"Portrait of Peter Watson" (1953)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was, without doubt, one of the great painter-sculptors of the twentieth century. Innovator and experimenter, his relentless pursuit of capturing the appearance of a living model has led to a body of work which demonstrates the breadth and diversity of his talent and innate skill.
Giacometti’s distinctive elongated figures are some of the most instantly recognisable works of modern art. This retrospective by Tate Modern, the first of such scale held in the United Kingdom for twenty years, brings together over two-hundred and fifty works by Giacometti and showcases the development of the artist’s career which spanned fifty years.
Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition detail)
I have been a long-term admirer of Giacometti’s work and have been very lucky to see a number of his painting over the years and most recently in “Pure Presence” at the National Gallery in 2015, which was a much smaller exhibition and left me hoping that I would get an opportunity to see a full retrospective. I had a lot of expectations.
Giacometti’s consistent return to sculpting the human head throughout this oeuvre and in particular people he was the closest to throughout his life - his mother, father, brother and wife - is the focus of the first room of the exhibition. From the very early clay and plaster portraits of his teenage years such as “Head of a Child [Simon Bérard]” (1917-1918) through to the later bronzes of his brother Diego, all demonstrated that Giacometti was born to sculpt. I could have stayed in that room for hours, it really was a feast for my eyes. German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) once said that if she could live her life again, she would be a sculptor and nothing more. If I had been born a sculptor, with even a small percentage of the talent of Giacometti (and Kollwitz), I would have been a very happy woman.
Top: "Head of a Child [Simon Berard] (1917-1918) Bottom: "Bust of Diego" (1953)
Like many artists at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Oceanian sculpture was very influential on Giacometti. “Spoon Woman” (1927), first exhibited in Paris in the year it was finished illustrates just how easily the artist assimilated the influence into his own modernist vision. Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1931. It proved to be an uneasy alliance. Despite standing out for being one of the movement’s rare sculptors, Giacometti produced some truly disturbing misogynist depictions of women during his association with the movement. “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) is surely one of the darkest works from the corners of a Surrealist spirit and vision of women. However in that same year, the artist also produced “Walking Woman II”, reflecting his interest with Egyptian art and this piece thankfully shows the beginnings of his journey away from Surrealism (he was actually formally expelled in 1935) and towards his most iconic figurative work.
"Spoon Woman" (1927)
"Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932)
Every room in Tate Modern’s retrospective featured example after example of Giacometti’s genius. His intimate busts of his brother and wife are completely compelling, as are his numerous painted portraits, which have always held a particular fascination.
Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)
The overall highlight of this retrospective for me, out of all the wonders on display, was the eight restored original plasterworks “Women of Venice” (1956) made for that year’s Venice Biennale. These haunting, elongated nudes with their base-like feet recall Giacometti’s interest in Egyptian statuary and much like his re-interpretation of Oceanian sculpture nearly thirty years earlier, once again demonstrate the artist’s unique and contemporary vision.
"Women of Venice" (1956)
Giacometti is best remembered for his elongated walking figures such as “Man Pointing” (1947) and “Tall Woman” (1958), which he mostly concentrated on from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1966. His remarkable career traced the shifting influences and experimentation of European art before and after the Second World War. Although as a member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s Giacometti devised innovative sculptural forms, it was his work after the war which developed alongside Existentialism and visually reflected the philosophy's interests in perception, alienation and anxiety after the trauma of the conflict, which has ensured Giacometti’s place in the art history canon and quite rightly too.
Top: Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view) Bottom: "Man Pointing" (1947)
With the exception of the monumental figures in the final room at Tate Modern’s retrospective, the vast interior space of the gallery surprisingly overwhelmed the artworks as a collection. Although unexpected, it did not particularly matter given that the individual pieces deserved equal individual attention and overall the retrospective more than met my expectations.
Giacometti in his studio (c.1963)