Thursday, 7 January 2016

Giacometti: Pure Presence, National Portrait Gallery, London (15 October 2015-10 January 2016)

Portrait of Annette (1954)

Portrait of Annette (1954) by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was to be the third artwork to feature in my “Why I Love…” series.  Having attended many life drawing classes over the years where much emphasis was put on building up the figure using shade and tone to gently (and more importantly) to accurately depict flesh and muscle, with the use of a hard or misplaced line frowned upon, this painting of the artist’s wife sitting in his studio fascinated me.  Giacometti use of line was so frenetic and seemingly uncontrolled, as if possessed by a need to commit his wife’s likeness to canvas almost against his will.  Building up Annette’s body in white, grey and ochre chalk and then repeatedly searching for her contours in black before extending the same line into the space in which she sat then framing both within the canvas itself, Giacometti seemed more interested in the relationship between the sitter and the space than capturing a likeness of his wife, either physically or psychologically.  Historical accounts record Annette as being pretty and vivacious, open and receptive, such qualities at odds with Giacometti’s expressionless almost hollow rendering.  I wondered then if such a depiction was a comment on the nature of their relationship and the artist’s inner contempt for his spouse.  Later research proved that particularly theory wrong (they were happily married for seventeen years from 1949 until the artist’s death in 1966) and she featured predominately in his professional, as well as personal life during that time.  Despite my woeful attempt at psychoanalysis, Giacometti’s style of drawing greatly influenced my own and such way of working suited me well as I struggled with more traditional forms of life drawing.

Regarded as one of the great masters of twentieth century art, Giacometti’s sculptures of spindly, elongated figures are heralded as capturing the existential loneliness of modern humanity in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Such sculptures enveloped by the space that surrounded them almost as tangibly as the void that they inhabited.
Only one is featured in this exhibition, Woman of Venice VIII (1956), used almost as a book mark to distinguish the artist’s early Cubist inspired work, with his later oeuvre.  This solitary figure, taken away from her sisters and the artist’s original group of ten Women for Venice (1956) for the city’s biennale of that year, still imbues both calmness and rage.  Does she stand to protect her loved ones, or is she paralysed in grief or fear?  She is both ugly and beautiful.  She moved me greatly and I found myself drawn back to her many times during my visit to this exhibition.  Perhaps on this artwork I project my own contradictory feelings and thoughts.
Woman of Venice VIII (1956)

Much has been written about Giacometti’s progress from his Surrealist sculptures of the early 1930s through to the elongated figures which evolved from the time he spent working in exile in Geneva during the Second World War.  The premise of this exhibition is that at the heart of this progression (and despite the artist’s declaration in 1925 that he had abandoned working from observation due to his perceived inability of capturing any likeness successfully) was the artist’s continued observance of reality in the form of painted and sculpted portraits of a very small number of sitters throughout his career, most notably his parents, his brother Diego and his wife Annette.

                    Diego standing in the Living Room, Stampa (1922)                                   Diego (1950)

Giacometti’s radical change of style and artist intent is evidenced in two paintings of his brother, both contained in the exhibition.  The instantly recognised post-Impressionist, Cubist influenced Diego standing in the Living Room, Stampa (1922), a style much appropriated by artists of that time while beautiful in its elegance, is in stark contrast to a portrait painted twenty-eight years’ later.  Diego (1950) depicts the sitter in a studio location but this time both pose and drawing style is much more relaxed and informal pose.  In his catalogue introduction to the exhibition, Curator of Twentieth-Century Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, describes Giacometti’s engagement with representation:

Giacometti’s depiction of a model is essentially connected with the internal process of seeing that person.  His portraits thus stop short of evoking his sitters’ psychology, character or what is known about them.  Rather, they are an intense record of numerous attempts to give objective reality to that which is forever appearing and disappearing: his subjective sensations of a living presence”.
This process of seeing and attempts at objective reality can also be seen in two busts of Diego, one from 1924, the other from 1955. 

                      Head of Diego (1924)                                                            Bust of Diego (1955)

Diego acted as Giacometti’s studio assistant and technical for his entire career.  Along with Annette, he was a constantly with the artist.  This intimacy and accessibility no doubt contributed to the intensity of the artist’s gaze.  Such intensity is evident even in his later portraits of his familiar subjects.
The Artist's Mother (1950)

Portrait of Caroline (1962)                                      Annette VI (1962)

However, as Giacometti’s reputation increased internationally, so did the opportunities for commissioned portraits.  Undertaken in relatively few sittings (compared to the continuous scrutiny of his family and favoured model, Caroline), any real essence of the subjects seemed lacking in such work.  It is as if the artist was looking at his sitters, but had no real interest in seeing them.  Instead of drawing to search for the truth of the reality before him, any ‘pure presence’ of these sitters is dissipated. 
                                        Jean Genet (1954-55)                                         Portrait of G. David Thompson (1957)

Despite this, all the works in this exhibition are enigmatic and compelling and tell a lesser known story of an artist rightly regarded as one of the most distinctive and important of the twentieth century.  His own imperative to draw connected with my own at that time and the way he translated what he saw onto canvas gave me the tools to continue such activity myself.  It also reminds me it is an activity I sorely miss despite its inherent frustrations with my own failings.

From left to right: Alberto, Diego and Annette (1952)

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