The Human Substance: Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern 2017

‘Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern’ is something very special. Running from 10th of May to the 10th of September 2017, this is the first major retrospective of the artist in Britain for twenty years and includes over 250 works; of which several are rare plaster sculptures and drawings that have never been publicly displayed before. It chronicles the the artist’s profound search to find ways to express the truth of his subjects. Reinvigorating the medium of sculpture and much else besides.

The aim of the show is to present Giacometti at the forefront of twentieth century art, alongside other great masters of two and three dimensions like Picasso, Degas and Matisse. From the beginning it is obvious we are witness to a prodigious talent and examples on display amply demonstrate a level of extraordinary achievement. They speak about our corporeal presence in relation to its surroundings. And as Jonathan Jones has recently observed, the artist’s mature works are an intensely powerful reminder of our common humanity.

Giacometti was Swiss by birth and started out with the intention of being a painter, but then effortlessly moved between a range of different media that included sculpture, the creation of objects, painting, drawing as well as other areas. He moved to Paris in the early twenties to study sculpture and the city becomes his home for the rest of his life (although with a significant interregnum during the Second World War). Giacometti was in the city at a time of extraordinary creative activity, as Modernism in all its forms was evolving and questioning every aspect of art and life. The interwar years are seen by many as the last stages of the city’s cultural predominance and it’s fair to say the artist was a part of that late flowering.

Giacometti worked in several places and countries during his lifetime. But it was the studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron that remained the primary location of his creative practice. In this space the artist flourished; all 4.75 x 4.90 metres of it. A location that could hardly be described as having ‘all mod cons’ and yet it served Giacometti well. The studio was a constant for him, in terms of both inspiration and routine. A preserved section of the studio wall, upon which he would sometimes work, is presented for us to see in the show.

In addition to the studio, personal relationships were very important for the artist and a source of inspiration. Giacometti was close to and assisted by family throughout his life; in particular his brother Diego, who was the artist’s main male subject. Wondering through the exhibition, you not only become familiar with Giacometti’s closest subjects- his brother, mother and wife Annette in particular- but notice the more you look, how subtle characteristics are gradually revealed.

Giacometti produced a large amount of diverse work in a relatively short lifetime and this show is divided into 10 rooms that showcase its many aspects.

Rooms 1, 2 and 3:

These areas document Giacometti’s incredible capacity for artistic invention. For him, art was a ceaseless search for the essence of his subjects. In general these were based on the human figure, revealing and describing the deeper truths he discovered. Giacometti’s intimate portraits could also function as archetypes, the face abstracted or the figures in various formal configurations representative of the artist’s ideas.

“I am very interested in art but I am instinctively more interested in truth… The more I work, the more I see differently” Giacometti.

However earlier on, Giacometti experimented with more abstract forms that have a poetic and symbolic quality. Works that often suggest totems, fetish objects, toys and games, tools as well as extensions of the human form. Many are still investigations of the figure or bust, such as the severely reduced form of ‘Gazing Head’ from 1929, with its gouged divots for eyes. Others are evocative configurations of landscape in which forms that may represent the Sun and Moon are suspended and arranged in an almost sensual way, like ‘Suspended Ball’ from 1930-31. In this work and several others, Giacometti uses a metal cube like frame (he called a ‘Cage’) to demarcate the inner (Dream) space of the piece from that of the viewer. It also serves to hang the ‘ball’. Added to this is a kinetic element; parts of the work can move: The ‘Sun’ gently touches the ‘Moon’. This was a recurrent feature the artist would employ.

His success using plaster, bronze, wood and several other materials is evident in this part of the show. The resultant works look very different and each possesses its own unique character; despite being made of similar stuff. Outstanding and visible in several areas of the exhibition, is Giacometti’s technique of plastering and painting over the surfaces of his work. This I found really effective in conveying and heightening expression in certain examples.

As you walk round Rooms 1 and 2, it is apparent just how eclectic Giacometti was. At this early stage, the artist experimented with Cubism (an example being ‘Torso’ from 1926). ‘Le Couple’ from 1927 with its extraordinary inventive reconfiguration of the human form suggests an interest in Brancusi, as well as art from outside western traditions. Like the best artists, Giacometti took and adapted ideas, devices and themes where necessary from those that came before to facilitate the development of his work. Yet everything shown is entirely the product of his own guiding vision.

A particularly striking effect is achieved by Giacometti giving solid heavy form to the head and shoulders of a subject, whilst incising its surface to describe, using line, the details and proportions of the face. He therefore manages early on to develop work that can be read as a synthesis between two and three dimensions; something present in ‘Head of the Father (Flat 1)’ 1927-30 and ‘Head of the Mother (Flat)’ 1927. This approach offered him the means explore the boundaries between portrait and caricature, revealing ever deeper psychological insights into his subjects. The artist’s tendency to flatten and distort the form of his subjects and elongate their features is also evident in these (two) pieces. Informed no doubt by his intensive study of ancient Egyptian art. Certain examples on show exhibited a distorted form reminiscent of Pharaoh Akhenaten and art of the Amarna Period. Giacometti obviously found the border areas between two and three dimensional representation a constant source for new ideas and combinations of form.

Giacometti and Surrealism:

His fraught relationship with the Surrealists was a short but productive one and we see many of the extraordinary results on display. Highlights for me were ‘Hour of the Traces’ and ‘Caught Hand’ (both 1932) as well as ‘Point to the Eye’ (1931), with its Dali like protuberance. Throughout Room 2, we are asked to question the nature of ‘the object’ versus ‘the sculpture’ as Giacometti explored the borders between.

The origin of the artist’s ‘Disagreeable Objects’ can in part be traced back to the concept of ‘Readymades’. Duchamp, in principle at least, believed in maintaining a level of aesthetic indifference regarding their selection. This was in order to prevent any imposition of ‘taste’ on his part which he regarded as ‘a habit’. One that might dilute the tension created as the object in question simultaneously occupied (and eroded) its position in both art and life. We should also consider Georges Bataille’s ideas of ‘Bas Matérialisme’. The low, base and everyday objects which (to quote Louis Aragon) escort us through this world, that are located outside what might be considered the boundaries of ‘taste’ or artistic classification. Giacometti’s ‘Disagreeable Object to be Thrown Away’ and the dildo-like ‘Disagreeable Object’ were made in 1931 and both look as if they have a utilitarian function outside of art.

The Surrealists (or at least those under Breton) aimed not to produce art ‘for arts sake’ but rather to achieve the transformation of humankind through a fusion of the conscious and unconscious states. They felt works of art should act as a conduit to raise the unconscious into a palpable form (Offering a way in: Breton himself believed that “poetry must lead somewhere”). One way was to suggest in a sculpture that it might have a literal ‘function’, but then to subtly subvert that function through art, which created a new kind of form in the world, yet also suggested other possible ‘worlds’. All the same, it’s important to remember this is but one kind of Surrealist ‘object’. There are many others.

In Room 3 the viewer is encouraged to make connections between the many sketches, notes and other artefacts presented, with the finished works on show. Among these fascinating, as well as enlightening items that document Giacometti’s time with the group, is an undated sketch called ‘After ‘The Enigma of William Tell’ (Dali). It demonstrates the artist’s interest in what other significant Surrealist figures were up to. A 1931 lithograph called ‘Moving and Mute Objects’ gives us an insight into the artist’s thinking during this period. Here he illustrates ‘Suspended Ball’ along with several other displayed pieces, together with a poetry which has a lyrical, erotic quality; informed no doubt by his encounter with Surrealism.

Giacometti’s works and ideas from this period expanded the vocabulary, form and direction of Surrealist sculpture. The movement would surely have been less without his significant contribution.

Room 4:

The sexual aspect of Giacometti’s work is particularly apparent during this period and he was no stranger to controversy. The Surrealists had seen in sexuality a means to explore and reclaim the unconscious. Desire therefore (however it manifested itself) was a significant theme in much of their creative output.

The sculpture ‘Woman with her Throat Cut’ (1932) is still shocking to behold- something undiminished even after 80 years. It is perhaps no surprise the piece continues to divide opinion; provoking in some accusations of misogyny for its violent, visceral treatment of subject. Of course, the Surrealists relished ideas of provocation. To force the viewer to confront aspects of the unconscious mind- however taboo they may be- in the most direct way. To slap them in the face as it were. Even the directness of the work’s title makes for an instinctual reaction in the viewer- Giacometti wasn’t trying to conceal the power of this vicious dismemberment.

All the same, the sculpture is one of the most significant in the history of art. It broke through many previously assumed boundaries that had hamstrung the evolution of sculpture, playing a part in its liberation as a medium for Modern creative expression.

Each of its constituent parts has what appears to be anatomical features; yet these possess an almost perfect ‘jewel-like’ finish, suggesting something artificial. Perhaps even as if made by a machine. Considered in purely sculptural terms, ‘Woman with her Throat Cut’ is innovative in placing the components of the work directly on the floor. Without a plinth to distinguish it as ‘art’ on high. Interestingly Brancusi had asked similar questions about the nature of the plinth. Both he and Giacometti sought to challenge its status as an unquestioned convention; whilst simultaneously co-opting it’s artifice as an active feature in their work. Of course placing the piece directly in the space of the viewer also made the encounter more confrontational, more real. The work of art would now have to stand alone; up against the objects of everyday life, without the aesthetic distance bestowed upon it by the plinth. Also, the work is composed of discrete parts that work together as a whole.

Later artists and designers appropriated many of the formal qualities of ‘Woman with her Throat Cut’. For example, Anthony Caro sought beauty in everyday industrial materials and forms, whilst ordering the elements of his work to create harmony and balance. Each sculpture sits directly on the gallery floor; its components arranged to create an overall dramatic presence. Perhaps more obvious are examples in popular culture, such as the visceral apparitions in films by David Cronenberg or even the many incarnations of the ‘Alien’ franchise.

Finally, I’ll quickly get the subjective out of the way. To me, its broken and reconstituted anatomy makes of the female subject something resembling a cross between a mantrap and an Arthropod. An arrangement of dislocated forms displayed as if they are the aftermath of something, akin to the scene of a crime.

Room 4 also has ‘Cube’ (1933-34) and ‘Walking Woman III’ (1932). Both highly reduced forms. The latter sculpture is suggestive of the direction Giacometti was to take in his later career.

Rooms 5 and 6:

Presented here are a mixture of sculptures that trace Giacometti’s development during the war years and just after. He returned to Switzerland during the occupation of Paris and whilst there, worked on developing elongated human forms that, much to the consternation of the artist, grew smaller and smaller. The story goes that the entire body of work he created during this period fitted in a few matchboxes. Giacometti’s search for the fundamental nature of a subject required a systematic process of reduction; reworking the material in hand until it finally gave him what he wanted or fragmented into oblivion. In synthesis with a heightened perception of ever changing form and its relation to what surrounds.

I found ‘Head of a Man on a Base’ (c.1949-51) particularly moving. Giacometti managed to condense an incredible amount of visual information into a painted plaster sculpture just 23 cm high. Also the power of ‘Head of a Man on a Rod’ (1946-48) and ‘Silvio Standing with his Hands in his Pockets’ (1943). The artist’s creativity is in full flow as you wonder through these galleries. And I mean wonder at such beautiful and meaningful work.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw in Giacometti’s sculpture something “always halfway between nothingness and being”.

Through various configurations, Giacometti experimented with how we perceive figures at a distance and in groups. In 1963- so the story goes and long after the event- the artist spoke about the experience of seeing Isabel Rawsthorne from a distance. Which ultimately led him towards trying to capture the human figure, in small size, from a distance.

Around 1949 Giacometti wrote “Space does not exist, it has to be created… Every sculpture based on the assumption that space exists is wrong; there is only the illusion of space.” He wanted to find ways to establish each figure (or group) in its own space, without falling back on established conventions. One way, as mentioned earlier, was by using a ‘Cage’ and of which there are several examples on display. But the artist also experimented by placing figures on platforms of varying complexity. Some themselves within cages to distance the figure or figures even further from the location of the viewer. Several of these bases are reminiscent of ancient structures and in ‘Four Figurines on a Stand’ (1950-65), the artist has raised the pyramidal structure up on legs; upon the apex of which each figurine stands equidistant from one another. The central two slightly taller than those beside them. Other sculptures have a more familiar, almost domestic quality about them. ‘The Cage’ (1950) looks like a display cabinet.

These galleries present works that were interpreted at the time of their creation as reflecting the Existential and Phenomenological concerns which we know preoccupied Giacometti. In ‘Falling Man’ from 1950, the figure is poised to leap into the void and I couldn’t help thinking about that image- created ten years later- of Yves Klein allowing himself to fall off a wall. Or the intensely moving image from 9/11 of the ‘Falling Man’. Worth noting is how the figure appears balletic in its fall, poised and not chaotic. As if jumping, the platform upon which it’s feet are rooted is still attached.

The walking figures are still, yet appear captured in motion. Certain examples’ bearing and stride might suggest determination. Images of Mahatma Gandhi on the ‘Salt March’. Yet they are tethered to the their base and stuck forever.

Also on show are perceptive portraits of prominent intellectuals like the writers Jean Genet and Simone de Beauvoir; people to whom the artist was close.

We know that Giacometti’s work is profound, expressing the deepest of human concerns. In a time which the whole of humanity faced an uncertain future in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, these weathered, emaciated figures struck a chord. ‘Figurine between two Houses’ (1950) recalls the medieval idea about life. That it is short and fleeting ‘like a bird that’s flown into a room between two windows’. Eternity and nothing lay on both sides. The passage between both ‘houses’ is lined by glass; allowing no manoeuvre to the sides. On a set course, perhaps even sleepwalking?

Rooms 7 and 7a:

It is apparent in every work displayed, the extent of Giacometti’s advanced yet practical knowledge of art; which encompassed deep history as well as the contemporary avant garde.

“All the art of the past rises up before me, the art of all ages and all civilisations, everything becomes simultaneous, as if space had replaced time. Memories of works of art blend with affective memories, with my work, with my whole life.” Giacometti.

Artistic traditions from outside Europe presented Giacometti with many possibilities; offering forms and devices he could utilise in the development of his own work. In particular, the lessons of Egyptian and African art that are recurrent throughout the exhibition. Examples such as ‘The Chariot’ (1950) and the early enigmatic ‘Spoon Woman’ (1927); which suggests the influence of African and Cycladic sculpture. Giacometti was friends with Carl Einstein, author of the definitive ‘Negerplastik’ (1915) and Michel Leiris, one of the artist’s early champions who went on to become a specialist in Dogon art.

Walking through Room 7 allows the viewer to consider, through the many works and notes on display, something of how Giacometti thought about and incorporated into his own work Egyptian ideas and methods of representing the human form. They obviously held a fascination for him.  Finished sculptures like ‘Thin Bust on a Base (known as Amenophis’ from 1954 is a successful example of this. But in Room 5 is ‘Woman with Chariot’ (c.1945); brilliant for its sheer inventiveness.

Of all the work Giacometti produced that drew on the art of Egypt, the one that particularly captured my attention was ‘Tall Thin Head’ (1954). It is cast in Bronze and depicts his brother Diego’s elongated, flattened head in exquisite detail. There is an oppositional tension present between the weight of the bust and the head itself. The bust acts to anchor the head, which seems to be distorted and pulled into an elegant form before our eyes. This sculpture is a study in relative perception; in that the interpretation of what you see changes according to each viewpoint. So looking head on, the face becomes less substantial, almost merging into the spaces both sides of it, to become increasingly invisible. But when looking from the sides at Diego’s profile, moving right round until just before viewing it frontwards, the face retains weight. ‘Tall Thin Head’ is also a fusion of three and two dimensions; successfully merging formal traditions of western representational sculpture with elements of Egyptian art. As already mentioned, from the ‘hieratic’ Amarna Period. Take a look at the famous bust of Nefertiti (Akenatan’s Queen) in the Berlin Museum and say I’m wrong.

In Room 7b, Tate Modern brings together all six ‘Woman of Venice’ for the first time in 60 years. These plaster works were originally created for the 1956 Venice Biennale, where the artist represented France. Also shown are two other sculptures from this series. Moulded and worked in clay over a period of about three weeks, the artist then cast them in plaster. By painting and working their surface, he added to their expressive power. Here, you can even see the knife marks not visible on later bronze casts. One can only imagine the flurry of activity during the process of making.

It is significant I think to consider that although Giacometti was by this time successful, rich and world famous, he continued with the same spartan routines and habits right until his death. Living in the same run down studio. With a few exceptions, to him, money was only a means to carry on working.

Rooms 8 to 10:

“I’ve been fifty thousand times to the Louvre. I have copied everything in drawing, trying to understand”. Giacometti

During the latter part of the exhibition, we see many of the artist’s incredibly accomplished paintings, drawings and lithographs. Giacometti’s work in these areas shows how proficient he was at documenting in two dimensions the spaces around his subjects and locating each within. So perceptive and ‘in tune’ with his sitters that he was able to capture and fix their individual character, along with the many unique specifics of each encounter.

Room 8 includes several of Giacometti’s finest and most enigmatic sculptures. ‘Head on a Rod’ from 1947 is stuck on a spike as if recently severed. A disembodied head that powerfully captures the life of the depicted subject; particularly around the open sagging mouth. For me this was one of the most impressive and intense sculptures in the entire exhibition. Something I’ll never forget.

Influenced by tribal sculpture is another piece called ‘The Nose’ (this plaster version from c.1947-49). From a cage hangs a grimacing, Punch-like disembodied head, but this time with a huge nose extending far outside the frame of the sculpture into the space of the viewer. It’s neck counterbalancing the outsized proboscis. The work was informed by the death of a travelling companion the young Giacometti had witnessed, which left a lasting impression. Given that, might it be a Memento Mori? It has the appearance of a trophy or perhaps even a totem. Giacometti was, after all interested in the art of Oceania (see Room 3); parts of which had practiced headhunting. The large grimace could also reflect the Māori practice of warding off evil spirits with such an expression. Or, perhaps is it simply a laugh in the face of death? I also think Giacometti was seeking somehow to locate the essence of the person, as the ancient Egyptians had attempted. We may reside inside our head space, but all life hangs by a thread which is eventually cut.

‘Man Pointing’ (1947) is extremely affecting and one of several later taller figures. The emaciated male extends an arm above and points ahead, harmonious in the balance of its form. A pose that suggests something from classical antiquity and yet it seems entirely new. The figure stands above common height and looks down, so that the pointing finger is at eye level for most viewers. But to what does it point? One gets a sense that the finger might be accusatory. Yet in addition to pointing ahead, the other arm points above. Sartre saw in this incredible sculpture both Buchenwald and the Ascension. I couldn’t help but think of Primo Levi’s ‘If this is a Man?’, published the same year.

‘The Dog’ (1951) in its skeletal raggedness has its head down on the ground and shoulders hunched. Giacometti saw it as a self portrait.

His equal mastery of two and three dimensions allows us to gain a deeper insight into the subjects that preoccupied Giacometti during his later career. This is particularly so with Diego and his wife Annette. Wherever you look there is something new to be revealed and I for one could have stayed in the gallery for days and still not taken everything in.

In the final room, we see paintings of Caroline, his lover and confidant during the last period of his life. Also the sculptures ‘Tall Woman IV’, ‘Standing Woman I’ and ‘Walking Man’ (all c. 1960). Their change of scale is quite a shock as they tower over you, shifting your perceptions yet again and posing even more questions. Adding another dimension to Giacometti’s work. During this last decade of his life, Giacometti was more productive than ever. In 1961, the artist was awarded the first prize at the Venice Biennale and had reached the pinnacle of success.

Over the years, the Tate has enjoyed a special relationship with Giacometti. In 1965, art critic David Sylvester organised the first retrospective of the artist at the gallery. Giacometti actually set up studio in the basement in order to produce work for the show.

I thought every exhibit was beautifully displayed. The overall design of the exhibition allowed the viewer to see works of art and supporting material in more or less chronological order. Although in some cases exhibits were quite densely packed together, the spartan white displays and plinths gave each an appropriate space to be seen and properly experienced. This is especially true for the many small objects presented. In the case of Giacometti’s exquisite and eloquent small sculptures, the glass vitrines give each the requisite room to breathe. The lighting too really brought out the best in the work, enabling it to be viewed clearly and without relying on over theatrical effects.

Everything -galleries, displays and plinths- was in white and glass, following (‘White Cube’) modernist principles. Also, every room had a written introduction that gave the viewer enough information to consider each ones theme and subject.

Another thing about the design of the exhibition. It avoids an overreliance on multi-medial forms of display. Instead, the curators have adopted a successfully reductive and formal approach to presenting Giacometti’s work, which after all needs no propping up.

One exception is the inclusion of an invaluable film study made by Ernst Scheidegger and Peter Munger from 1966. We see Giacometti building up an image by drawing; thinking before and with every mark lain down, as a face is revealed before the camera. Giacometti talks as he records the features of his sitter-interviewer. About his artistic process and what is most revealing and significant about a subject- “It’s the eyes”- constantly working and reevaluating the form in front of him, towards an ever distant resolution.

When modelling a figure, Giacometti’s penetrating gaze and the activity of his hands show an artist constantly examining everything in relation to himself and testing his hard won perception. He looks at the subject and considers the space around it, amid the changing light and shifting appearance. Trying to form the material with his fingers to express the true essence of his subject.

In conclusion, Francis Morris, Catherine Grenier and the team behind ‘Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern’ should rightly be proud at having created a landmark exhibition. Successful in helping to bring Giacometti’s work to a new audience; rekindling an interest in it and repositioning the artist as originally intended. Thanks to the Fondation Giacometti, examples of work previously unseen added an extra dimension to the artist’s story, as did the display of decorative items he produced.

Through the revelatory power of art, Giacometti found new ways to describe the human experience; in works that give all of us an opportunity to empathise with other beings who occupy this space.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017