It has been twenty years since a large display of Giacometti’s surrealist sculptures have been seen in the UK, however, the Tate Modern has reintroduced them to the public with their latest exhibition. Tracing Giacometti’s career and evidencing his interest with different materials, the gallery unveils his immediately recognisable, unique style of sculpture as well as portrait painting, some of which have never been seen before.
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was born in a small village in the Swiss Alps where he was surrounded by paintings produced by his post-impressionist artistic father. After a brief education at the École des Arts et Métiers in Geneva, Giacometti abandoned the taught naturalistic method of sculpture in favour of experimentation. His peculiar style developed further after temporarily joining the Surrealist movement in the early 1930s.
It was after the Second World War when Giacometti finally settled on the elongated style of figures seen in the Tate Modern’s exhibition. These fragile looking sculptures suggest existentially tragedy with their emaciated appearance. This may have been influenced by Giacometti’s friendship with the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre.
On entering room one of the exhibition, visitors are subjected to gruesome-looking heads shaped out of clay and plaster – Giacometti’s preferred material. It is obvious from the unevenness of the sculptures that they have been moulded by hand, the pressures of the fingertips evident on the facial features. Although the subject matter is plain to see, the roughness of the texture gives the outcomes a more abstract feel. The proportions of skull and physiognomy are not aligned, resulting in a ghoulish appearance.
The human body remains Giacometti’s main focus throughout his life, moving on from the head to include the rest of the skeletal structure. His full body sculptures give off a sense of unease with their rawness and frailty. Apart from the period when Giacometti worked in miniature, his human depictions are extremely out of proportion. Often the legs are twice the length of the body, and the arms dangle down, muscle-less in an awkward fashion. The statues are painfully thin and inhuman, looking as though, were they not cast in bronze, they could easily snap in half.
Giacometti restricted himself to a minimum of means, using his hands rather than tools to shape and sculpt his figures. He had found his style and stuck to it, putting great care and effort into the work he would be remembered for. Giacometti liked to depict the rawness of reality rather than the ideals of the subconscious mind. As a result, his work is chilling and more likely to leave people cold or nauseated instead of appreciative and awed.
Although Giacometti’s skeletal figures may not be all that appealing, he was still a great influence and impressed many people. However, this was largely on account of his personality and devotion to his work, rather than his outcomes. Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer declared “Success, fame, money – Giacometti was indifferent to them all.”
There were occasions, however, when Giacometti did have to think about money as a means of living, particularly during the 1930s. During this decade, he created art with the intention to sell, focusing on decorative objects such as vases, jewellery and wall reliefs. As the Tate reveals in a cabinet in the third room of the exhibition, these commodities were dissimilar to his bronze sculptures, but still had Giacometti’s unique touch. His gritty, hand-rendered style meant each object was unique, yet, unfortunately, not particularly attractive. However, they must have appealed to someone since they were featured in both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
Despite the fact that sculpture was Giacometti’s primary technique, he also enjoyed painting. Painting was a significant part of his early life, but after moving to Paris, sculpture predominated all else. It was not until the conclusion of the Second World War that Giacometti made a welcome return to the paintbrush and easel. The final rooms of the exhibition display the portraits he produced in this latter period.
Unlike other artists, Giacometti was not interested in painting well-known people or taking commissions. Instead, he preferred to have his mother and brother sit for him, or close friends and acquaintances.
In the same way as his sculptures, Giacometti’s portraits feel raw and unfinished. His artistic style is so unique, it is easy to identify the paintings with his scultpures. The insubstatial, fragile representation of the human body is something which Giacometti portrays regardless of method or material.
By drawing or painting, Giacometti was able to focus more on facial features and small details, something which was impractical on his wraith-like sculptures. And, although he restricted himself to a small palette, he was free to add touches of colour to his artworks.
Unlike the sculpted figures, it is possible to recognised the sitter (if you know who they are to begin with) represented on the canvas. They are also far more interesting to study. Expressive line work and range of tone add together to reveal a whole host of components to scrutinize.
The paintings, although somewhat abstract, are apprecibly more pleasant to view. Spectators are not subjected to, or repulsed by the nauseatingly skeletal framework of the figurines. Regrettably, there are a significant lack of these illustrations on display – the scultpure taking precedence.
The Tate Modern has done well to create a timeline of Alberto Giacometti’s life, from the beginning of his career until his death at the age of 65. Rather than detailing the works on display, the Tate has provided written information about different time periods and the effects the events within them had on his artistic developments.
Unfortunately, Giacometti’s distinctive techniques will not appeal to everyone; there is no beauty to be found, only intrigue at most. Unless you have a peculiar fascination with obscure scultpure, it is probably not worth paying the entry fee (unless you are a member, in which case you get in for free). This thus poses the question, how long will it be until Giacometti is forgetten about altogether?