Review: Alberto Giacometti, Tate Modern ‘Beautiful and Traumatic’


Painfully thin and elongated figures created in clay and plaster, and cast in bronze. Bolt upright or suspended in simple motion – a stride, perhaps, or finger pointing towards something, somewhere in the distance. Solitary figures, even when collected together in a group. Anguished studies of isolation and alienation.

And each instantly recognisable as the work of Alberto Giacometti.

The galleries of Tate Modern are filled with these familiar figures for this, the first retrospective of the work of this famous sculptor and painter for over twenty years. The sculptures dominate not just because of their size but they also jut out, invading our space. They are wondrous yet their presence is a jarring mix of the commanding and the insecure. For though they stand out, they also are deeply inward-looking, figures lost in their own dreams and nightmares.

That there are so many of these works – whether complete figures or isolated limbs such as hands spread wide, grabbing out towards us, or large legs a couple of metres tall – is exciting but it’s interesting that Giacometti did not stray far from his signature style once he had found it.

A great addition to the show is archive footage that demonstrates why Giacometti was so fascinated with this approach. In the film, the artist repetitively kneads and presses at clay, slowly but surely bringing his work to life. His constant manipulation and reworking of their surface reflects a man digging to find the depth in his figures, pushing to uncover their inner selves – their traumas and their fears.

Giacometti, it seems, was ever searching for the essence of the human soul. The inner private world we all keep hidden. It was only when he seemed to have exhausted himself with a particular figure would it finally be taken away, usually by his brother, Diego, who assisted him in the studio for many years, to be cast in bronze.

And the process would begin again.

The source of this retrospective is an unprecedented collaboration between Fondation Albert et Annette Giacometti and the Tate Modern, which is why we are privileged to see so many of these famous works. But it has also afforded us the opportunity to see rarely seen pieces, such as The Nose, c.1947, a fantastic work in plaster which became a seminal work in Giacometti’s oeuvre. Here, the influence of tribal art is evident and also sees the artist return, if only temporarily, to the surrealist phase from his early years.

I also loved Cage, c.1950 (a recurring title in Giacometti’s work). Here, thin grey female figures are painted on a wood panel where the grain seems to work with these haunting figures rather than against them. The panel is actually taken from the wall of Giacometti’s studio in Stampa, Switzerland, and the figures bear a striking resemblance to Women in Venice, a collection of six figures that are reunited here for the first time since their debut at the 1956 Venice Biennale.

It’s particularly pleasing to see such prominence given to Giacometti’s paintings and drawings in the show. These were never secondary studies, relegated to inferior status after the completion of the figure. Rather, they were finished artworks in their own right. And rightfully so, though these are again haunting pieces. Repeatedly, figures sit square on to the viewer, their faces etched with despair or grief. These are not content people; these are not quiet minds. And their psychological restlessness is only accentuated by the shades of grey that fill these works.

Much like with his figures, Giacometti would return again and again to the familiar in his paintings and drawings – his wife, his brother, his mistress – but each time his pursuit would be of something more elusive than simple representation. A human presence, perhaps? And this is why Giacometti never worried about using the same sitters again and again, even working from memory. ‘When my wife poses for me, after three days she doesn’t look like herself,’ Giacometti is on record as saying. ‘I simply don’t recognise her.’

It is always the hallmark of a great retrospective when it can shed light on an overlooked part of the artist’s career, and, here, the Tate Modern has come through wonderfully as a big part of the show focuses on Giacometti’s early career, when he lived in Paris in the interwar years, and where he was influenced by radical and exciting new artistic styles, such as cubism and surrealism.

The sexuality in Flower in Danger, 1932, is explicit and unambiguous. A huge phallus with a sharp point takes aim at a vulnerable sphere, far more diminished in size. Whereas Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932, is as good as surrealist sculpture gets. Low-lying, its jaws are wide open, much like a Venus fly trap waiting for its prey. Only here it isn’t fine hairs that will kill the unsuspecting prey but razor sharp teeth. This blend of nature and human is brutal, almost sadistically so.

Overall, this is an immense show with an unparalleled access to the artist’s archives. I cannot imagine that we will see a more exciting and comprehensive examination of this artist’s output again in our lifetime, which makes this an absolute must-see.

Tate Modern, London, to September 10, 2017
Admission: £18.50 incl. donation (£16.80 without donation). Concessions available.
To see more from the exhibition, visit the album on my Facebook page.

Image credits:
1. Woman of Venice © Succession Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti + ADAGP, Paris)
2. The Nose © Succession Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti + ADAGP, Paris)
3. Cage c.1950 © Succession Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti + ADAGP, Paris)
4. Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932 © Succession Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti + ADAGP, Paris)

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