By doing something a half centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky.
Delicate and rough, personal and with universal resonance, this comprehensive retrospective of Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern proves an endless series of intense surprises. Especially in the way the 10 rooms are arrange and come one after the other, one gets the sense of being introduced to the universe of Giacometti, and to experience his artworks with deeper and deeper understanding.
Born in Switzerland in 1901, throughout his life Giacometti moved to Paris several times, where he was exposed to the influence of movements like Cubism and Surrealism. In all his pieces, however, he maintains very personal touches, and later on goes on to develop his own distinctive style.
A million faces welcome the audience in the very first room. It’s not easy to identify who’s who, as the busts are all gathered in the middle of the room, while their names run along the walls. If mildly annoying at first, this ultimately felt liberating: no need to map out identities, no need to match name to face. The invitation is simply to scrutinise profiles and personal traits. I was reminded of Roman emperors, famous people, faces of friends, physiognomies of celebrities. The series of busts was also display of the abundance of materials Giacometti handled throughout his artistic production.
A wide variety of materials is also present in the second room, where remarkable cubist pieces are displayed along a wall. They are made of bronze, plaster, marble, and wood. A particular favourite was ‘The Couple’ (1927), where simple, seemingly abstract shapes actually flesh out the difference between sexes and the complementary diversity of genders. Meanwhile, Giacometti experimented with Surrealism too, as testified by some disturbing and trap-like objects, which look like torturing machines, and symbolise death and violence.
Alberto Giacometti, ‘The Couple’ (1927)
Completely different from the first room, where unnamed variety dominates, is a room with five key sculptures from the 1920s and 30s. ‘Spoon Woman’, ‘Walking Woman’, ‘Woman with her Throat Cut’, ‘Invisible Object’ and ‘Cube’ exemplify Giacometti’s fascination with African, Egyptian, Christian, and Renaissance art. In addition, these works testify his controversial relationship with Surrealism. While André Breton considered his closeness to realism as treason, some of Giacometti’s works were included in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 nonetheless. And while the reception from the British press was sceptical and dismissive, the exhibition was well attended by the general public.
All this prepares the visitor to enter the rooms where the most famous works of Giacometti are displayed. First, we encounter very (very) small sculptures, as little as 2cm tall. The figures are minute and primeval. They are bearers of an unprecedented expressive power. They seemingly emerge from the rock fragments that serve as their base, and manage to capture the very notion of human presence. ‘I wanted to make a sculpture of this woman as I had once seen her some distance away on the street’, Giacometti commented regarding these sculptures.
With this in mind, we are then offered larger versions of the sculptures, which are undoubtedly the most iconic works by Giacometti. His famously elongated figures, with crumbling skin and impossibly thin limbs (labelled “existential legs” by my friend) have a poignant significance. They “embody human anxieties and alienation” (from the catalogue), exemplifying the the trauma of post-war society. Shrinking figures stand for shrinking souls, and they appear imponent and fragile at the same time. I was struck by ‘Falling man’ (1950). Before reading the title, the figure looked like someone who was trying to raise himself up – while in fact was the opposite. I had the same feeling at the RA Abstract Expressionism exhibition when, looking at a Rothko which I was finding rather pleasant and calm-inducing, my friend told me ‘It’s so depressing, isn’t it?’. I guess such open-sidedness is the proof that the work is the product of artistic genius. We spent several minutes in the room, sinking in the powerful aura of this seeming unsubstantial statues.
Alberto Giacometti, ‘Falling Man’ (1950)
The exhibition goes on with more portraits, in particular of his brother Diego and his wife Annette, captured in various media, including (and surprisingly) painting. And then, at last, we see Giacometti at work in a video from his later years. I’m always excited when exhibitions allow the audience to engage with the artist at work, and shed light into their’s own view on their art. Having spent several minutes hypothesising on the technique lying behind such thin and solid sculptures, we were finally presented with the artist in the process of making them. It was thrilling to see Giacometti’s approach to materiality, and his very hands manipulating clay and impressing his impression of the sitter onto it.
Shedding light not only on sculpture, but also on works on paper and paintings, this retrospective does justice to the talent of Giacometti, and at the same time frames his production in a clever, digestible way. In fact, in the best possible way for the audience to approach Giacometti’s art and appreciate its relevance for today.
Alberto Giacometti, ‘Three Men Walking II’ (1949)