Much as I'd found Alberto Giacometti's work charming, curious, and highly individual in the past I did wonder if Tate Modern's ten room retrospective (the first on this scale in the UK for twenty years) of the Swiss sculptor may get a little 'samey' as it progressed. After all how many spindly bronze men do you need to see striding towards you?
Simone De Beauvoir (1946)
Turns out, thankfully, I'd completely underestimated him and although there were indeed lots of spindly bronze men on show Giacometti had managed to constantly hone, finesse, or riff on that theme in a fashion similar to Monet with his haystacks, Cezanne with his views of Mont-Sante Victoire, or Giorgio Morandi's bottles and bowls. It wasn't required for the subject matter to change dramatically if the way of seeing it was constantly being altered or refined.
Besides, Giacometti did mix it up a lot more than you might expect. Mostly in the early years of his career as an artist while he was still searching, purposefully yet patiently, for his signature style - but also towards the end of his life when his painting became of almost parallel importance to his sculpture.
Me and my friends Mark & Natalie (regular art buddies whose company I'd not had the pleasure of since a rather wonderful Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain back in spring) gathered for an ice cream in the cool early evening sunshine before entering the show. Visitors are first ushered through a kind of introductory room where you can get a gist of what Giacometti was all about and 'meet' some of his regular sisters, his brother Diego, Isabel Nicholas (the British painter and Giacometti's ex-partner), his wife Annette Arm, and his mother Annetta. As something of an outlier Simone De Beauvoir also featured.
The feminist, social theorist, and existentialist philosopher once said "I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom" and sometimes, in this exhibition, it seems that Giacometti was fortunate in that his very nearly was. There's very little on the personal and a great deal on the art at the Tate. For Giacometti, it seems, it was all about the work and he was nothing if not a grafter, seemingly working every day and often late into the night. He cared not for the fripperies of fashion and wore simple clothes, often splattered in plaster, both in the studio and on his jaunts around the bars, cafes, brothels and nightclubs of Paris.
The Couple (1927)
Reclining Woman Who Dreams (1929)
Born in 1901 in the Swiss alpine town of Borgonova, just south of the Italian border, to Giovanni (a post-impressionist painter) and Annetta, Giacometti was fortunate enough to be subjected to an artistic background and sure enough he went on to attend the Geneva School of Fine Arts before moving to Paris in his early twenties.
In Paris, undoubtedly the capital of the art world at that time, the young man came face to face with cubism and surrealism. His associates and peers included Picasso, Miro, Ernst, and Balthus. Ever questing he sought new ways to solve the problem of capturing the appearance of a living model. Inspired by African art and the work of the elder Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, also resident in the French capital at the time, he explored more conceptual approaches.
Though still, nominally, making figurative work there were definitely elements of abstraction creeping in. Sometimes the work was playful. On occasions it erred towards the disturbing. Disagreeable Object To Be Thrown Away shows Giacometti had a sense of humour about things but still looks like a rather unpleasant sex toy, The Couple suggests hours spent studying African and Oceanic art, Hour Of The Traces predates similar work by Barbara Hepworth, and other pieces seem to prepare the groundwork for the mobiles of Alexander Calder.
Disagreeable Object To Be Thrown Away (1931)
Caught Hand (1932)
Hour Of The Traces (1932)
Man And Woman (1928-1929)
Giacometti's burgeoning talent and inventiveness caught the eye of Andre Breton (there's a copy of the Surrealist Manifesto on show) and, by 1932, Giacometti was participating in the activities of that group. That same year he hosted his first solo exhibition at the Pierre Colle gallery in Paris and Pablo Picasso was one of the very first people through the door.
There's a little room containing a sketch by Salvador Dali, a Man Ray nude, a Meret Oppenheim bronze of Giacometti's 'ear', some copies of Harper's Bazaar, and some lamps and vases. It's interesting to peruse but soon opens up into a much larger room containing just five of Giacometti's sculptures. These works, made from 1927-1935, seem to represent Giacometti coming of age as an artist. He could now stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone else in the Paris art world and if you could do that that meant you were equal to any artist in the world.
Woman With Her Throat Cut speaks volumes about the obsession, fetishisation, and repulsion the surrealists felt towards the female body. In what you would hope are more enlightened times it's not an easy thing to enjoy, the 'woman' seems to have been ripped apart from the inside, rendered as useless as a wingless ladybird or a scrapped piece of agricultural equipment, but it's hard not to be awed by the sheer primal violence of the piece.
If Giacometti only made work like this it'd be trickier to defend his reputation but, as far as the story this show tells, that seems to be an aberration in a career that, for the most part, considered the human form (both male and female) with care and love. With Walking Woman you can see Giacometti edging ever closer to becoming 'Giacometti'. Both that and Invisible Object (Hands Holding The Void) show Giacometti's appreciation of Egyptian art whilst Spoon Woman, a sculpture the curators make a case for being the artist's first 'standing woman', takes its shape from a ceremonial spoon of the West African Dan culture. Spooning, so much nicer than throat cutting, don't you think?
The most abstract work of the big five is Cube, a piece that may've looked equally at home in Avebury, and made, it is believed, as a solemn meditation upon the death of Giacometti's father. Such realism and emotion didn't cut a lot of ice with the overbearing and self-righteous Breton who considered such actions treasonable and, sure enough, Giacometti soon left the surrealists and forged his own path.
Woman With Her Throat Cut (1932)
Walking Woman (1932)
Invisible Object (Hands Holding The Void) (1934-1935)
Spoon Woman (1927)
Unless you're a completely selfish bastard forging your own path is often the best course to follow and so it was to prove for Giacometti. Forms became more elongated, definition became rougher, and he experimented even more than before. Not just with adding wheels to his sculptures but to their sizes. There's a room of increasingly tiny pieces that, in the most extreme cases, you have to squint at to take in. Giacometti said "by doing something a half centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky". Like William Blake before him, he was seeing the world in a grain of sand.
But, almost contrarily, by the late 40s his works were getting bigger again. He'd returned to Paris, after spending most of the war back in Switzerland, and, perhaps, the new expansiveness in his creation reflected the freedom he must've felt after the defeat of Nazism. The first painting of the show (of the Roman a clef novelist Jean Genet) appears here and the elongated figures we know so well reach their apogee. When they were exhibited in New York's Pierre Matisse Gallery the catalogue included an essay by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre entitled 'The Search for the Absolute' in which the author of Being and Nothingness suggested the attenuated, and often solitary, figures were Giacometti's way of portraying human anxieties and alienation. Yes, we were in the midst of our old friend, the psychological portrait.
Woman With Chariot (1945)
Small Bust Of Annette (1946)
Falling Man (1950)
Figurine Between Houses (1950)
Man Walking Across A Square (1949)
Four Figurines On A Stand (1950-1965)
The Glade (1950)
The quality of my photographs are so poor (you're not allowed to snap in the paying galleries at the Tate) you can't really get to appreciate the inchoate beauty, the sphinx-like mystery, of spellbinding works like The Glade from 1950 but that may not be a complete disaster. Hopefully it'll spur you on to visit this exhibition or to try to see more of Giacometti's work in situ.
In 1956 the artist represented France at the Venice Biennale. The Women of Venice series of sculptures he created had legs so thin and so close together they merged into one, their feet were pretty indistinguishable from plinths, and they were over a metre tall. Giacometti, unlike most sculptors who prefer to chisel away at a large block, opted to slowly apply plaster to a skeletal base until he was satisfied with the results. Their finished surfaces have something of the Frank Auerbach about them. The paintings of the era something of the Lucian Freud. Looking at them it seems almost impossible that the two London based Berlin emigres were not exposed to Giacometti's work at an early age.
Tall Thin Head (1954)
Bust Of Yanihara (1959)
Satisfaction with his work was something that Giacometti seems to have agonised over. He complained that his painting of Japanese philosopher Isaku Yanaihara 'lacked a likeness' and, in a wonderfully instructive film on show towards the end of the exhibition, we can see the artist as an elder man puffing on ciggies and creating a portrait of the film maker Ernst Scheidegger.
Perhaps it was age that drew him to create works like The Hand, The Dog, and The Nose, the latter more resembling a Slipknot stage costume. You have to ask yourself "is this a face I'm prepared to sit on?".
Giacometti had long taken an interest in death and often told how he'd witnessed the passing of a travelling companion. He'd concluded, quite correctly, that if his friend could turn from a living thing to a motionless corpse so quickly then death could come to any one of us at any time.
The Hand (1947)
The Nose (1947-1948)
The Dog (1951)
The answer to this, of course, is to live with love and favour in your heart, be kind to those who are kind to you, and find time for friends and family whenever you possibly can. It seems that Giacometti both learnt, and acted generously, upon this lesson. The penultimate room of the show is full of portraits of brother Diego and wife Annette. The models would sit for long, intense, sessions and, whilst not wishing to suggest Giacometti didn't really need quite that long - he did seem to be something of a perfectionist after all, I can't help wondering if part of the thinking behind it was so that he could spend such lengthy quality time with his loved ones. Perhaps he was elongating and stretching out friendships in the same way he was elongating and stretching out his bronze and plaster constructions?
Six People At A Table (1949)
Diego Seated (1948)
Giacometti is quoted as having said "I don't mind whether the exhibition presents success or failures. I have no requests, merely to proceed feverishly". In the final decade of his life he became a respected, and rich, artist yet the trappings of wealth and fame didn't seem to change him a great deal.
He lived for the work and his passion for it comes through in every millimetre of applied plaster and each exquisitely rendered chisel incision. In 1965 the Tate Gallery hosted an exhibition in which Giacometti set up a studio in the basement and continued to work there during the exhibition's duration. He enjoyed his time in London so much he wrote to the director, Norman Reid, to say so, adding that he hoped "to come to London next spring". In January of that year Giacometti died of chronic bronchitis and never did make that return trip. It seems rather touching that fifty-one years on such an impressive, grand, and beautiful collection of his works should be visited by so many in the city. I'd like to think it's what he'd have wanted.
In The Third Man Orson Welles' character Harry Lime famously claims, from the Wiener Riesenrad in Vienna's Wurstelprater, that all the Swiss ever managed to create was the cuckoo clock. How very wrong he was.
Tall Woman IV (1960-1961)