Giacometti at the Tate Modern.
Review by Jane McChrystal.


Alberto Giacometti’s standing figures are some of the most easily recognized sculptures of the twentieth century.  The plaster, clay and bronze figures he made in the 1940’s and 1950’s were seen as a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of post-war Paris.  During this period he was closely associated with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre as they promulgated their own brand of existentialism through philosophical writings, journalism, novels and plays.

The long, emaciated forms of these isolated figures rise from blocks, supported by impossibly thin legs, with their bodies tapering into heads whose surfaces are highly worked and intricately moulded.

For Sartre these figures represented the idea of humanity without God.  Their loneliness and fragility summoned up the existential dilemma: how does one live authentically and forge a sense of self through one’s own actions, in a world where each individual is entirely free to act as they choose?

The existential period, however, occupied just one stage of Giacometti’s life as an artist.  The Tate Modern exhibition guides the viewer through nine rooms of work which chart his journey from the maker of cubist sculptures to the creator of the standing figures, busts and painted portraits we automatically identify him with today.

The exhibition opens with a forest of heads, sculpted at all stages of Giacometti’s career, demonstrating his lifelong obsession with gazing at the people who were closest to him, especially his brother Diego, his wife Annette and mistress Caroline.

Room 2 introduces some early experiments with cubism which were followed by abstract works, the smooth, flat plaques titled Gazing Heads.   He was taken up by the surrealists in the twenties and thirties when he produced more abstract objects, suggestive of disturbing acts of sex and violence, which appealed to their fascination with art as a product of the unconscious mind.  Other works of this period, with moving parts and levers, present the artist in a more playful mode.

Giacometti took a surprising turn in the 1930’s when decorative pieces, such as jewellery, lamps and vases he produced to support his studio became objects of high fashion promoted in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.  Although they were designed to make money, he treated them with the same seriousness he brought to his other work, which is reflected in the similarity in their shapes and subjects.

A Swiss national, Giacometti, was stranded in Geneva from 1940 till 1945.  His brother, Diego, was left in occupied France to take care of the studio.   With only a hotel room to accommodate his work space, he moulded plaster and clay to produce miniscule busts and the standing figures, in miniature form, which were to become the focus of his post-war work.

On his return to the Paris studio the now-familiar, elongated bronze figures appeared fully realized in 1945.  Exhibitions in Paris, London and New York followed and in 1956 he was chosen to represent France at the Venice Biennale.  Six of the nine plaster figures he produced for the Biennale, known as The Women of Venice, appear together at the Tate Modern for the first time in sixty years.

Giacometti’s collection of books on Ancient Egyptian art, displayed in room 7, are filled with copies he made of the illustrations on their pages and illuminate the link between the art of antiquity and his sculptures.  Its influence can be clearly seen on the sculpted figures which emerge from blocks, sometimes footless, recalling the bases of Ancient Egyptian statuary.

The works exhibited in room 9 foreground the importance of portrait painting to Giacometti at different stages of his career.   Early on he was just as interested in painting as sculpture, but took a break in 1922 until the end of the war, when he resumed painting with the same fierce concentration he devoted to his art in three dimensions.

Painting was at the heart of an obsession with finding an entirely new way of capturing the reality of his sitters in various media.  In particular, he was preoccupied the eyes of his sitters and the way in which his gaze transformed them.  He would look at them for hours until, in his eyes, their personal identity disappeared as he drew and redrew them.

This obsession precipitated a crisis of confidence in 1956 which affected his work until his death ten years later.  A belief that he never succeeded in reproducing his mental vision of the sitters on canvas drove him to reworking the portraits of his sitters’ heads so intensively that he nearly obliterated the images he was trying to create.

The curators have selected items from collections of Giacometti’s work to give the viewer a unique insight into the artist’s evolution, without overwhelming them with the number of objects on display.  They will never be seen together in the same place again.

The plaster figures of the Women of Venice had to be specially restored for the Tate Modern’s exhibition, as they were damaged in the process of bronze casting.  Giacometti viewed his works in plaster and clay as the height of his achievement in sculpture and would only have them cast when they were deemed to have commercial potential.  The Women of Venice are so fragile now that they will no longer be on display to the public when they are sent to the Giacometti Foundation in Paris after the exhibition.

A major retrospective of Giacometti’s work was last mounted at the Tate in 1965, so, for some of us, the Tate’s 2017 exhibition could be a once in a life-time event.

Giacometti at the Tate Modern until 10th September.

Jane McChrystal © 2017.