The elongated emaciated sculptures by Alberto Giacometti are icons of modern art. The first retrospective on Alberto Giacometti’s work in Great Britain since 20 years is an attempt to depict the development of his oeuvre across five decades and to raise the awareness of him as one of the greatest painter-sculptors of the 20th century alongside Picasso, Matisse and Degas.
His work comprises sculptures, paintings and drawings, in close collaboration with the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris Tate Modern presents more than 250 works in a comprehensive and ambitious exhibition. Amongst them there are also rarely presented bronze sculptures such as Walking Man I from 1960 and the figure group Women of Venice from plaster which have been restored specifically for the exhibition and have been reunited for the first time since 60 years. The presentation at Tate Modern surprises and reveals the work of Alberto Giacometti in a different light which is often subject to a one-sided view and reduced to his thin bronze sculptures. Also the relation to people of his private circle who had a strong influence on his work is explored. Giacometti’s models always have been family members and friends, amongst them his mother Annetta, his wife Annette, his brother Diego and his late mistress Caroline.
Alberto Giacometti, Composition, 1927, Untitled, 1926, Reclining Woman who Dreams, 1929, Man, 1929
Alberto Giacometti was born in 1901 in Borgonovo in the Italian part of Switzerland. His father Giovanni was a post-impressionist painter. From 1919 to 1920 Alberto Giacometti studied sculpting and drawing at the École des Arts et Metiers in Geneva and painting at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1922 he settled in Paris to intensify his study of sculpting with Émile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Together with his brother Diego who assisted him throughout his life Alberto Giacometti moved into a studio in Montparnasse in 1927.
The visitors to the exhibition are received by an army of sculpted heads, with their presentation on plinths taking up the space and depicting both the spectrum of Alberto Giacometti’s artistic ways of expressing and the development of his work from the early beginnings on. Family members as his mother Annetta and his wife Annette as well as friends such as Simone de Beauvoir look the viewer in the eye. His early naturalistic attempts were soon replaced by the discovery of Cubism which caused a radical change in his work. Under the influence of Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens he created his first noteworthy self-directed sculptures. Also African art by the so-called “primitives” inspired him strongly, it influenced many of his works in the 1920s, amongst them Man and Woman from 1928/29 and Spoon Woman. Characteristic of this period is the strong reduction of shapes and the full frontal view of male and female sexual characteristics which enhance their totemistic appearance.
Alberto Giacometti, Composition, 1926-27, The Couple, 1927
Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist objects tell a story of failure.
In 1930 Giacometti was introduced into the circle of the Surrealists around André Breton by André Masson and was the first to explore ways to transfer the philosophy of Surrealism which had arisen as a literary movement and in the meantime also comprised painting to sculpture. He enlarged the spectrum of sculpture both conceptually and stilistically by adding to classical materials such as plaster and bronze new fragile ones and creating constructed sculptures in an additive approach. Suspended parts from plaster or glass and extremely thin sculptured wood appear in almost all in his works from his Surrealist period. The concept of the cage, the surrounding space and the void enter into a dialogue with the displayed objects.
Often these objects fail in their attempt to accomplish something or to touch another object. The subject of frustration and futility in many of the sexually charged works of the 1930s seems to reflect Alberto Giacometti’s personal situation as well. Suspended Ball from 1930-31 consists of a suspended ball, which floats above a sharp-edged wedge in the shape of a slice of melon, however, not touching it by a whisker, the sexual meaning of the objects and the imagery of failure is obvious.
Alberto Giacometti, Caught Hand, 1932
Alberto Giacometti, Walking Woman, 1932, Spoon Woman, 1927, Invisible Object, 1934-35
Caught Hand from 1932 displays the wooden hand of a mannequin which is caught in a strange contraption, looking like an instrument of torture. Is it a prosthesis that operates the crank handle and sets the wheelwork on motion or is it the mechanism that inflicts pain on the hand? Here Giacometti seems to deal with a childhood experience when the hand of his brother Diego was crushed by a thresing machine.
However, in no other work the morbid horror of Surrealism with its depth psychological display of unconscious fears and obsessions is expressed so radically as in Woman with Her Throat Cut from 1932. The bronze sculpture is an abominable hubris between plant and insect which is lying on the floor like a trodden down giant scorpion, but which still is able to shoot up at any moment for a last attack and to squirt its lethal poison. Alberto Giacometti’s liaison with the group of the Surrealists didn’t last any longer than until 1935, he and André Breton had alienated themselves in their artistic world views too much. Giacometti returned to a more representative art by preferring the study of nature and working with living models which was considered as treason by André Breton.
Alberto Giacometti, Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932
Without studio Alberto Giacometti was forced to shrink his figures to miniature format during the war.
In order to earn a living in the 1930s Alberto Giacometti also designed decorative objects together with his brother Diego, amongst them vases, lamps, jewelry and mural reliefs. After the outbreak of the Second World War Giacometti left Paris in 1941 in order to visit his mother in Switzerland. However, as his re-entry to France was denied, he settled in Geneva and established a little studio in a hotel room, where he spent the years of the war. After breaking with Surrealism he abandoned abstraction and focused increasingly on scale and perspective. Due to his limited space his sculptures shrank to miniature format.
Then Alberto Giacometti started his project to make “looking heads” the appearance of whose makes the viewer feel to be looked at by them, they become metaphors of a “face” in the truest sense of the word. Giacometti created tiny likenesses in the size of a few centimeters only which present themselves like flower buds right before blossoming, as it were a taste of the tall figures to grow up from them one decade later. The figurines and portrait busts displayed at Tate Modern trace the human shape in a realistic style, as if one was looking at them from a distance. The tiny faces and embryonic bodies are presented on rods and plinths, their appearance reminds of Roman lares and penates which serve as guardian spirits for the home altar. Illuminated cabinets which are inserted into three walls showcase the miniature sculptures impressively and create an aura for them that makes them take on the large sculptures. Word goes that Alberto Giacometti’s entire output during the war fitted in six match boxes, when he returned to Paris in 1945. After Giacometti had resumed his work in his Paris studio at Rue Hippolyte-Maindron 46, his figures became larger again, but thinner as well.
Alberto Giacometti, Head of Diego, 1949
He makes them grow straight like plants that stretch out for the sun after the gloomy years of the war, following the principles of evolution in nature which endows organisms with the capability to develop certain functional features or to suppress them. Single or in groups they stand like skeletons on heavy bronze pedestals which fix them to the floor, a solid base for disrooted individuals. They stand for the climate of existential need in post-war Europe and represent the alienation and isolation of the individual. Giacometti’s figures from this period are shadowy creatures with swollen feet, created from ash and bones. They appear like survivors of a nuclear apocalypse, manifestations of human fear in a war-torn society. Their linear reduction turns them into three-dimensional signs in space.
Giacometti’s emaciated bronze figures became metaphors for the torn post-war society.
The art market considered Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures as perfect metaphors for the horror of the concentration camps, for disrooted and traumatized people. An exhibition at Galerie Maeght in 1951 was Alberto Giacometti’s international breakthrough and established him as an icon of the art of the 20th century. On a philosophical level Giacometti was also seen as an existentialist artist which he owed an essay by Jean Paul Sartre. For the existentialists Giacometti mirrored the ugly head of the world with its coldness and godlessness, according to them man was nothing more than a dwindling anti-heroic insignificance, an accident of evolution. In his essay for Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, where Giacometti’s skinny sculptures were shown for the first time, Sartre wrote: “At first glance they look like emaciated figures of the Second World War, but on closer inspection one can also see how they straighten up to the sky and have a majestic appearance.”
Alberto Giacometti, Tall Thin Head, 1954
Alberto Giacometti, Standing Woman I, 1960, Walking Man I, 1960
Alberto Giacometti’s look at living creatures was characterized by sensitiveness and affection. He saw them as fragile beings who were engulfed by the void of space. He commented on human life to be able to exist in very narrow limits only, a small change of the combination of natural circumstances would jeopardize the existence of man immediately. This reveals a world view which was diametrically opposed to Renaissance, which glorified human power and heroism. Giacometti dissolves the architectural clear outlines of the Renaissance artists, the contours become blurred, they are surrounded by an aura of uncertainty relation which includes all possible figurative appearances.
Giacometti’s post-war sculptures look as if the surrounding space had collapsed, as if the physical power of a cosmic vacuum made the three-dimensional shape shrink to the event horizon of a reversed big bang. Amongst the exhibited masterpieces of this reductive process are Chariot and Standing Woman I which towers above the viewer like an idol three meters tall. The emaciated Dog is immaterial as a shadow, but full of vitality. The bronze sculptures were the basis for Alberto Giacometti’s fame as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, but his true love was working with clay and plaster. The elasticity and malleability of these materials allowed him to work intuitively in a continuing process of transforming and subsequently destroying the heavily textured and scratched surfaces. Giacometti found it virtually impossible to realize the desired perfect result, that’s why he reworked his projects over and over again, without being able to finalize them. His models had to be infinitely patient and art dealers were recommended to simply take away Giacometti’s works, otherwise he would continue to work on them endlessly. Therefore the goal of Tate Modern is to showcase the different Giacometti beyond the clichés as a creator of skinny bronze sculptures in this exhibition.
Alberto Giacometti, Tall Woman, 1958, Man Pointing, 1947, The Dog, 1951
The Nose – Alberto Giacometti’s answer to the ridiculousness of machismo.
“I don’t know, if I’m a comedian, a rogue, a blockhead or a very conscientious boy. I only know that I have to try to copy a nose according to nature.” One of the most bizarre post-war works by Alberto Giacometti is The Nose from 1947, with several bronze casts existing, but also two less known versions from plaster one of which is on display at Tate Modern. With its monstrosity and through its presentation as a suspended object in a cage the nose is a reference to Giacometti’s Surrealist period. Remarkable is how Giacometti has created a perfect balance between the head’s nose and neck and evened it out horizontally.
Besides the genital organs the nose is the part of the body which belongs to the most intimate ones, however, while the genitals are covered up bashfully, it’s the designation of the nose to protrude at a prominent location. If the nose exceeds the regular size, it will be perceived as something immoderate and disconcerting. The love of Cyrano de Bergerac is put to a painful test because of his oversize nose. As the nose is considered as a visible synonym of the genital organs, Giacometti’s project “to copy a nose according to nature”, doesn’t mean anything else than breaking a strong social taboo. To achieve this he takes a skull which has an abstract quality due to its self-contained roundness, and disrupts its roundness by attaching an abnormal appendage to it. A skull can be turned into “something alive and dead at the same time” by either putting eyes into the hollow eye-sockets, or by transplanting an organ like the nose which has an autonomous growth and starts growing in puberty just like the genital organs. Thus Alberto Giacometti turns the skull into a monster, chimera, unicorn and swordfish altogether.
Alberto Giacometti, The Nose, 1947
The exhibited plaster version accentuates the bony character of the nose even more strongly, the material makes it appear like the paleontologic evidence of a whim of nature extinct long ago. The nose skull equipped with a procreation organ merges imagery of death and life-giving vitality. An overmodeled ancestry skull from Northern Melanesia which is owned by the Haus der Kulturen in Basle might have inspired Giacometti to the nose, but also the celebration of carnival in the Alps had a strong influence on him. The etymological meaning of the word “carnival” is derived from Tuscan “carnevalere”, taking away the flesh. Carnival is a time of emaciation, when death is dancing with the living and the mask with its phallic appearance is meant to disguise the morbid face of death. At the same time masquerade is protective magic against death, attribute of triumphant manliness and symbol of ridiculousness. Between 1500 and 1800 people who had violated social rules, were sentenced to wearing scold’s bridles which had trunk-like nasal appendages and donkey ears to demonstrate their uncontrolled brute character in public and to ridicule them.
The physical impulsiveness of man is also brought up in the legend of the unicorn. The mythical creature has an ambivalent character, it is considered as insidious and devilish, but also vulnerable. It is living in the wilderness and only a virgin has the power to tame it, then it will lay its head on her lap. The tooth of the narwhale was synonymous with its horn and was presumed to be a medical miracle cure. One of the most obvious sources, however, that inspired Alberto Giacometti to the nose was the novel “Le Avventure di Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi which was published in 1882. Pinocchio’s nose always grows, when he tells a lie. For the very first time this strange erection phenomenon happens, when his father, the wood carver Geppetto, creates him, an anticipation of a future competitive situation between son and father. The second time it happens in front of a girl, the fairy who later is revealed to be his mother. Pinocchio has to face up to the hard tests of life and with the awakening of puberty has to undergo the rite of passage. In experiencing death and becoming aware of being mortal, finally he truly comes to life.
Plaster was for Giacometti the medium, that made him feel closest to truth.
Alberto Giacometti could identify himself with the character of the wood carver Geppetto only too well. His difficulties in finalizing his work was a mirror of Giacometti’s own tireless efforts to complete the creative process with a satisfying result. Actually he has been working on one single work throughout his life which he has reworked, dropped and restarted over and over again. This lifelong struggling with the material and the attempt to wrench the spirit of knowledge from it is expressed in no other medium as expressively as in his plaster sculptures.
Alberto Giacometti, Women of Venice, 1956
The plaster casts Women of Venice from 1956, all likenesses of his wife Annette, are among the highlights of the exhibition at Tate Modern. Alberto Giacometti created the plaster originals that were used to make bronze casts from them for the Biennale of Venice, where he was honoured to exhibit at the pavilion of his adopted country France. Due to the process of casting the bronze the plaster originals were damaged, that’s why an extensive restoration through the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti was needed in order to put the fragile figures in a transportable condition. Initially Giacometti modeled the elongated and yet well-grounded sculptures in clay, then made plaster casts from them and continued to treat them with a knife. The rugged surfaces scratched by cut traces were later on striated with red and black paint.
Alberto Giacometti, Woman of Venice VIII, 1956
The play of light and shadow on the incarnate crustations adds an eery presence and an expression of pain to the figures. Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures have both modern and ancient influences, especially the inspiration by Egyptian funerary sculpture is clearly obvious. A whole team of restorers specialized on plaster was occupied for one year with restoring the sculptures that had been taken apart and stored in the storage of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti for decades. One of the greatest challenges was to remove the brownish layer of shellac which had been necessary for the subsequent bronze cast, without damaging the original paint laying underneath. In order to be able to make the bronze casts, it had been indispensable to cut the plaster figures into pieces. The second problem the restorers were facing, was to reassemble the single parts of the sculptures and to stabilize them in a way that they could stand safely. In doing so any intervention had to be reversible. Giacometti created a total of ten plaster figures six of whose were presented in Venice and three in his solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Bern. Eight of these figures are reunited in the show at Tate Modern.
Like a sculptor Alberto Giacometti treated the canvas to capture his hazy figures.
However, his creative output wasn’t exhausted yet with the work on the three-dimensional object, as drawing and painting were equally important to him in his oeuvre. Giacometti attacked the canvas with edged brush strokes as he treated plaster with a knife. His overall goal was to come closer to the volume of the portrayed person, but he tried to avoid an exact capturing through an outline as the Renaissance artists in Florence intended. A contour would have gone against his needs to be able to rework a figure endlessly and would have limited his creative freedom. The perfect imperfection was Giacometti’s artistic claim in painting as well. His nervous stroke obscures the traits of the portrayed persons and moves his paintings closer to Expressionism. In a broader sense also his paintings are drawings on canvas, as they aren’t about the depiction of planes, but about capturing the figure by means of a framework of lines. As a painter Alberto Giacometti uses the colors of a sculptor, earth-colors, white and black which are equivalent to clay, plaster and bronze in sculpture. The chronological exhibition at Tate Modern appears like a kaleidoscope of the art of the 20th century.
Alberto Giacometti, Portrait of Caroline, 1961
Only few artists have created a work as Alberto Giacometti which has strongly influenced the most important schools of modern art and yet remains entirely independent. His oeuvre closes the circle from ancient to folk art, Cubism, Surrealism and finally his mature post-war works, he constantly pulled down bounderies between decorative and fine art by using any creative technique brilliantly. More than 50 years after Giacometti’s death it becomes clear how timeless and fascinating his work is still today. The show at Tate Modern offers a fresh view on a true giant of modern art.
10.05. – 10.09.17 Tate Modern, London