Alberto Giacometti: Exhibition Catalogues Reviewed

Alberto Giacometti – Beyond Bronze: Masterworks in Plaster and Other Materials
Kunsthaus Zürich (ed.), 
Hardback, ISBN 978 3 85881 785 3
Publication date: February 2017 (RRP £40, €58)
Publisher: Scheidegger & Spiess, 240pp, 224 col., 36 b&w.

Alberto Giacometti
Frances Morris & Lena Fritsch (eds.), 
Hardback, ISBN 978 1 849 765 046, 304pp, 230 col. (RRP £40)
Paperback, ISBN 978 1 849 765 046, 256pp, 220 b/w & col. (RRP £24.99)
Publication date: May 2017
Publisher: Tate Publishing

Substance and Shadow: Alberto Giacometti sculptures and their photographs by Peter Lindbergh
Conversation between Peter Lindbergh & Catherine Grenier,
Paperback, ISBN 978 1 938748 44 8, 122pp, fully illus. (RRP US$50)
Publication date: 2017
Publisher: Gagosian

Three recent catalogues have been published by Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, Tate and Gagosian on the subject of the art of Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). Giacometti worked in sculpture, painting, drawing and – to a lesser extent – printmaking. The Tate catalogue includes Giacometti’s sculpture and paintings; the Zürich catalogue focuses exclusively on Giacometti’s sculpture, principally original sculptures rather than the bronzes cast from them; the Gagosian catalogue gives us new photographs of classic sculptures by the artist.

The catalogue Giacometti was published for the retrospective exhibition held at Tate Modern (10 May-10 September 2017). The selection is representative and many excellent pieces are included. There are early works: the plaster and stone portrait heads, post-Cubist plaster carvings and marble carvings influenced by Cycladic art.

Around 1928 Giacometti formulated his Surrealist style, which combined his sensibility for plastic form with a sense of drama. Using combinations of multiple materials, the artist created violent, unsettling and mysterious psycho-sexual dramas. Some of these works take the form of tableaux on flat bases or table-pieces. The table-pieces include the ominously vegetal-insectoid Woman with her Throat Cut (1932). Another group are works within geometric frames (Suspended Ball, 1930-1). Giacometti’s use of cages around single figures, assemblages and dioramas (or toy theatres) is a radical development in Western sculptural practice. Although museum vitrines had previously existed, Giacometti’s innovation was to use glassless vitrines as part of the art rather than simply framing and protecting art objects. Innovated around 1930 for his Surrealist assemblages, Giacometti carried on using this approach for his later figure pieces. Diego Giacometti assisted his older brother from 1929 onwards by making armatures and cages, preserving and treating sculptures and supervising casting. In the early years he also produced stone carvings of Alberto’s plaster originals.

The illustrations are generally substantial, clear and informative. The photography and reproduction quality are such that one can see previously unseen details, such as the wrinkling of oil paint and the texture of canvases. The print quality is very good. Designers have not cropped out the uneven edges of canvases so we get a sense of the irregularity and physical presence of the paintings as objects. Archive photographs of Giacometti’s works (both in his studio and exhibited) are included, as are many photographs of the artist.

The decision to print a collection of short texts (ranging in length between one paragraph and about six pages) instead of either a collection of essays or a single long account yields mixed results, inevitably. We get snippets of information about figures in the artist’s life or career, which can be informative. A particularly good text is Alex Potts’s discussion of how Giacometti’s sculpture operates. Other entries are texts Giacometti himself wrote about other artists. Readers are either expected to already know about Giacometti’s career or to turn to narrative accounts.

Tate’s Giacometti has a number of serious omissions in its listings. ‘Print on paper’ is not the kind of description one expects to find in a professional catalogue. Some works are specified as etchings or engravings, but others go unspecified. Given sizes could be for either plate or paper. Casting dates for bronzes are not given. This is a grave omission. If viewers cannot tell whether the editions are lifetime or posthumous, we cannot be sure if the patina was chosen by the artist or his estate. Assessing bronzes must include consideration of patina and condition. Arp always considered the cast metal or carved stone as the finished work and the plaster version as merely a working model of no value in itself. Giacometti was an artist who struggled with bronze, tending to prefer his plasters and sometimes painting or drawing on the plaster surface. His vacillation was due to ambivalence regarding the permanence and solidity of bronze and bronze’s visual qualities compared with those of plaster. Hence, we need to know if these patinas are his choice or not. The artist’s decision whether or not to cast also affects our reading. There may be pieces here Giacometti rejected for casting for aesthetic reasons but which were cast by his estate.

Looking at these catalogue illustrations, we literally do not know what we are seeing. Etching, engraving, drypoint or mixed technique? Lifetime cast or posthumous cast? The cast information in particular is vital data for both exhibition visitors and anyone using this publication as a reference work. This information would have taken a day or two to compile and check and would have filled less than a page in the appendix. The blurb on the back cover calls this catalogue ‘authoritative’. It is anything but, regrettably.

The exhibition of Giacometti at Kunsthaus Zürich (2016-7) was of 90 works including 75 plasters, two Plasticine heads and one stone carving donated in 2006 by Bruno Giacometti, the architect brother of the artist, and his wife. In a series of photographs disparate pieces are seen together, revealing their comparative sizes and their plastic qualities. We also have the opportunity to see the original plasters of some of Giacometti’s most iconic works, for example, The Hand (1947), The Dog (1951) and the Women of Venice (1956), and read scientific analysis of items.

It was a common observation during the artist’s lifetime that photographs of Giacometti’s famously small, cluttered and dirty studio appeared akin to those of a newly discovered Egyptian tomb. Giacometti had a strong affinity for Egyptian art and this manifested itself in his hieratical statues standing gestureless and impassive. These photographs of plaster statues stained red by casting-process liquids make these plaster-casts look like Egyptian mummies coated in resin and gum: desiccated, withered, gnarled, fragile, battered by handling.

This catalogue contains detailed discussion of Giacometti’s working practice. In his mature phase, he would usually make a work in clay on a steel armature and wooden base, cast the piece in plaster, alter the plaster, either a little or radically, and then cast in bronze. However, there were times when he then went back to the clay and reworked it to make a version radically new. Sometimes he would work the plaster to such a degree, adding and subtracting, that it became a piece independent from the clay original. There were rare occasions when a plaster was cast in bronze then the plaster was altered and cast again. Giacometti is shown to be an artist with a flexible approach to working, ever alert to new ideas. In 1950, the artist started painting bronzes, rendering the casts unique and making their surfaces as complex as those of the plasters.

Essays discuss aspects of Giacometti’s output in detail. Catherine Grenier’s essay is useful for readers wishing to understand his ideas on art and to situate his work in the context of inter-war sculpture in Paris. Other essays discuss the donation and provenance of works and the conservation of fragile pieces. Recent imaging techniques were used to ascertain the materials, techniques and conditions of works. Hidden damage and posthumous repairs could be identified. Many of the plasters were coated with sealant and release agent as part of the process of bronze casting. These coloured the casts. Other casts had been sawn into pieces for the casting process. Conservators decided not to reassemble these and made minimal interventions to stabilise any weak points. A glossary and a brief technical condition summary of all the items (especially useful for scholars and collectors) close the volume.

Gagosian London held an exhibition of 13 Giacometti sculptures and photographs of them by Peter Lindbergh. The exhibition catalogue reproduces the photographs and has a short discussion between Peter Lindbergh and Catherine Grenier. There is no other text.
The Gagosian catalogue is elaborately designed and will be of interest to bibliophiles. There are tissue paper front-papers, Venetian red interleaves, half-pages and a fold-out pictorial cover. The images of the sculptures are striking. Close-up shots with high detail reveal new aspects to the pieces; medium-distance group photographs suggest connections between works. In his career Lindbergh has photographed many subjects and his broad appreciation of photography in general has informed his approach to this series. Lindbergh’s moody and surprising photographs are interspersed with neutral documentary shots of the exhibited sculptures. The idea of inviting an established photographer to take new images of classic sculpture is one that could be fruitfully applied in many other combinations.

Of the three catalogues, Tate’s is a fair overview, but the Zürich one contains more startling images, unique pieces and new information. The Gagosian catalogue, however, is the most attractive as a book.

Aurora Corio