Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


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Giacometti @ Tate Modern

Giacometti was born in 1901 in an Alpine village in Switzerland, the son of a post-impressionist painter.

His subject was always and only the human face and body. This massive exhibition of some 250 sculptures, sketches, paintings and a video of the great man at work, is the largest retrospective of Giacometti for a generation. And in it there was only one object I could see which wasn’t a human body or face – one solitary non-human entity – a dog.

The first room is full of naturalistic busts of friends and family he made as a precocious teenager and continued to make throughout his life.

The second room shows his turn from naturalism to incorporate the interest in non-European sculpture, of Oceanic and African art which arrived in Paris in the 1900s, filtered through modernist sensibilities like Brancusi.

This was my favourite room because, for good or ill, one of my favourite styles is the Vorticist, the angular, the virile and energetic clash of abstract forms and volumes in sculptors like Gaudier-Brzeska or Jacob Epstein.

Like everyone else in the 1930s he got caught up in the Surrealist movement, joining the group in 1932 and participating in exhibitions, group photographs, contributing to their magazines. A display case shows numerous art and literature magazines from the period.

The sudden German attack on France in May 1940 caught Giacometti in Switzerland and he spent most of the war in a hotel room in Geneva. In 1943 he met his wife-to-be, Annette Arm, working for the Red Cross. She became his most important female model. Partly due to the lack of material, Giacometti’s war sculptures are often small. He himself said he was transfixed by seeing a friend of his quite a distance down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and realising how small she looked. He was trying to capture that sense of distance, of dwindling, which brings with it an enormous poignancy. He is quoted as saying:

By doing something half a centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky.

Certainly, one of my favourite pieces in the whole show was ‘Very small figurine’, a spindly human figure about a centimetre tall. It does give a sense of tremendous distance, like a figure lost in a science fiction fantasy.

In 1945 he returned to set up a studio in Paris and began to produce the elongated, emaciated, human stick figures for which he quickly became well-known and then world famous. Bereft of individuality, their surfaces the opposite of smooth, gouged and hand-shaped, roughly finished, helpless spindly shades, they instantly struck a chord. Contemporary commentators interpreted them as:

  • survivors of the Holocaust
  • survivors of the atom bomb – certainly the jet black colour of the metal casts gives the impression of humans who have been incinerated and reduced to something less than skeletons
  • survivors of the complete collapse of values in western civilisation

An exhibition in New York in 1948 had an introductory essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher-superstar of the era, which clinched Giacometti’s reputation as the artist who summed up the turmoil and collapse of the post-war world. Sartre used key words from his existentialist philosophy like ‘anguish’ and ‘alienation’, but you didn’t have to read the essay to feel how Giacometti’s figurines represented humanity reduced to degree zero.

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Giacometti had found his look, his voice, his brand, and he stuck to it for the twenty years up to his death in 1966, producing figurines large and small, some in bronze, some in the raw plaster, some in clay, some striding or bent in movement but most of them tall and straight, mute witnesses to some awful catastrophe.

He was as representative of that time and place and era in European culture as his friends Sartre and Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. Humanity redux, homo minimus, man and woman stripped not only bare, but stripped of their flesh and fat and bones, burnt away to their irreducible elemental structure.

Alongside the figurines went his portrait paintings. Giacometti produced hundreds of these, obsessive variations on the same full frontal facial pose, many of his close friends and family, but most of  his wife, Annette, and then during the 1960s of his new young mistress, Caroline.

Not so long ago I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of scores of these Giacometti portraits. I hate to be a philistine but once you’ve seen a few of them, it does feel like you’ve seen them all. Once you’ve got the image, received its parameters, its technique, its aim and its impact – seeing another 5, 10, 20 or 30 doesn’t add much.

In fact, after a while the interest, in the portraits as of the figurines, is their obsessive repetitiveness. Giacometti lived on into the era of radio and then TV documentaries and so there are quite a few films of him at work and being interviewed. He routinely admits that he is never satisfied with a work – he has to start again, try again, keep on.

Reading several expressions of this dissatisfaction reminded me of the famous quote from Samuel Beckett’s play Worstward Ho:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Of course, the exhibition is followed by the shop where you can buy not only books, postcards, posters and fridge magnets, but mugs, t-shirts, carry bags and pillows bearing Giacometti images. Not so harrowing now, his imagery has been totally assimilated into the great shopping mall of art history, the vast continuum of images among which we move and live.

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The Tate Modern shop had a section devoted to David Hockney, with lots of blue swimming pools, bright green foliage etc, and it occurred to me that the shift from Giacometti to Hockney – roughly from the 1950s to the 1960s – was like the move from black-and-white to colour television. It reflected the shift from austerity to a mass consumer society, to a world where growing numbers of people could not only afford televisions, but washing machines, fridge freezers, but could go on the new ‘package holidays’ to the sun, buy cheap reproductions of famous art, and so on.

One minute everyone wanted to look like Albert Camus with his collar turned up against the Paris fog, smoking a Gitane, intensely pondering the futility of existence – the next everyone wanted to be on the West Coast soaking up rays by the pool and partying every night.

The world went Pop and, overnight, Giacometti, Camus, Sartre became vivid, powerful but utterly dated figures from the black-and-white post-war moment of European history. A moment vividly and viscerally revived in this massive and evocative exhibition.


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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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