surface.

Though she was petite in ‘real life’, ‘Caroline’s’ many faces emerge in these works as hieratic, daunting, as primitive and profound as ancient Egyptian or African art works. The rest of the body is shaded in with repeated black and grey lines and then the energy dissipates away to a generally washed-out grey background which hasn’t even the energy to crawl to the edge of the canvas.

In the documentary we hear him say the attempt to ‘capture’ a human presence on canvas is ‘impossible not only for me, but for everyone and forever.’ This reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s famous words from his 1940 poem, ‘East Coker’:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

Obviously Eliot is talking about the effort to write, but the general sentiment seems appropriate for Giacometti’s lifelong battle to capture the living presence of the human subject in the cold medium of cast metal or the flat surface of a canvas, a battle this exhibition brilliantly describes and explains.

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