Giacometti Exhibition - Tate Modern

by James Finch

The Giacometti retrospective at Tate Modern, organized in collaboration with the Fondation Giacometti (FAG), Paris, is devoted almost entirely to Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) as a sculptor. Well over three-quarters of the works reproduced in the exhibition catalogue are sculptures. This focus is made clear from the first room, in which the viewer is met by the stares of twenty-five bronze and plaster portrait busts spanning the artist’s career. Organized in a block occupying the centre of the gallery, the sculptures are arranged in chronological order, from naturalistic early work to the dense, intense final works. The room functions like an overture to an opera, providing an overview of Giacometti’s career including his Surrealist phase (Surrealist Head 1934) and his interest in Egyptian art (Head of Isabel (The Egyptian) 1936) treated in greater depth elsewhere in the exhibition. The arrangement of works, different yet similar, seems to suggest that for all the individuality of Giacometti’s works, taken as a whole they follow a neat progression from early to late style. Perhaps retrospectives almost always convey a similar impression. Nonetheless the room is an impressive and original beginning to the exhibition, emphasizing Giacometti’s particular obsession with frontal likeness.

The second room seems to deliberately contrast with the first and consists of two parts. On the left, a long procession of works follows Giacometti’s playful and inventive departures from naturalistic sculpture in the late 1920s and 1930s, moving from Lipchitzesque Cubism to elegant plaques in which a face is registered by the faintest indentations on a flat surface. On the right meanwhile are a number of Giacometti’s Surrealist masterpieces on individual plinths, housed within display cases. Giacometti’s time as a member of the Surrealist group was brief, but a number of the works present here, above all Suspended Ball (fig.1), are amongst the most enduring works produced within the movement. Organising the room in this way shows how Giacometti was following two paths simultaneously: one rethinking the portraiture, or at least likeness, in sculpture, and the other based around intricate assemblage or construction, often involving moveable parts like solemn games, and expressing oblique and poetic metaphors for relationships (eg. ManWomanChild 1931). 

The exhibition would be worth visiting for this room alone, which assembles a spectacular collection of loans from Paris, Zurich, Basel, Stockholm and elsewhere to augment the holdings of Tate and the FAG. If the absence of natural light is felt particularly acutely here (plaster yellowing under the artificial light) it is wonderful, as throughout the exhibition, to encounter so many of Giacometti’s sculptures in plaster rather than bronze, a material which the artist seems to have been ambivalent about, and which fails to capture the nuances of his modelling. It is a great virtue of this exhibition that through the involvement of the Fondation Giacometti, a great many rarely seen original plasters are exhibited, particularly the wonderfully tactile Venice Women1956 (fig.2), eight of which are shown together for the first time since they were originally exhibited.

Unlike many recent Tate retrospectives of canonical artists (Richard Hamilton, Malevich etc.) this exhibition makes little use of archival material, works by other artists, or restaging of elements from earlier exhibitions (even in the case of the Venice Women). If it is initially disconcerting to encounter so little interpretation, particularly in relation to the Surrealist sculptures, it is also bold and refreshing. In this respect the exhibition is a different animal from the accompanying, very browsable, catalogue, which includes an ‘A to Z’ of Giacometti consisting of over sixty short essays on a bewildering range of topics both expected (Existentialism, Montparnasse) and less so (Hepworth, Queneau). Frances Morris’ excellent introduction, meanwhile, highlights the range of the sources which contributed to Giacometti’s art. Some may be disappointed that this approach is not more directly evident in the exhibition itself, but after repeated visits I have concluded that in the first half of the exhibition, at least, the result is extremely effective.

The only exception to this approach is room three (something of an appendix to room two), which assembles an array of drawings, prints, sketchbooks, letters, objects and magazines to situate Giacometti amongst his Surrealist colleagues, including work by Dalí, Oppenheim and others, but also the world of commercial and decorative objects, which he was also heavily involved in. This combination of the functional and the romantic is as fascinating to contemplate in Giacometti as it is in his contemporary Francis Bacon, who was a furniture designer early in his career. Unfortunately, little of the material in this room is reproduced in the catalogue, which functions better as a stand-alone publication than as a record of the exhibition. 

Room four brings together five sculptures which supposedly represent ‘Giacometti’s most substantial works from the 1920s and 30s, amongst these the standout work is another classic surrealist work, Woman with her Throat Cut 1932 from National Galleries Scotland (fig.3). One of Giacometti’s most unforgettable creations, Woman with her Throat Cut is enduringly strange and as contorted as Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Seeing the work in relation to larger sculptures such as Cube1933-34 and Invisible Object 1934-35 (fig.4), rather than the surrealist objects in room two also works to its advantage, making it seem all the more mobile. Room five, meanwhile, showcases (in vitrines stretching around three walls of the gallery) Giacometti’s tiny sculptures made shortly before, and during, World War II, the best of which (such as Very Small Figurine c.1937-39) carry such a charge relative to their size that they seem to create their own universe around themselves. In this context the larger Woman with Chariot c.1945, backed right up against the wall like an awkward guest, seems redundant, seeming only to remind us that Giacometti was still making larger sculptures at this time. 

Up to this point the exhibition is thrillingly focused; it is the second half which is less satisfactory, beginning with room six which highlights Giacometti’s work of the immediate postwar period. Sartre’s influential essay ‘The Search for the Absolute’ was the definitive expression of an Existentialist Giacometti who created sculptures ‘embodying human anxieties and alienation’, giving rise to the cliché of Giacometti as a hermetic artist obsessed with resolving (unsolvable?) artistic problems in his tiny Montparnasse studio, divorced from the world outside his quartier.

There is a strange duality to Giacometti’s career. He was precocious, immensely gifted in a range of media (not to mention a brilliant writer), receptive to a wide range of influences, and stunningly inventive. The first part of this exhibition expertly lays out the unpredictable yet logical development of his sculpture over a twenty-year period from the late 1920s onwards. By around 1950, however, he had arrived at the way of working which would sustain him for the rest of his career. There are no more sudden departures, only an intensely focused investigation of what it means to make a human likeness, almost always of the same handful of sitters. Occasionally a new sitter would become part of Giacometti’s schedule — the Japanese philosopher Isaku Yanaihara, the French photographer Eli Lotar, the artist’s mistress Caroline — or he might entertain unusual commissions, most notably the request to produce a large-scale group for a piazza at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. These didn’t involve any fundamental rethinking of his art, however.

‘I run and run, staying in the same place, without stopping…’, Giacometti wrote in a poem published in 1952 [‘je cours, je cours sur place sans m’arrêter’], and of course the artist made a virtue of this entropic non-progress in his late work. But what is an exhibition-maker to do with this? The last time Tate held a Giacometti retrospective was in 1965, organized by David Sylvester, and, on that occasion, Giacometti was on site, making new works for the exhibition. Even Sylvester himself later remarked that ‘an artist whose progress resembles that of Alice and the Red Queen is in a bad situation’. Prolonged exposure to Giacometti’s work had convinced him that late works such as his large paintings of his enigmatic mistress Caroline— ‘works in which more and more of the effort went into solidifying the face and its aura while leaving the rest of the picture almost untouched’— were clearly inferior to comparable portraits of the late 1940s (fig.5).

I’m not sure how a curator should handle this, although I would now like to see an exhibition focusing in detail on late Giacometti in which this question is foregrounded. What I am certain of is that the final rooms of the Tate exhibition try to bring new elements into play which seem forced in comparison with the first half of the exhibition (of course, it was in part the deferral of these elements until later which makes those first rooms seem so natural and effortless). So in room seven Giacometti’s drawing, barely present up until then (a single drawing in room two and some works on paper in the busy third room), makes a substantial appearance, more specifically his copies of ancient Egyptian art. This is undoubtedly an important part of Giacometti’s makeup as an artist. An excellent catalogue entry explains how the subject fascinated him throughout his career, while one of the drawings in the exhibition was made while he was still a teenager. The more specific thematic approach to this room, however, is at odds with the exhibition as a whole. 

Equally, when Giacometti’s painting finally appears (with the exception of Tate’s fine portrait of Jean Genet, orphaned in room six) in room eight, which includes a collection of murky grey paintings of sitters such as Yanaihara, it is alongside a mixed group of sculptures such as The Dog 1951 (main image) and The Hand 1947 (fig.6), with a wall text making clear the lack of a thread connecting the works. In room nine, the inclusion of Ernst Scheidegger’s film and the adjacent selection of lithographs from Paris sans fin 1959-65 (again absent from the catalogue) amongst the massed portraits of the artist’s brother Diego and wife Annette, also feel perfunctory. The final room, meanwhile, balances a group of late paintings of Caroline with three large sculptures from the turn of the 1960s. This was presumably done to avoid the entropic, whirlpool-like sense of Giacometti’s final portraits, but thinking back to the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition of Giacometti portraits (‘Giacometti: Pure Presence’ 2015-6), the decision in that exhibition to devote the final room exclusively to Caroline seems the bolder choice, to embrace rather than defuse it.

Main Image: Alberto Giacometti, The Hand, 1947, bronze (cast 1947-49) 57×72×3.5 cm., Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung (photo: © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)

Aurora Corio