All Too Human @ Tate Britain

Britain is a collection of chilly rainswept islands in the North Atlantic, on the same latitude as Moscow (as we may learn to our cost in the decades to come, if global warming really does disrupt the Gulf Stream). For more than half the year the sky is overcast and grey. Whereas the inhabitants of southern countries like Spain or Italy have a tradition of living outside for much of the year, and dressing their finest every night for the evening stroll or passeggiata, ours is a country of fusty pubs for the working class and dinner parties for the posh. Ours is an indoors country.

This basic fact about life in Britain come across very strongly in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud And A Century Of Painting Life. It is a show of some 93 paintings, one sculpture and half a dozen black-and-white photographs by some of the most celebrated British artists of the past 100 years who have painted depictions of the human body. In roughly chronological order the artists are:

  • Walter Sickert b.1860
  • David Bomberg b.1890
  • Stanley Spencer b.1891
  • Chaim Soutine b.1893
  • Giacometti b.1901
  • William Coldstream b.1908
  • Francis Bacon b.1909
  • John Deakin b.1912
  • Lucian Freud b.1922
  • Francis Souza b.1924
  • Leon Kossoff b.1926
  • Dorothy Mead b.1928
  • Michael Andrew b.1928
  • Frank Auerbach b.1931
  • Dennis Creffield b.1931
  • Euan Uglow b.1932
  • R.B. Kitaj b.1932
  • Paula Rego b.1935
  • Celia Paul b.1959
  • Cecily Brown b.1969
  • Jenny Saville b.1970
  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye b.1970

Mud or Mad

A reviewer of Tennyson’s long poem, Maud (1855) sardonically commented that it would have been more accurately named if either of the vowels had been removed. As I walked round this grim, dark and oppressive exhibition, I began to think most of the works on display could similarly be divided into ‘Mud’ or ‘Mad’, with maybe the additional category of ‘Livid Corpse’.

1. Mud

The School of Mud was inaugurated by Walter Sickert, leader of the so-called Camden Town Group. While John Singer Sargent was painting evocative portraits of fine society ladies or women with parasols lounging in the Mediterranean sunshine, Sickert painted prostitutes in dingy attics or leering crowds in half-lit music halls. The three works by him here are deliberately squalid, dark and dingy, so dark you have to peer up close to see any detail.

Nuit d'Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Nuit d’Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Rooms five and six of the exhibition explore the work of David Bomberg as artist and teacher at Borough Polytechnic, where his emphasis on the tactile quality of paint influenced his students Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

Bomberg is represented by Vigilante, which I quite liked because of its powerful vertical lines, which reminded me of the Vorticist work of Wyndham Lewis or Jacob Epstein. But it was his use of thick impasto which influenced his students and went on to become the distinguishing characteristic of the paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach.

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

These murky, smeary, thick abortions of the darkest browns and blacks possible made me think of an explosion in a sewage farm. Some of them made me feel physically sick. The joke is that many of them are meant to be outdoors scenes. Is this how you see or experience London?

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Or this?

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

The commentary claims that:

Both Auerbach and Kossoff display great sensitivity to the conditions of light, convey the dynamism of city life and reflect the mood of a specific moment

which I thought might be a joke. Let’s look again at Kossoff’s sensitive depiction of light.

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Not quite so muddy, but still revelling in gloom, bleakness of mood, greys and blacks splattered with neurotic blotches of colour, is the handful of works later in the show by Celia Paul.

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Cheerful stuff, eh?

The smear-and-daub tradition (Sickert-Bomberg-Auerbach) which this exhibition reveals to be a major thread in modern British art is represented in our day bt the bang up-to-date works of Cecily Brown.

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

2. Mad

Only room one deals with the depiction of the human figure between 1918 and 1945. That’s not much space for nearly thirty years, is it? Murky Sickert, distorted Soutine and blue-veined Stanley Spencer are the only artists included (We’ll come back to Spencer under the category of ‘livid corpses’) thus omitting quite a lot of other artists active during this period.

Then it’s quickly on to Francis Bacon, who dominates rooms two and seven with his screaming popes, tortured dogs and baboons, men turning into hunks of meat. All depicted against precise geometric backgrounds as if caught in cages or on stage as specimens. Angst. Existential despair etc.

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

In the hall outside the exhibition there’s a loop of videos playing which show interviews with some of the featured artists, alongside display cases and wall displays showing photographs of the artists’ studios. Bacon’s was a notoriously filthy, dirty, messy cave with only a skylight allowing the grey light of Soho to penetrate down into the torture chamber. It tends to confirm your prejudices to learn that Lucian Freud’s studio, also in Soho, was nearly as dirty and scrappy.

The room after the early Bacon is devoted to Francis Souza whose strikingly large paintings are done in an edgy, angular, primitive style. The room is dominated by an enormous Crucifixion and a full figure painting of a naked black woman. Reproductions can’t convey how enormous, dark and menacing they are.

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Again – dark dark dark, intense or even demented. I actually liked them, they have a terrific style, but God the mood they convey is wretched.

Room ten of the exhibition is devoted to paintings by Paul Rego. To quote the curators (there are three curators, all women):

Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity. Rego places them at the centre of her work. Women are portrayed as undertaking a variety of activities, in a broad range of moods and temperaments, as victims, culprits, carers, passive observers and sexually-charged creatures. As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.

Here’s an example: can you feel yourself being drawn into it and becoming complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power?

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

Obviously, the more you look at it, the more disturbing it becomes. Maybe that’s what the commentary meant. For me the disturbing element is the way the schoolgirl fiddling with the man’s trousers in a way which in recent times we’ve been taught to think of as pedophilia, as being a sex crime. Yet she has the head of an adult woman. So…

Livid corpses

There aren’t any actual corpses on display, that’s just a short hand way of describing a style of painting human skin and bodies which emphasises the whiteness of English complexions, the lack of exposure to sunlight which leaves so many English bodies pale, pallid and covered in blue veins.

The exhibition decisively shows the strong tradition in English art of arranging and depicting the naked human body in the most unflattering way possible, as if it was a corpse just been pulled out of the Thames. It is as unsensual and unsexy as it is possible to be.

One recurrent cliché or trope of this styleis to depict a woman mostly wearing clothes but revealing one slack, white, veined breast in the most unappealing way possible. We see Stanley Spencer establishing this tradition in room one.

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

(There’s a lot more to Spencer than his full frontal nudes, as any visitor to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham or even to the 1910 room in Tate Britain will discover – but for some reason it’s always the saggy-boobed and flaccid-penised nudes which feature in exhibitions like this, never the scores of paintings he did of the cheerfully clothed men and women of his native Cookham.)

Anyway, saggy blue-veined boobs was a motif picked up by young Lucian Freud fifteen years later.

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Freud makes his first appearance as a pupil of art school teacher William Coldstream in room four, and then has the largest room in the show – room seven ‘Lucian Freud: In the Studio’ – devoted to him, with 13 big paintings.

It is interesting to learn that Freud’s mature style was the result of his switching from the small brushes which produced the smooth finish of paintings like the one above, to using bigger, coarser brushes which produced a more modern, slightly blotchy style. And that he moved away from the sitter – instead of being close and smooth, his portraits become more distant, more mottled.

Those changes by themselves, however, don’t account for the drastic change from the smooth, light palette of the painting above to his fascination with all the hues of brown, orange, grey and white which result in the characteristic blotched skin of his mature work.

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

The Freud room is full of paintings which revel in the ungainliness and the sheer ugliness of raw, naked, gawky, livid English bodies. Feet with their corns, legs with varicose veins, the tanned face and chest contrasting with the rest of the pallid body, the livid puce of this man’s flaccid cock and balls. In all of Freud’s ugly nudes I get the feeling the painter is daring you to come out and say how disgusted you are. Just how ugly can he make his people, before the viewer cries ‘Enough!’

Recognisably in the same tradition of ‘English ugly’ are the paintings of Jenny Saville although, unlike Freud, for reasons I can’t quite define, I’ve always loved Saville’s work.

Saville broke through in the fabulous Sensation exhibition of 1997, with paintings of grotesquely fat people who seemed to be pushing right up against the surface of the canvas, squeezed and compressed right into your face. All her works are awesomely big.

For some reason, although Freud’s blotchy nudes with their hairy penises and ragged vulvas make me feel like I’m in a butcher’s shop, I find Saville’s work visually thrilling and exciting. But it’s still from the very English ‘school of ugly’.

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

A little light

Is there any light in this gallery of murk, madness and tormented flesh? Yes, some.

I’d never heard of Michael Andrews. In line with the general vibe two of his paintings here are of gloomy roughly-sketched interiors in Soho, namely the notorious Colony Club where Bacon et al. hung out, drank and bitched. But there is also this surprisingly touching outdoors scene.

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

It was admiring the grace and tenderness in this painting which brought home to me how much the qualities of gentleness or grace are missing from almost all of these paintings – certainly from all the screaming Bacons, blotchy Freuds, oily Kossoffs, murky Auerbachs and mad Regos.

And for that matter, scenes simply set outdoors are few and far between in this show: there are none in the Bacon room, none in the Freud room. Even when there are supposedly outdoor scenes, as in the Auerbach and Kossoff rooms, you wouldn’t really know it, so buried are the motifs in layers of industrial thickness sludge.

No – happy, light, outdoor scenes are conspicuous by their complete absence, as is the depiction of the human body as a thing of beauty. Think of Aubrey Hepburn. Think of a ballerina. Think of Lionel Messi nutmegging a defender. Think of a hundred images of people in outdoors settings, laughing at cafes, walking through woods, gardening, sunbathing.

All of that, almost all of actual human life, is consciously excluded from this parade of horrors and corpses.

It’s odd that anyone takes ‘Art’ as being in any way representative of the actual life of its era when it is quite obviously the opposite – the product of a cloistered, hermetically-sealed world which almost makes a virtue of not capturing or depicting the actual lives of the people around it.

The only room which provided a relief from torture and turpitude was room four, devoted to the teachings of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art. Coldstream developed a process for marking out the canvas with precise grids to help construct a realistic image, deliberately leaving bits of grid visible to hint at the geometric framework beneath the ‘reality’.

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

I liked the precision of his draughtsmanship and the way you can see original lines of the sketch showing through the oil colours. That sense of outlines and shape. Three or four of Coldstream’s relatively light and airy works are included, alongside some by his pupil Euan Uglow.

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

In the flesh, up close, you can see traces of the lines of the grid which Uglow created across the canvas and many of the little crosses formed by the crossing of lines remain visible through the paint. I like that sense of the mechanical or mathematical emerging from the picture – or the sense of the work being unfinished, a work in progress.

As to the actual image, it’s another unsmiling person. In an exhibition devoted to the depiction of human beings over the past 100 years of English art not one person is smiling, let alone laughing (apart from the mad mother in the Paul Rego painting).

All confirming that ‘Art’ is a bloody serious, sombre, tragic business, you know.

Contemporary artists

The eleventh and final room is devoted to works by four younger or contemporary artists, all four of them women – including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Celia Paul (all mentioned and illustrated above).

The Saville I loved, the Brown and Paul a lot less so. And, alas, as so often with contemporary artists, their work turns out – according to the (female) curators – to be all about sexuality and identity.

In their representations of figures they explore what it is to be human from a contemporary perspective. Throughout their work, they investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and many other categories that define and constrain identity.

Last word for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1970 and so, along with Saville, the youngest artist in the show. According to the wall label she knocks out her paintings in a day of rapid and intense work. I liked both her pieces on display here, because I like disegno, the ability to conceive and carry out accurate line drawings. Both her works here display extremely skilled draughtsmanship, a handy way with oil paints, and the ability to create mood and expression.

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Still, though – very dark aren’t they? Britain is for much of the year a dark and gloomy place which, at least according to this exhibition, has inspired a lot of dark and gloomy art – and the sombre palette of Yiadom-Boakye’s work fits right into that tradition.


The promotional 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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