Picasso Museum, Paris, until February 5.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) were both sons of artists, both mastered realism at an early age, both left their native countries and both turned up in Paris, where they met for the first time in 1931 and enjoyed a working friendship that flourished until the 1950s.
The illuminating overlap may seem obvious material for an exhibition and yet the Paris Picasso museum says its display of hundreds of sculptures, paintings, sketches and notes is the first of its kind and is based on its collaboration with the Fondation Giacometti, keeper of the largest Giacometti collection.
The relationship between the artists is as much one of juxtaposition as of interaction and less of similarity than contrast between the bold physicality of Picasso and the wafer-thin, elongated shapes of Giacometti.
Where the artists coincided was in the rejection of realism in their quest to be truthful, or to quote another contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, to pursue the impossible “search for the absolute”.
For Picasso, that could mean larger-than-life distortions of Dora Maar’s features, while Giacometti spent hours staring at his model and wife Annette and producing bronze head after bronze head.
The transition from more or less straight reality to cubism is shown in three Picasso bronzes – Le Fou (literally the mad man), or the jester with his jester’s cap, next to two women’s heads, one from 1906, more or less natural, and one from 1909 clearly cubist.
Heads or skulls – of men and animals – and the emotional violence they can imply are a dominant theme as war convulsed the world of Picasso and Giacometti.
We have Giacometti’s Head on a Rod, apparently wailing in pain, and Picasso’s bloodied Tete de Mouton Ecorchee (flayed head of a sheep) in close proximity to his painting, complete with bullet wound, of the head of his friend and compatriot the poet Carlos Casagemas, who shot himself in an agony of unrequited love.
Giacometti’s sculpture of La Femme Egorgee (woman with her throat cut) is even more shocking. At a casual glance, it’s an abstract sculpture, but on close examination it’s a corpse distorted by death throes whose cruelty is underlined by the tiny detail of the cut to the throat.
The exploration of darkness and pain, summed up in the emblematic twinning of Giacometti’s L’Homme qui Marche (The Walking Man) striding past Picasso’s l’Ombre (the Shadow), is the flipside of a fascination with fertility as both artists – Picasso with his totems and Giacometti with his steles – explored the direct emotional appeal of primitive art. It takes us to the almost impersonal essence of our humanity and such spare portrayals of man as Giacometti’s Apollon (1929) and Picasso’s 1928 Figure.
Finally, after all the human torment, the exhibition leads back to more or less straightforward animal depictions.
From Giacometti, we have his famous skeletally thin dog, based on Picasso’s real-life Afghan hound, while Picasso, ever the more robust of the two artists, is represented by a bulging goat, as much menacing as reassuring in its powerful physicality.
Barbara Lewis © 2017.