Few artists are identifiable on sight; most are known only by their art, with a few notable exceptions: Picasso for one, with his fierce dark eyes, is an artist one could name if presented with his picture at a pub quiz; and otherwise the only other likely answer you would get right would be Andy Warhol, but that isn’t really a surprise as he was the prophet of popular culture and fame. Giacometti, though not quite as famous as these artists, has a familiar face. His face, almost always seen in black and white, was captured in many portraits by renowned photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt, but also on film too, working in his romantically messy studio and elucidating on his art in well-spoken French. The course, weathered face of Giacometti with his deep wrinkles and his dark shadows under his eyes just screams artist, screams everything one ever stereotypically associated with a famous artist: that they are male, middle-aged, jagged from a life of poverty, French, melancholic and wise. He seemed to be made to stand next to his pal Samuel Beckett so the two of them could be captured in black and white and forever be seen as the archetypes of creative types.
I digress from starting a review here because I think of his face before I go in the show. I think perhaps he and his Parisian studio were just everyone’s favourite picture of a modernist artist and perhaps his art has just sat in the pantheon of greatness because people have romanticised this image for so long. I knew of his elongated figures beforehand, but to be honest thought that perhaps he was just like Picasso – obsessed with reproducing the female form for his rather lustful ends. Turns out I didn’t know very much, there is so much more than sex here, there is humour and playfulness, pain and humiliation, and a haunting, melancholic beauty that just resonates through almost everything in the show. So there you go, I may as well admit from this point on I will be romanticising most of Giacometti’s creations.
When you enter the first room you are met with a number of different sculpted heads. This introduces you Giacometti’s primary interest: the human form. In this early stage we notice a large range of different experimentations as the young Giacometti sought to find his feet. Giacometti uses different devices to try and capture the essence of a person, some techniques more abstract than others. On finding (as we all do), that getting to the true essence of a person is rather difficult Giacometti moved onto abstraction, playing with geometric shapes, some very playful. Suspended Ball, 1931 has a plaster ball suspended in a frame, hanging down and lightly resting on a smooth crescent shape. There are overtures of male and female in the shapes, but even on an aesthetic level in sense of lightness and balance is both fun and touching.
Another sculpture done around the same time is Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932. This shows something more disturbing, a weird spidery sculpture that lies on the floor at your feet looking twisted and violent, there is definitely the outline of the assaulted woman here and it is certainly a dark piece.
Walking into the fifth room of this sensibly chronological show, things start looking very familiar. Giacometti starts producing his famous standing figures. Tall, thin figures of various scales start turning up and seeing them in real life turns them into something so much more than a selfish rumination on femaleness. They are beautiful, still, lonely and skilfully telling of human beings despite their exaggerations. You follow the evolution of these figures and they start standing together in groups. These are some of his most affecting works, what grabbed myself, was just how ghostly they looked. They stand tall and composed, their faces there, but not detailed, like a figure on the horizon that you can’t quite make out the detail of. Though they have found company they look lonely, like they will never talk or touch. It is hard to imagine that the incredible devastation – both physically and psychologically – of the second world war didn’t give these figures their incredible essence of alienation, and also hard not to see the shell-shocked skeletons of the concentration camps in them too – but this is purely speculative on my part. True to the legend they stand out as the definitive creations of Giacometti’s career and with good reason.
But, before walking out saying that you’ve seen the best part, stay a little while longer and look at the walls. Carrying on through the show you see a large number of paintings and drawings that are also brilliant works of art. These portraits of live sitters are very dark, full of dark browns and blacks. They are very worked around the faces, where Giacometti uses layers and layers of thin lines to capture the face. He was back to trying to capture the essence of the person again, and again the process was utterly frustrating. Some of the paintings include rough smudges or layers that culminate into blurriness, but they are still perfect for it. The paintings are trying to capture a figure of life, and the strange over drawness of their faces just captures a face that is sitting trying not to move, but is constantly quivering and breathing. Giacometti lamented how his creations rendered these people not alive, essentially turning them into corpses, and in many of these paintings the eyes are seldom ‘alive’ but blank and empty. A beautiful example of this is his portrait of writer Jean Genet, 1955 which is nearly completely dark, with a solitary, almost eyeless figure sitting in its shadows.
The journey around this exhibition is an intense one and a worthwhile one, standing in among Giacometti’s solitary figures you feel surrounded by ghosts. It is not a light-hearted afternoon’s art, more like an existential soul search, but I would very much recommend you give it a go. So, Giacometti seems to earned his reputable position in the history of art, if this is anything to go by, but never mind the craggy face, it is what Giacometti made with his hands will stand the test of time.
Review by Jessica Gregory
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Read more of Jessica Gregory‘s reviews below:
What Alice Knew
The Other World, It Whispers
Read Jessica Gregory‘s fiction below:
A Quiet One
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